I'm at the bottom of a well.
An opening is high above my head, so far away that the solid disk of its light is no larger than a penny. I can't speak, but I can breathe. It's the only sound I hear, and it seems to echo endlessly up the confined tube, bouncing back and forth along the slick, smooth walls. It's cold, and I see my breath froth out before me in quick puffs. The ground beneath me is soft and grainy, and though the cold weighs down on me from all sides, warmth radiates up through my feet from below.
I work to calm my breathing. As I count off numbers, I feel a numbness in my feet. I look down and see a liquid puddling beneath me, welling up through the dirt. It's dark, like ink, and it moves with a will. I shift my legs, but they resist, suddenly heavy with fatigue. I try to care. I lift my arms, lock my hands against the walls at my side and scrape my fingernails down, seeking some purchase, but there is none. My arms fall back to my sides, their energy spent.
The liquid reaches my knees, and for a numbing moment I feel I will lose my balance, but it holds. Maybe the ooze is firmer deeper down, propping me upright. Maybe I stop being down, where I can't see or feel. It becomes harder to focus. My breathing is even and steady now. My anxiety is rinsed away by this rising tide.
It's at my waist, and I can no longer feel the cold. I've raised my hands and have them balled into fists against my torso, unwilling to relinquish them to the nothing below. I can still feel my breath as it washes over my arms. It's still warm, almost hot on my cold hands. Momentary embarrassment as my pants are saturated, but the feeling washes away. There is little self to be conscious of anymore.
One final push and the rising liquid comes to a halt, carving a line through my chest at the sternum. I can no longer feel the organ beating under my ribs, but I can see its echo. Parting my fists, I look down and see radiating rings pushing outward, in time to a heartbeat I think I once owned. I can hear it too, through the inky sludge. I am drawn to it. The pattern and sound don't diminish, but continue outward, hitting the wall of the well and bouncing back, casting intersecting lines over the surface of the dark liquid. The ripples build. Soon the surface, and the air around me are vibrating with the noise of a thousand liquid thunderclaps: a placid lake in a torrential storm.
A sudden spike of fear, and panic leers in my mind, hungry - the maelstrom thrashes about me and I slam my eyes shut in terror. An instant after, there is nothing. Silence. I am floating in an absence, eyes closed. A warmth spills into me from below, replacing the numbness and the fear. I open my eyes to see I've lost my hands and arms beneath waves that are now smooth and calm. The surface rests just beneath my chin. This close, I can see the liquid catch the light, and send back hints of blue and purple. They swirl in the syrup, like colored dye. Like ghosts.
The surface goes still, and the light above me amps up in intensity, as if in warning. From the neck down I am submerged in the liquid, dark like old amethyst, while shadows and light move languidly within it. I feel nothing anymore, and as I pause to wonder if I still have a body, and what that might mean, a tendril rises from the surface of the inky liquid. It curves forward, pointing at me like a crooked finger. It hesitates, deciding something, then starts to waver back and forth in front of me. It's smooth as glass at first. Then, slowly, thousands of mycelia sprout from the stalk. Starting from the base, thin fibers begin to grow up its length, turning the tendril into a liquid-purple root. The tip flexes. Time holds. Then, whiplash fast, it spears me through the eye-
I blinked blood out of my eyes and heard a roar in my ears. The wallscreen at the foot of my bed, normally green and sunny with grass covered hills, blinked a stark red-and-black warning: PRESSURE LOSS.
My bunk rattled softly against the bolts that secured it to the bulkhead. I heard something distant and metallic groan and then crack with a deep twang. I flung off the sheets and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. My feet pressed down on an icy floor, gritty with frost. My brain, slowed with sleep and hypoxia suddenly realized that it was uncomfortably cold. A high-pitched whistling brought my eyes darting up to the seam of the autodoor that sealed my tiny cabin away from the rest of the staff dormitory. I couldn't afford a bigger place. The door was just three feet from where I sat. A few of my lightweight belongings were snug against the seam, vibrating in place against it. A scarf, some credit bills, a bootlace.
"Simon. What the fuck is going on?" I asked the ceiling, while lurching off the bed and over to my wall locker. I coughed, and my lungs tugged a breath out of the air. I leaned against the wall and gasped a few times.
