“Jason, shine your light up here.” Marcus craned his neck upwards; the suit restricted his movement.
“Copy. Along the cross beam?” Jason didn’t turn towards Marcus, but then he didn’t have to in order to see.
“Along the underside of the ductwork.”
The speakers in Marcus’ helmet crackled with static every time Jason replied, but at least Jason could hear Marcus clearly. And they’d had time to get the damn voice control fixed. Marcus had hated having to thumb the com every time he needed to talk to his salvage partner. It was like that game he’d read about in history class. On ancient Earth, children had played a primitive game that involved using string and cups to talk to each other. They’d called it tell-a-fond, though what a fond was and what you told it were never explained in Marcus’ educational training. Money well spent, as he often told his salvage partner.
“Hey, whoa, time is money,” another one of Marcus’ sayings crackled to him through the helmet’s speakers. “What am I looking for?”
“The source of that.” Marcus aimed his suit’s shoulder mounted CAM light at the floor. Infrared had shown the puddle when they’d entered the entrance space. For the most part, the ship had been dull. Standard issue shipping container stranded on an asteroid. Senate knew how long it had been here, so whatever was found was theirs. If it was worth anything. If anyone would buy it. Someone would. They always did. Up until now, it was like every other lost shipping container Marcus and Jason had found in the last five years. Older perhaps, but that was expected on the outer arm of the galaxy. Still didn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.
Marcus did not like the puddle. He was having trouble understanding why. The infrared had picked it up, which meant it had a heat signature. The temperature of the room was stable however. Sensors on his helmet were telling him that the puddle was moving too, flowing to be precise, as though it were part of the ship’s life support system: waste or water or coolant. Now that he had his CAM light on the puddle, illuminating and recording the event, there was no movement visible. Wasn’t when he first saw it, and wasn’t now.
A drop struck the surface of the puddle. The sensors acknowledge no movement or disturbance. “There,” Marcus said, now sure he’d seen it again. “Right there.”
“Right where,” came Jason’s reply. He was still searching the duct work with his own CAM light.
“I need to find out where that is coming from,” he projected a picture of what his CAM light was viewing into Jason’s helmet and ran his laser grid across the ceiling.
“Okay, it’s a puddle.” Jason shrugged.
“A puddle of?” Marcus knew that it could be as innocuous as oil or as dangerous as transient fluid. He knew Jason was aware of this too. It was the nonchalance that was annoying him today. Or was it every day. “Just gimmie your feed.”
A small screen opened on the bottom right of Marcus face shield. It showed the ductwork moving back and forth as Jason scanned for the source of the puddle. Marcus knelt beside the black substance. It was iridescent, like the wings of an insect.
“You sure it isn’t coming up through the floor?” Jason’s yawn followed the question.
“X-ray and sonar show the floor to be solid and sealed.” Marcus pulled up the data for Jason’s feed.
“Then across the floor!” There was tension in Jason’s voice, the lackadaisical nature gone. “Just make sure it doesn’t sit up or anything.”
“I’m between it and you,” Marcus reached out a hand towards the puddle; he extended the suits collection probe as well. “If it’s transient fluid we’ll know in a minute.”
“And leave.” Fear was creeping in to Jason’s voice.
“And leave.” Marcus understood Jason’s fear. The surgeons had done their best to get the fluid out of his system; the prosthetic eyes could even be called an improvement on the organic versions. The eardrums had been saved, but Marcus wondered if that wasn’t something the surgeons should have replaced as well. Especially when Jason woke screaming with the sound of the transient fluid gnawing through his skull.
The puddle did not react when Marcus extended the collection probe into its surface. He drew a few CC’s of liquid, but the overall surface area did not shrink.
“There,” said Jason, fear building.
Marcus looked at the small screen in his helmet and saw what Jason recorded. The seams of the ductwork were leaking a black substance.
“It looks like…” genuine fear.
