The Binary Stream by Amy Brennan

February 2024 | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine

Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
10 min readFeb 28, 2024

“You know what sucks harder than the vacuum of space? Being six months — six measly months too young to be able to say: I want to stay on Earth with my friends! But noooo; my parents decide they want to ship out to the new colony world and, as I have no living relatives, I have no one I can legally stay with on Earth. I have to go with them. My life. Is. Over!”

As I read the opening entry of the diary my parents gave me when they told me we were shipping out, I snort, loudly. If only fifteen-year-old me had known the half of it!

What really sucks worse than a hard vacuum? Waking after a late night/early morning celebrating the halfway point (and, incidentally, my 21st birthday) to the shriek of the emergency sirens, mum yelling at me to get in the emergency pod as she scrabbles for her emergency gear, and da already racing out of the cabin his gear in hand.

Of course, we drill all sorts of emergencies regularly so I grabbed my go-bag from the cubby above my head and staggered to the emergency pod in our cabin — more by muscle memory and autopilot than anything else. All the while cursing whoever’s brilliant idea it was to call an emergency drill after more than half the crew had had a big blow out party.

Normally, we are only in our pods about half an hour before they auto unlock with the ‘all is safe’ chimes and a ship-wide broadcast tells us how many ‘died’ this time.

Only…they don’t.

I fell asleep waiting for the all clear.

Admittedly I was still super drunk on entering the pod, but still, it’s been way too long. My chrono says it’s now nine hours after the emergency alert.

Not good.

That means something is actually wrong and my anxiety spikes which makes my headache throb harder.

I’ve done the training, I know how many things out here could kill us. I hope mum, da and the Command and Engineering teams can fix it soon.

I dig through my go-bag and break out a pain killer to try and stem the raging hangover I have developed, taking the tiniest sip of water to wash it down.

I check the status of my pod for something useful to do, except… the vid screen isn’t working. That’s really weird. These things are designed to be bomb proof, to survive a ship disintegrating around them.

A moment of panic takes me. Has the ship disintegrated? Am I the only survivor? Am I all alone in the void? My breath rasps, my eyes burn and tears form on my lids as I try desperately to not to panic and cry my eyes out. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be here.

I fail miserably on both counts.

It makes my headache even worse.

Eventually the painkillers kick in and I pull myself together. It’s da’s calm voice I hear in my head telling me to ‘Work the problem Jen’ as he has so many times before.

I fiddle around trying to fix the Vid screen and find some burned out circuitry — I manage to re-route them.

I run the diagnostics. Everything is nominal, though I can’t get a line to the rest of the ship or the other pods which is frustrating as hell. The internal O2 tanks/CO2 scrubber gives me a full two weeks of breathable air. Water will last about ten days without rationing. The pod’s set up for four people after all. Mum, da and me and an extra space in case anyone’s in our hab in the event of an emergency, but right now, it’s just me.

I do the calculations on how little I can get away with to stretch it out before going into Cryo. It’s very much a last resort and I’m so glad mum and da are crew so we don’t have to do the entire trip in it. Going into Cryo — and more importantly coming out of it — is worse than the worst hangover you have ever had times like, a million. You have to do it at least once in training, so I know what I’m talking about on that score. I do hook up some of the parts of the Cryo system though, nature won’t pause just because we are in an emergency, and I really need to pee.

Having ascertained I’m not in any immediate danger, it’s not long before I get bored and start wondering about how my friends are doing. I hope they made it to their own pods and are safe. They helped me begin to look forward to being a colonist. That this is a *real* adventure.

I’m not feeling that adventurous right now though.

I decide to sleep off the negative mindset, if nothing else, it’ll pass some time.

When I wake, the lights are dimmer than they were earlier. I swear and check the power connections and battery storage. The batteries are at full power, but, I’m running on batteries only now. That’s not a good sign, it means the main reactor is offline, or, the pod has been ejected into space, and it can’t be the latter — I’d have felt that.

Anxiety spikes again — for my parents, for the people I know are trying to fix this, for me, trapped here, alone.

I don’t like it at all and try again to find a way to access the rest of the pods, the rest of the ship. I spend hours trying different bits of code to re-route through other circuits. I’m desperate to know what’s going on outside my small pod. Mum and Da should be in here with me, they’d know what to do, but they were on the emergency rota the shift this all went down.

I savagely tear into a ration bar, glaring at the blank console and the one light that’s blinking. I’ve tried everything I know to get the console working again.

Blue — white — blue — blue — white — blue — blue — blue…pause

…blue — white — white — blue — blue — white — blue — white…pause

…blue — white — white — blue — white — white — blue — blue…pause

…blue — white — white — blue — white — white — blue — blue…pause

…blue — white — white — blue — white — white — white — white…pause

After a while I notice that the pattern keeps repeating itself and I wonder if it has a meaning. It’s not Morse code, which I’d have expected from one of the crew. There’s too many blinks between pauses, and there’s no differential between the time of each colour change — no obvious dit or dash. American Standard Code (ASCII) comes up as gibberish too. Then I try translating it into binary code — a far less easy alphabet to remember under any circumstances but I dredge the relevant information from my hindbrain, visualising it from the screen I learned it off.

Blue — white — blue — blue — white — blue — blue — blue…um…that’s a…H? I think. I jot it down in the journal as I mutter to myself.

Blue — white — white — blue — blue — white — blue — white…That’s either an E or a U…maybe?