"Mr. Shaw. I am afraid the station is experiencing a loss of pressure," a deep baritone responded in a voice stained with synthetic regret.
"No shit. What do I do?" I opened the locker and pulled out a pair of dirty coveralls and began tugging them on.
"I would recommend finding a pressure suit and a source of oxygen before the atmosphere in your cabin is depleted. A pressure suit can be found in the emergency engineering locker located forty-one meters starboard from your present location. Unfortunately the area immediately outside your cabin is currently pressurized at thirty kilo-pascals, and dropping."
I paused while I pulled on some self-sealing boots. "Uh, can I survive that?"
"Yes," the voice hesitated, "Briefly. You will likely asphyxiate before freezing to death or suffering terminal pressure-related injuries."
I grabbed my backpack, stared at it a moment, and strapped it on. "Alright. Can you help me get there?"
"Yes, please follow the yellow lights outside your cabin," the voice suggested.
I curled my arm around the bar that attached my bunk to the overhead and clasped my hands together tightly. For a few moments I huffed in and out, trying to oxygenate my blood. I took a deep breath, leaned back and kicked my foot out at shoulder height. My boot hit the door release panel with a dull thump.
The door slid open quickly, and a roar of violent wind pulled me into the air. I felt my right shoulder pop out of place, followed by a wave of agony that almost made me vomit. I held on to the bunk rail with my arm, and screwed my eyes shut to the noise and the pain. Every object that I owned in the small room seemed to slam into my body on its way out of the cabin. It felt like minutes, but the hurricane of decompression was over in a second or two. My ears popped when the last of the air was sucked out. I flopped to the floor.
When I opened my eyes, there was an intense pressure behind them. I could feel warm liquid running out of my nose, and my shoulder wasn't responding well to movement. I braced myself on my knee with my left arm, and stood up. As I did, I exhaled quickly to equalize the pressure in my lungs. I leaned on the edge of the doorway with my left hand, and looked out into the corridor. It was clean, well lit and completely empty. It continued in a gentle backwards curve to my left and right. The door across the hall from mine was closed. The seam of it, running up the middle, looked like it had been welded shut with frozen blood that had seeped through. Someone in there was worse off than me.
I wiped my nose and headed out of my cabin. Everything was coated in frost. To my right, all along the bulkhead, long yellow bars pulsed on the wallscreens until they were lost around the bend. I shuffled along quickly, listening to the thinned sound of my boots crunching on the frozen carpet below me with each step. My shoulder ached.
The pack strapped to me was heavy, and the extra burden seemed idiotic given the situation. I hadn't had a chance the look over the object I'd found when I got back on-station after the last shift. I wasn't even sure if it was valuable or not, I just knew I hadn't seen anything like it before. Now I wondered if it was really worth lugging along with me. I could feel sweat turning to frost on my face, and my lungs starting to burn. The right strap of the pack pulled on my damaged shoulder, and I considered ditching my cargo in the hallway. Didn't.
After about thirty seconds of hurried walking, I looked up and saw the words NEXT CABIN blinking in yellow, wall-sized letters next to me. Up ahead, a sealed door was rimmed in blinking yellow lights. Shadows began to seep in at the edge of my vision. I stumbled and caught myself on the wall with my right arm without thinking. Pain sent me to the floor, vomiting. Puking in low-pressure isn't ideal. I felt some things inside me come loose that shouldn't have, and a lot of blood and bile spattered to the carpet. I gasped for air, but none came. The orange-red mix darkened as it began to freeze. My mouth gaped like a landed fish, and I struggled up and over to the blinking door. I pounded on the release panel and it slid open.
I didn't check for pressure variance, but the atmosphere on the other side was near enough that it didn't matter. Barely a puff. I sucked at it greedily. Shaking the fuzziness from my head, I walked in and looked around the room.
The cabin was long and rectangular. The layout of the equipment in it was symmetrical. There were three cylindrical suit racks on the each of the walls to my left and right. On the far bulkhead a series of maintenance lockers stood arrayed next to a large airlock with the words EXTERNAL ACCESS printed across it. In each of the suit racks, an industrial engineering hardsuit hung quietly, peeled open to the legs and waiting for an occupant.