“Yes,” said Marcus.
“It looks like it’s bleeding.” Complete, raw, fear.
“Machines don’t bleed.” The comment hung in the air. Marcus didn’t think of his augmentations much, but the thought still wore on Jason. Even now. “We need to finish the recon.”
Jason did not reply. He turned away from the ceiling ductwork and moved next to Marcus. Their combined CAM lights illuminated a short hallway, which ended in stairs.
Marcus led the way down the stairs and into the antechamber. It would have been recognizable to any age of man. Small, empty, double door set into a wall. Only the details were different. Where the ancient Romans would have set bronze bars, the late Earth inhabitants their keypads, and the Ionian colonists the reciprocal planners, this door too had its security device. That was what Marcus thought it must be at any rate. The double doors were gray metal, their surface held a dull sheen, and above and to each side was set an eye. It looked like an eye to Marcus, and he did not want to ask Jason’s opinion for fear of upsetting the younger man further. The loss was still to near.
The three eyes set about the door were lidless and open, although one was set in square, one a triangle, and one an oval. None were adorned with precious metals or jewels, so there purpose was purely functional. “But are they sensors or defenses?”
“They didn’t move when we entered,” said Jason. “I don’t think their tracking us. They could just be decorative.”
“Or they could be able to take in the entire room and not need to move. It is tight in here.”
“True, but why are there three?”
“There are three. Most organic life is symmetrical. Or they only have one. Odd numbers don’t happen.”
“On two hands. Ten.”
“Well, you studied biology. I studied history. It’s a door, and doors have locks. So what’s on the other side?”
“Based on the Gehenna’s scans, this door leads into the bedrock.”
Marcus pulled up the ship’s radar and sonar scans. The scans indicated that they were standing very near the outside hull of the container. They were in the container’s bowels, and had seen very little of worth throughout the space. The salvage would be a complete waste if there was nothing on the other side of the doors. “So these doors just lead to the outside? Even if we open them, they just open on the asteroid’s surface?”
“No. If I’m,” Jason swallowed hard, “reading the scans correctly, there is an open space on the other side of the doors.”
“A cavity? Like a cave?”
“That appears to be correct.”
A cave meant the container itself was just a door. Part of the asteroid was hollow, Marcus had heard of such things before. Why store in a measly container when the whole space could be your vault? He stepped towards the door and extended his left arm towards the door. He extended the sensors. He didn’t miss the hand or the arm, not the way Jason missed his eyes, and the suit made up the difference. The neurotransmitters and sonic amplifiers picked up the smallest disruption in the atmosphere around them. Marcus could just hear the disruptions at the edge of his hearing. He wondered what they sounded like to Jason, with his genetically modified and mechanically enhanced hearing. Jason plugged directly into the suit’s sensory array, both acoustically and visually. What would Jason hear? If that was the word for it. Marcus thought it sounded like voices. Whispered voices sharing secrets in another room. Just on the other side of the door. Marcus knew that was just his brain trying to make sense of the sounds. Matrixing it was called.
Marcus lowered his sensory hand. The whispers continued. As clear as whispers could be, inside a helmet. So why were the whispers continuing if the sensors were off? And where was the crackle of the helmet’s speaker system? Because the whispers weren’t coming from the sensors. They weren’t coming through the speakers. Marcus could actually hear them.
“Let’s get back to the Gehenna,” Jason said. “We can find out what the substance is, and try to figure out how to open the door.”
“Agreed.” Marcus turned and trailed Jason out of the antechamber and back up the corridor. The voices did not follow.
In his pod, Marcus slid onto his sleeping plate. The surfaced turned warm and vibrated. He closed his eyes and let the vibrations increase. He liked to think he could feel the ultraviolet rays scanning his body, the infrared and various other scanners searching his naked flesh for microbes or other organisms which may have slipped past his suit and onto his skin. Occasionally a brighter light would flash; this laser or that beam, checking the scar tissue where his arm or legs would have been. The more crudely constructed servors taking care or the mechanical parts of his body. Even his stomach was cleansed outside of his body for viruses or foreign matter. All while he lay on the warm vibrating plates. He often fell asleep during the cleanse, only to be woken to fill out his reports and data log.