Blue — white — white — blue — white — white — blue — blue — twice, that’s an…L. Definitely an L.

I sit up, eyes widening.

There IS someone out there.

They are saying hello!

The hope that bubbles in my chest just then — It’s hard to describe.

I’m not alone.

I am not alone!

I laugh, a little manically, and then set to work trying to figure out how to communicate back to this person. It’s painfully slow going, especially with my poor memory of binary code back in classrooms on Earth, but eventually we start working on a dialogue.

“Hello to you” I send.

The repeating message stops.

“We are here. How are you?” comes back. I check it three times to be certain I’ve got the message right.

I could write reams if given the chance on how I am doing, but communicating in binary? I have to keep it simple.

“Alone Scared” I send after figuring out what to say, and then translating it.

“We are here” they send back almost instantly.

“Who you” I send back very slowly.

“We are the Binary Stream” again, an almost instantaneous response. I don’t understand the answer, I’ve already figured that we are using binary or we wouldn’t be communicating.

“Whats that” I send

“We are the Binary Stream” They send back

I’m not sure how to rephrase the question so they’ll give me a better answer. I wonder if this is the AI that Command works with for navigation and life support. I never did know what its official name is, it’s just been the NALI to us. It could be called Binary Stream for all I know.

“What happen ship”

“It is damaged. We apologise.”

That’s a strange response. Why are they apologising?

“I know Pod on batteries”. It takes me forever to write this. I’m tired and yawning my head off by the time it is translated and sent, and figure I’ll ask the why part when I’ve had some rest.

There is a long message waiting for me when I wake. It takes an age to translate, and I have to do it twice before I accept what it is saying:

“We apologise to you, being-trapped-in-matter. We were starving and encountered your void traveller that you call a ship. The energy your traveller makes sustains us. It has harmed your traveller and some other beings-trapped-in-matter. We have been trying to communicate with others of your kind. You are the first to respond.”

I chew my lip, am I reading that correctly? I really hope I am! I translate it again.

The message is still the same. The best news I could have hoped for — most if not all of the crew are alive! Now to decide how to respond to this.

“You not human” I ask

“We are The Binary Stream. Energy, Life, Free Roaming. Not trapped in the form of Matter as you are.”

If I weren’t in one of the worst situations in my *entire* life, this would be SO cool. Extra Terrestrial life, and they communicate in code? I have so many questions I want to ask right now. Except, the batteries won’t last forever even if I have plenty of food and water and air. I’m running out of time. I have to make the decision soon about going into Cryo or not if I want to survive in here as it takes a LOT of battery power to initialise.

I bite my lip and pull up the coding screen up on my data pad. If we are going to communicate with any level of efficiency, I need an app that I can type into that converts to binary for them and vice-versa. It’s actually a fairly simple code and linking the pad to the console is a pretty standard action for anyone. I didn’t think about it earlier, I was much too stressed out and hungover for being sensible about all this.

“Please help me. This container has limited life energy left for me.”

“We will if we can. What do you require?”

“Can you send a distress message through the ship, what you call the Traveller’s communications array, back to our point of origin? You are communicating with me. I am hoping that as you can communicate with me you can interface with our systems enough to communicate with Home saying we have suffered damage and require assistance. And can you set off the ‘go into Cryo emergency’ alert? I know that’s a lot to ask, but can you?” I bite my lip as I press send. These beings, who were so hungry for energy they glommed onto the ship, they may be the death of us all, but I’m hoping, from what very little I know of them, they might be able to be our salvation too.

There is a long pause. Over an hour. I start prepping to go into Cryo as I fear I’ve been left alone, and they did say they had damaged the ship. I start shutting down systems in the pod to conserve energy for the Cryo process. My breath mists in front of me.

“It has been done being-trapped-in-matter.”

“Thank you” I send.

Rescue is coming! I hope. It’s not much, but it’s something.

I’ve calculated how long I have to ask them questions before I absolutely must go into Cryo — it takes a lot of battery power to put you under. Suddenly I’m glad I’m on my own. That gives me so much more time.

It will be a minimum of six months before there’s even a hope of rescue from the colony ship that followed us. I know there have been some casualties in this accident, I hope and pray my parents aren’t among them, that they are safe in a different emergency pod. I know too, from what the Binary Stream have said that there ARE other survivors on the ship — and they will be going into Cryo now if they haven’t already, for the same reason I will be. The Binary Stream wouldn’t lie to me about that, would they? I hope not. Cryo should keep us sort of alive for up to a century, and, once we are frozen, the system needs no power.

And rescue will come.

A distress message has been sent.

They said they sent it. I can’t doubt them now.

Until then, I have a job to do: Learn as much as I can about the Binary Stream before my batteries hit the point where I have to go under. I’m jotting all of this down in my diary though — just in case.

Ok, First question:

“My name is Jenny. How did you know what words to use to communicate with me?”

I hit send.


Originally published in the February 2024 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.

Amy Brennan is a huge fan of all manner of basically anything even mildly creative the execution being knitting. A geologist by training, she used to make mud pies for a living. It is a job that is both enjoyably challenging and at times mind-numbingly repetitive. She devoured audiobooks at a rate of knots to get her through the day — until she discovered podcasts and hasn’t looked back since. She lives in Cambridgeshire with her partner, and three rabbit shaped balls of floof with bottomless stomachs and attitude. She is published in and has narrated for Cast of Wonders the young adult fiction podcast, where she is an editorial assistant. She occasionally blogs, and you can follow her on Twitter.