I blinked stupidly and gasped for a breath. Immediate regret. Ice and pain filled my lungs and a rolling darkness in my vision threatened to drop me to the floor. I heaved myself toward the nearest suit, and slammed clumsily into the rack that held it. I began to clamber in, letting muscle memory lead. First the left leg, the the right. Once I was standing in the padded legs of the suit, I smacked the auto-seal button on the belt. The rest of the hardsuit began folding up around me, like a flower closing in on itself for the night. I could sense the suit working out how to deal with the extra size of my backpack, but it managed.
As it was closing around me, everything went dark.
I didn't dream. I don't think I was out long enough for that part of my brain to spin up. It probably needed oxygen to do that. I took an experimental breath. My damaged lungs burned with pain, but air filled them. I blinked opened my eyes. They ached too. An inch in front of me was the scratched polymer faceplate of the engineering hardsuit. It looked like the suit had finished sealing itself, and turned on the airflow. Lacking further instruction, it considered its job done and went inert.
"Simon, can you hear me?" I asked. My voice rasped out, sounding unfamiliar and coarse.
"Yes Mr. Shaw, you are audible." The sound came through very muted. "I would suggest initializing your pressure suit, and utilizing the closed communications system to speak with me, as vibration-based vocals will soon become impossible."
I struggled to move, but the suit probably weighed close to four hundred pounds. I could barely nudge it.
"Uh, suit, activate. Shaw auth code four-seven-three-three-one-six. Belt mining department," I said.
A tinny, mechanical voice spoke into my ear, "Suit active, limited functionality for non-departmental personnel. Please inform the Engineering department of all equipment usage."
"Simon?" I asked.
"Yes, Mr. Shaw, I can hear you over the closed communication system now. What do you require?"
I thought about that. Needed to find out what was going on. Anything bad enough to cause a sudden and widespread loss of pressure probably wasn't a minor issue. I didn't even know who was alive or where a safe part of the station would be. Given the circumstances, it was pure luck I'd even woken up. I'd just gotten off a double shift, and had come back to my cabin physically exhausted.
I looked around. This equipment room was relatively close to my cabin, and the pressure loss was here too, only slightly less. In an situation like this, the Company had pretty clear instructions. Get to the docks and wait for instructions. One way or the other, we'd have to leave the station for at least awhile.
"Are there any ships docked?"
"Yes Mr. Shaw," it replied. I know there are AIs with a lot of personality. There was one installed on the transport ship that brought me out here that liked to sing show tunes during mealtimes. Said it improved morale on long flights. I usually buried myself in books or action interactives. However, some are still young. This one had been installed only ten months ago, when the station was activated by its owners. It still had trouble interpreting and anticipating humans, and was still irritatingly literal.
I sighed. "What ships are docked, and where are they in relation to me?"
"There is one EVA mining ferry located seven hundred and eighty-two meters to port. There is an engineering manipulator shuttle just outside the cabin you are in. Dr. Tomoko's yacht is located three hundred and six meters fore of your position."
I was momentarily excited about the engineering shuttle just outside, but asked, "Which of those is Snap-capable?"
"The research Director's yacht."
"Next time someone's suffocating in a space station on the outer edge of deep space, assume they need a ship with an FTL drive."
I began climbing down off of the equipment rack. I checked the suit's air levels, and saw I had plenty. If I couldn't get out of the suit in three hundred hours, I figured I'd be ready to suffocate anyway.
"There will not be a next time," I heard in my ears.
I paused while opening the equipment lockers bolted to the back wall and asked, "What?"
"There will not be a next time. At the current rate of equipment failure, radiating from a point on the port side hull, I estimate seventeen minutes until my core loses power or is destroyed. It is highly unlikely that we will engage in conversation at any point beyond that. Therefore, there will be no next time for me to adhere to your conversational directives."
I looked up sharply from the locker. "Are you telling me the station is breaking apart?"
"Yes Mr. Shaw. As far as I can determine," it responded placidly.
"Why can't you tell? Don't you have sensors in every square meter of this place?"
"No. There is not an even distribution, but your generalization is close enough. My sensors are being disabled around the perimeter of the event, preventing me from understanding the details of what is occurring. However, I have access to one camera on the surface of AGn-198 that has a twelve degree field of visibility on the station."
The machine paused, like it was deciding whether or not to keep speaking.