As a student of history, Marcus had often enjoyed the ancient dramas depicting space travel. They were full of dirty space, where people flew around in garbage scows and wallowed in their own filth. It was all meant to be deadly serious and cast a metaphor for their own Earth bound lives, but Marcus found it all laughable. There was nothing in space. Nothing. That was the point. So how could anyone get dirty? Only if you brought it with you. Only if you found something and brought it back to the ship. Hence, the cleanse. The light shut down, leaving only the warmth and the vibrations of the plates. The cleanse was over. Now a brief relaxation period before the servors brought him his stomach and his data log. The servors were more than willing to bring Marcus a full stomach, but he still insisted on consuming his food the old fashioned way. Just like he insisted on filling out the log by typing the words into the device. He could have had an input valve installed, and that would have made life easier; from day-to-day-duties, to communicating with Jason after the boy had lost his eyes. Still, the old ways had their charm.
Sleep period done. Log entered. Body cleansed. Body parts refreshed, recharged, and returned to their wearer/owner. Prosthetics that are somewhat sentient deserved some ownership of the being they created. Marcus was sure he still held on to over fifty percent of his organic matter, and Jason even more. They were still the dominant being.
“What did Gehenna say the black substance was?” Jason entered the air lock, fully equipped for their day’s duties.
“Inert.” Marcus had only just arrived as well.
“That’s it? I thought there would be more.” Jason adjusted the goggles on his face. “I figured you had them print you a hard copy. I know how you like the feel of paper.”
“Like we can afford for me to print out every little thing on paper. If it isn’t official, code-worthy, government documents, then it isn’t printed.”
“So just the one word. Nothing more?”
“I got the feeling Gehenna wasn’t happy with the interpretation either.” Giving ships human characteristics and female genders went back to the time man first set foot on a wooden raft. The practice didn’t change simply because the ships were in space.
“But you think it’s safe to continue the salvage.”
“If we weren’t within the safety parameters, the servors wouldn’t have woken us up. Now let’s get going.”
“That’s odd. I would have thought the puddle would be bigger.” Jason knelt to examine the black substance again. The drips still fell at regular intervals, as they had when first discovered, but the puddle remained the same.
“Evaporation possibly. Or it’s leaking into the floor at the same rate it’s leaking from the ceiling.”
“Scanners show solid floor.”
“Still no warnings. We’ll give it a wide birth and move on. Maybe keep an eye on it.”
Jason removed an eye from the container at his belt. He switched it on and attached it to the wall. The display in Marcus’s helmet showed a view of the room, drip and puddle. It had a vaguely familiar shape. Something childlike.
“How do you see the room?” Marcus asked, and turned to his partner.
“In my head’s up, I have a view of what your eye is showing me, but I have to look at it for the display to engage. The rest of the time I just see what I see.”
“I remember what it was like.” A coolness had entered Jason’s voice, wariness. “What do you want to know?”
“How is it different now?”
“You’d have to experience it. The closest I can say is it is like I can see both at once, but I can’t shut either off. I know exactly what is going on around me, 360, and what my eye shows. If I turn on my CAM light, that just gets added. I can’t subtract anything.” Jason stood still for a moment and then walked down the passageway towards the stairs.
“It’s familiar,” Marcus said after him. “The sensation, I mean.” He caught up to Jason. “Imagine wearing something that you know is also yourself. Like you are naked, but your nakedness is armor.”
“So you feel the vacuum when we are outside of Gehenna?”
“All the time.”
“Do you think, between us, we constitute one whole person?”