"There," it hesitate fractionally, "appears to be a non-reflective black sphere where the research and development quadrant was located. It is approximately three hundred and ninety-one meters in diameter. Parts of the station seem to be disconnecting from the main structure and moving into the sphere."
I stared at the overhead emergency LED lights for a moment, watching them pulse with implied danger.
"It's a black hole?"
Almost before I finished the question, the AI was replying, "No. There is no perceivable gravity differential in local space. Readings are the same as earlier. All readings are the same as earlier. Except, of course, internal ones and what I'm seeing from the asteroid's surface."
My visor dimmed and a video feed streamed onto it. A matte black sphere hung in the middle of the frame. The feed looked to be from the main tether mount on the rock, angled to take in the length of the cable assembly and most of the station in the distance. Parts of the main structure were being systematically detached from the whole, and pulled directly into the sphere. They passed through the seemingly solid surface without pause. The station didn't look like it was being destroyed so much as disassembled.
A handful of bodies suddenly emerged from the growing hole in the side of the station, and tumbled through the debris and into the sphere. One of them flailed in panic just before disappearing into the object.
I blinked at the screen. "Who?"
"First shift research analyst Debra Cullings, first shift research analyst Cedric Holt, and security coordinator Jason Cullings."
I didn't know them, or the names. Different shift, different department. Dead all the same.
For the next few minutes, I quickly packed supplies from the equipment locker into an industrial duffel I'd found. Sealed food, water, some tools and a package of medical nanites. I had a thought.
"Simon, where is your core in relation to Dr. Tomoko's yacht?"
There was a noticeable pause before it replied, "It is on the way. Approximately fifty meters from the debarkation airlock that leads to the the research director's ship."
"Are you - I mean can you be moved, physically?"
Another pause. "Yes Mr. Shaw, I can. However I will require eleven minutes and fifteen seconds to transfer to a portable storage unit. The progression of systems failures will reach me in fifteen minutes."
"Shit." I threw the duffel up over my right shoulder and promptly screamed in pain. Only the powered joints of the suit kept me upright. I felt my stomach roil again, but I keep it down.
"Mr. Shaw, if I might assist you. I will upgrade your operating permissions to Director level."
Panting, trying to think through the pain, I asked, "Wh-why?"
"This will give you full access to the systems on the hardsuit you are wearing, as well as allow you access to my core, and to Dr. Tomoko's private berth. I anticipate this will be useful to you."
"Fuck. Yes. Do it," I gasped.
There was no delay. My suit computer immediately spoke into my ear, "Welcome Director. You are injured. Medical protocols initiated."
I felt several needles jab into my abdomen, and one into my shoulder, which promptly went numb. I could feel movement up my arm though. Like ants on my skin.
"Suit, what are you doing to my arm?"
"Medical nanites have been injected. They are repairing detected damage. You are also bleeding internally. Several localized anti-coagulants and a secondary injection of medical nanites were applied to the afflicted area. Please drink plenty of fluids and see the station physician as soon as possible."
I heard and felt a wet pop from my arm, and dull wave of pain. Grunting, I gingerly picked up the duffel with my left hand from where I'd dropped it on the floor. I moved my right arm experimentally. It seemed much better, though numb and hard to direct.
"Fourteen minutes Mr. Shaw."
I headed out of the EVA cabin the way I'd come in and headed right. I was looking for a cross section that would allow me to head outward toward the berthing docks of the station. Despite almost a century of artificial gravity plating, most space stations and outposts followed a wheel, or cylindrical construction. This one was no different. A long elevator connected this wheel to the asteroid "below" allowing for a large quantity of material to be shipped up or down to the rock's surface as needed. The elevator was how I got to work in the morning. This orientation meant that all ships docked on the outer ring, at one of the twelve docking ports.
"Station, what dock is the yacht at, and where are you in relation to it?"
"I can be downloaded from the primary control room, which is located directly aft of docking port one - the berth of Dr. Tomoko's yacht."
"Great," I said, energized.
It looked like the station AI was starting to learn under pressure. All along the wallscreens to my right, yellow indicators led me down the corridor. I passed several main junctions before being directed to my left. Here, the corridor stopped curving. In the distance, perhaps two-hundred meters away, I could see the color-coded walls shift from low-level green, to command-level blue. I was entering civilian officer country.
On any given shift, there were about eighty people aboard station - and I knew almost none of them. I knew of most of them, and I worked with several, but one of the reasons I worked the rock below was that it was quiet. A lot of people who work in space, hate space. A civilization of near-agoraphobics trying to live, work and expand through the darkness - and only a handful of us preferred being surrounded by stars instead of plastic and metal. I'd spent enough time jammed into small spaces with too many people. I preferred stars. So instead of chatting and socializing, I dug holes in asteroids for a living.
I didn't see anyone now though. Maybe they'd all gotten a heads up about the impending disaster and fled.
"Station, where is everyone?"
"I do not have sufficient information to answer that question."
Back to literal. I shook my head.
"Where are the majority of the people who are currently assigned to this station?"
Another brief pause, then, "Dead, Mr. Shaw."
I stopped in the corridor and stared at the blinking yellow wall. "Dead? How? How do you know they're dead?"
"Dr. Tomoko requested the presence of all active personnel to the port-side observation cabin twenty-eight minutes ago. There was to be an announcement and a demonstration - but I am unable to access any information about what."
I was confused, but continued down the corridor.
"Those events have been locked and set as classified at Executive-Level clearance. I am not an Executive-Level AI, and do not have access," it said. I could feel a bit of indignation.
"Okay, so what happened to the crew?"
"Every crew-member who was awake attended the demonstration, and most of those who were not were woken by friends."
A surge of panic filled me.
"Wait! Are there other people asleep?" I shouted into my helmet.
"No, your neighbor, Mr. Bernard was, but awoke and perished when he tried examine the seam of his cabin door too closely during the decompression event."
I imagined Frank leaning in too close and being sucked up against the door. Then through the door. Slowly.
"So. It's just us?" I said, disturbed at my imagination.
"You appear to be the last living crew-member, yes."
I looked up from my conversation, and saw the control room door on my left. As I approached, it slid open, recognizing the director-level permissions of my suit. I walked in, and was dumbfounded for a moment.
The room was cylindrical and several meters in height. In the center of the room was a holographic representation of the asteroid, station and the intervening elevator. On it, almost half of the station's wheel was blinking red. A few meters out from the holo display was a ring of workstations. About enough to handle two dozen very smart people. I couldn't understand half of what I saw.
The impressive part of the room was on the wall though. The entire inner bulkhead was one long, three meter high wallscreen. It was seamless and wrapped completely around the room. On it was a nearly perfect panoramic representation of the asteroid I spent every day on. In fact, I could see some of my most recent work, an outcropping of ferrous material I'd spent most of yesterday slagging with a plasma cutter.
"Is that real?"
"Yes, this is a live feed from the surface of AGn-198. Mr. Shaw, there are only a little over twelve minutes remaining until this area goes offline."
I tore my view away from the screen.
"Okay. Tell me what to do."
I had the AI stored safely in one of my suit pouches. The storage device turned out to be a metal sphere about the size of a walnut. I didn't know what the material was, but there weren't any data ports on it. I'd just found it in a storage cabinet, set it in a small bowl seemingly designed to hold it, and waited.
While I waited, I poked around the control room, trying to read data off the screens. Most of it looked like it related to the composition of the asteroid and the materials in it. There wasn't anything incredibly exotic. A lot of palladium, some nickel and a high concentration of radioactive elements. However some areas looked blacked out on the scans. Like someone had gone over the hologram with a marker. The station AI wasn't responsive while it was transferring, so all the questions that came to me remained unasked.
I stood in the doorway of the control room down the corridor to Dock One and wondered idly if I could pilot a yacht. Then the deck below me dropped away. I landed hard on my knees, but the suit bore the impact. The deck plate I'd been standing on had dropped about two feet. I felt the station shudder beneath me. All the air had finally leaked out of this part of the station, leaving me in silence. I looked behind me. The wallscreen was now a dead black, and the giant hologram in the center of the room was gone. It was now about four meters below, on the floor of the maintenance deck below. I could also see space through the floor in several spots.
It was time to go.
I flexed my legs to stand, and nothing happened.
"Suit, why can't I stand?"
"You are not strong enough. Current local gravity is approximately 2.9 stand-- 2.8 stand-- 2.9 standard."