Before Marcus could answer, they reached the bottom of the stairs. The voices had returned to his hearing. Light, whispering voices. He could almost pick out words this time.
The door with the three eyes was open. Darkness lay beyond. Marcus and Jason stepped to the door and turned their CAM lights on simultaneously. Jason scanned the doorway and floor; Marcus the space that lay beyond.
Space was the only word for it. What lay beyond was a vast open sea. Marcus could see from his head’s up display of Jason’s CAM light that the door opened onto a short stone beach. It was smooth and black, like obsidian and it sloped precipitously towards a rolling sea. The waves were dark but not black. Through his own light Marcus could see that the sea was in fact green. It was tinged with light from further out. Not the sky, from something out at sea. Marcus was taken aback by this, but when he looked up he could see that the ceiling of the cave was definitely reflecting light of some kind. If he didn’t know better, he would have said that the inside of the cave had a city. But that was impossible.
“Is it bigger in here than it should be?”
“Gehenna’s scanners are having trouble picking up anything past the door,” Jason said. “So am I.” He stepped forward onto the volcanic glass floor of the cave. The angle of the floor was more steep than he anticipated, or the stone more slick. He fell. And screamed.
“I can’t see! Marcus I can’…”
The speakers in Marcus’ helmet went dead and he lunged for his partner. As his manipulator clamped shut on the back of Jason’s suit, Marcus felt the arm go dead. Not even the phantom sensation from when he removed it. Nothing. The two men’s weight toppled them forward, and as they did, Marcus felt his legs begin to go as well. He reached down with his organic arm and jettisoned the bottom half of his body. He heard it rock back and land on the inside of the chamber. Then he began to slide with Jason towards the sea.
The voices were louder now. More distinct.
coldddddd wwwwhyyy aaaallllloneeeee
ddddarkkkk mmmmotherrr lllllosstttt sssonnnn
Jason dug his heels in and stopped their descent. He swung around, and his helmet splashed into the water. He pawed at Marcus, who rolled with all his might away from his frightened companion. The manipulator held, and Marcus pulled Jason out of the sea. He could hear Jason screaming as though from a distance. Jason was alone in the dark of his own suit. Reduced to the state he’d been in after the accident had taken his eyes. Terror had engulfed him.
Marcus pulled himself on top of Jason with his one functioning limb. His weight seemed to calm Jason, who held the elder man two him like a lover. Marcus couldn’t detach his manipulator, but that was fine. It kept them connected. He pulled his face mask up to Jason’s, so that two helmets were touching. He knew that whatever oxygen they had left wasn’t going to be flowing, so they had to make this quick. He bellowed, “JASON! JASON STOP! YOU’RE USING UP ALL YOUR OXYGEN!”
The other man’s flailing’s slowed. His helmet was full of liquid. Jason was drowning.
“I… I can’t. I can’t see.” Jason’s voice was small, timid. The cave voices were louder.
“How can you be speaking?” Marcus didn’t realize he had spoken. But now the liquid in Jason’s helmet was gone. It was an illusion. A reflection. It must have been. “I AM DETACHED FROM MY LEGS! YOU HAVE TO CRAWL BACK TO THE DOORWAY TO GET US OUT!” Marcus lifted his head and looked around. “I’LL POINT YOU. I CAN STILL SEE! THERE IS… LIGHT!”
There was light. More than there should have been. It was as though dawn was breaking in the cave. They were only feet from the roiling sea, and Marcus began to make out movements within the water. Forms. Shapes headed for shore. The light increased.
Marcus looked beyond the beach and saw the source of the light. It was coming from a city. An impossible city. A city of pyramids and sky scrapers. Of statues and trans-portal orbiters. He saw Gehenna orbiting the city, her metallic hull reflecting the city’s light like a malignant moon. Only this moon was the ugly, born in space shape of all salvage ships. Antenna and sensors stood out from an elongated triangle. It was a shape that was never meant to be beautiful. Marcus looked down and saw, around the city’s shore, figures in boats. They pushed their boats like gondolas, their faces hidden behind robes. Occasionally they paused, reached into the water, and pulled a figure free from the darkness. The person stopped screaming when they entered the boat, and the boatman polled towards the city.