I grimaced and stared at the deck plating below me. "Suit, increase power-assist level to maximum.
The holo display behind me slipped out of the hull breach into space.
"Health and safety regulations pro--"
I tried to stand up again and shot up off the floor like a grasshopper. My suit slammed into the corridor ceiling and I bounced off and landed heavily on the floor. Stunned, I took a moment.
"Suit! Reduce the fucking power-assist to triple normal levels."
Gingerly, I stood up. Back in the control room, most of the terminals were gone now, sunk into the floor, or out into space. In front of me my duffel bag of scavenged materials was plastered to the malfunctioning gravity plate, and I noticed the torn strap dangling from the fist of my left hand.
I chucked the strap into the control room and sprinted for the dock. The suit powered my run into an Olympic sprint, and I got to the airlock in seconds. It slid open quickly to admit me, and I ran down the docking tunnel to the yacht's airlock. Sensing the permissions on my suit and maybe some of my panic, the airlock opened and began to cycle me through.
A sultry, seductive voice addressed me, "Welcome aboard Dr. Tomoko, how can I be of service?"
"Really?" I asked, exasperated and out of breath. I heard hissing as the airlock filled with atmosphere.
"Pardon?" it asked. There was a momentary pause, and then, "You are not Dr. Tomoko. I am afraid I have to lock down The Loveboat until I can confirm your identity." I heard the bolts in the airlock door leading to the ship interior slam into place.
"The Lov-- We need to get out of here right fucking now!"
No response. I panicked then, and looked out the airlock window, down the debarkation tunnel. I could see space at the other end. Whatever was happening had claimed Dock One.
"Simon, can you hear me?" I yelled into my helmet.
"Yes Mr. Shaw," it replied, infuriatingly calm.
"Can you fly this thing? The ship's AI won't let me out of the damn airlock."
"Yes, Mr. Shaw, I can. However I need to be placed in the ship's AI control port. The current AI module would have to be removed."
"How the fuck do I do that?"
I felt this ship shudder softly, and resisted the temptation to look behind me.
"I have limited wireless range in this storage unit. I will attempt to bypass the interior airlock door. You will then need to breach the ship's bridge and access the control port console. You will then need to remove the AI that is docked there, and replace it with this storage unit."
"We don't have time for another transfer, AI, look around you, this place is about done." The panic had leaked out of my voice at this point. I just realized I'd been awake for less than twenty minutes and had slept for maybe an hour coming off a double shift. I was exhausted.
"No transfer is necessary. All AIs can interface with external systems while in this form. A physical replacement is all that is necessary."
The interior airlock door in front of me thumped loudly twice, and slid open. I darted inside.
The yacht was large, and it took almost a minute to cover the distance to the bridge. The doors were closed, an orange locking light blinked quietly above them. I didn't slow. I hit the doors hard. My numbed shoulder took the impact, but it still hurt. A lot. The paired doors folded inward at the center seam, and a gap about a foot across formed between them. I wedged my hands in and heaved them apart. My shoulder twinged in a sudden burst of agony, but they began to open. Soon I was able to squeeze through.
I stumbled into a room that would more easily be described as a home than a bridge. It was dimly lit, and plush. There was lounge seating for about a dozen people. A grand piano sat off to the side. On my left was a small bar. The glasses and bottles were rattling as the ship began to shake.
"Where the fuck is it?"
"Under the ottoman."
I ran over and kicked the brown leather footrest clear off the floor. Underneath it was a smooth metallic panel with a manual locking handle. I reached down and grabbed it, pulled it out, twisted and jammed it back down. I twisted it to the right one more time and lifted the panel off. It was about three inches thick and even with the suit I could barely get it up onto the deck. Inside was a small sphere, identical to the one in my suit pouch. I pulled the station AI out and quickly replaced the one in the floor with it.
All the lights went out. Seconds later, they all flickered back on. Several bottles fell from the bar and shattered on the floor. The piano began making noises, as if there was a drunk at the keys. A glance behind me, back down the corridor to the airlock, revealed a small sprinkle of stars beyond the exterior viewport. As I watched, something dark slid over them.
"Simon?" I yelled.
"Yes Mr. Shaw?"
"Get us the fuck out of here!"
"Yes Mr. Shaw."
Then we Snapped away like light, but much, much faster.
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