There was no way Marcus could be seeing this. No way he could be seeing with this detail and not have the use of his helmet’s zoom function. And yet he was. He was seeing it all as though he were but meters away, not miles. But he was. “WE HAVE TO GET MOVING!” he screamed into his partner’s faceplate.
Marcus rolled Jason to his stomach, and let the younger man begin to crawl. Every few feet, he would tap one side of Jason’s helmet or the other to make sure they were taking the shortest path back to the doorway. The metal surface of Jason’s suit allowed him to dig into the cave floor, but the going was slow. Marcus could do little more than direct. He turned to watch the forms in the sea again. They were breaking the surface. The voices were louder.
Why am I alone?
It is dark mother.
I am lost.
Where is my son?
The city remained in its near to far distance.
Marcus heard the metal clunk of Jason’ gloved hand hitting the surface. He felt the rush of oxygen as the fans in his suit started. Lights flashed and displays started. The speakers in his helmet crackled.
“I can see! I can see!”
“Of course you can see; the power’s back on. Now get me back on my legs. I don’t want to be legless until we get back to the Gehenna.”
Hands reached down and grasped Marcus’s helmet. His head was wrenched around so that he was staring directly into Jason’s eyes. Jason’s organic eyes. The techno-glass plate that had replaced them was resting in the bottom of Jason’s faceplate.
“I can see.” Jason’s voice was clear in Marcus’s ears.
“Put me on my legs. We need to go.”
Before either man could move, the puddle stood. It stood in the shape of a child. Its features were human, but somehow forced. As though they had been drawn by something that had been told what a human looked like, but had never see one itself.
The child stepped towards Jason. It placed its dark hand on the glass of Jason’s helmet.
“Do you see?” the voice was crystal clear. It did not come through the speakers of Marcus’s helmet. It was inside the helmet. Inside his head.
Jason turned away from the child. He saw the ocean. He saw the darkness. He saw the city. He saw the light.
“Yes,” Jason said. “I see.”
“And you accept.” The child’s face towards Jason.
“Then see.” The child released Jason and turned towards Marcus. “You will,” it said into Marcus’s mind. “If you can stand.” Then it walked through the doors and towards the dark beach and the city of light.
Marcus pulled himself on to his legs and glanced into the cave, to see the pale arms and faces stop thrashing as the child approached. The child reached out to them, and the voices stopped. When the doors closed. Silence reigned.
Neither man spoke as they returned to the Gehenna, but Marcus thought he could hear Jason weeping over his helmet speakers. He didn’t blame him. What would Marcus give if he could stand once more on his own two feet? Or hold anything in his two hands? No price was too dear. But how could he stand?
They entered the Gehenna. They closed the bay doors and left the asteroid as they had found it. Salvage incomplete. No monetary value to be found.
In his pod, Marcus thought of what Jason had accepted to regain his sight. He thought of the voices and figures he had seen, of the child he had seen. Of what the child had said. Marcus thought of what the city was and what it meant. “It’s hope,” he said to the darkness.
“Yes,” the darkness replied. Only, there was a light in the darkness. A light that reached out with one, child-like hand and held Marcus’s hand. The child’s hand was warm. Marcus’s hand was warm. The hand he had lost so long ago.
“Stand.” Marcus heard in his head.
Marcus rolled to his side and stood. Light filled him. “I accept.” He said, and wept as he stood on his own, true, legs.
John O’Keefe is an 8th grade English teacher with a master’s in creative writing. He is an avid fan of science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction. His first published story, Promises, can be found on-line as well. He is currently at work on other short stories, his stand-up comedy routine, and his first novel, Cold. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and two dogs.