When he reached the elevators, he noticed the doorway
to the dormitory overflows was open. The lights were shining brightly all the
way down a long, straight hallway. He could only see the first few doors, and
they were all shut.
Andrew looked back at the slick steel doors of the
closest elevator. A glowing panel above indicated that the car was paused on
the sixth level. He tried to remember how deep things went, information he
gathered while pouring over the technical details of the plant during his trip
to the planet, but his memory felt hard to access.
“Probably goes pretty deep, but not from the
dorms, yeah?” he said aloud, listening to his voice die in the artificial,
fabric-lined corridor. He slipped his right glove off to operate the computer
panel and call up the elevator. After hurriedly going through the motions, he
brought his rifle around and touched the trigger, feeling the familiar steel
against his fingertip. He let the weapon fall back into its bungee sling and
tucked his glove into the belt of his suit.
The lift moved slowly, and Andrew could hear the
sliding and grinding of the pulleys above, shaking off old, dry dust. He
glanced over at the dormitory again. He stepped toward it, seeing more of the
plain blue doors appear around shallow recesses in the hallway.
“Hello?” he called loudly. “I’m here from…” He
paused and thought about his employer. His mission from Saul Toro was not
officially from the Iber Colony Counsel. “I’m here to help. Is there anyone out
there?” He brought his rifle back up and shouldered it, intending to fire a
shot, but then thought better of it. “Anyone alive?”
The elevator doors opened, and he glanced at an
empty and pristine car. He turned from it and stepped toward the dormitory
hallway. A tall computer panel stood next to the open blast doors. Andrew saw
that it could be used to page the rooms, but also saw, since this was an
overflow dormitory, that only certain rooms could be paged. He could go through
the list, one by one, and make sure there was nobody simply hiding from him.
“What would they be hiding from?”
Part of his mind answered to him, almost against
his will. A single word – a concept –
from a sector of himself he had, for reasons of sanity, maintained little contact
word drew itself out, all guttural nonsense, but in the image remained. Wrtla, a voice inside said back.
Could it be?
He thought. Could there really be more of
them? The situation seemed to fit, but then again there were many things in
the universe that could swallow a colony of humans whole. But leave everything so perfect? No! They walked away. They walked
down. To it.
of his former self that had surged forward seemed to cry wordlessly after its
interjection, demanding to become one with the other pieces of Andrew’s mind.
The self he was before – his memories, his identity – had something more to
say, but it had been touched too deeply by the ancient unknowable void. The
hunter he had created out of the shards of that contact asserted itself and
shut the old, broken Andrew away. His old consciousness was now an echo –
useful if needed, but safely locked up.
Andrew took a quick picture of the room list with
his computer and stepped into the dormitory hallway. It was carpeted and clean.
He brought up the list on the screen attached to his left forearm. Normally he
would use the heads-up display on his helmet, but he had removed it to breathe
the air of the place.
“J-115,” he said aloud. A sliver of his mind
touched his consciousness, and he felt a pang of dread again. He frowned and
focused as he walked to the first occupied dormitory, bringing his rifle
forward in its sling just in case. He found the door unlocked, and it pushed in
with a slight squeak of the hinges. Automatic lights flickered on, revealing a
As he expected, silence was all that greeted him.
He stepped in and looked around briefly. In the
bathroom a toothbrush sat perched on a deep sink. A personal computer sat on a
table near the made bed, dead and unplugged.
Andrew took a breath and listened to his own
It would take a long time to check every room. The
dread returned, and tapping on the edge of his current consciousness was an
idea he didn’t want to consider. It tapped again, and he groaned, wondering if
it were prescience or just his imagination.
He stepped out of the empty flat and continued
down the hall.
“I’m checking each one, so you might as well come
out if you haven’t. I’m not here to hurt you.”
The whir of a fan in a vent was all that
responded. Then there was a sudden click, and Andrew brought up his rifle,
quickly clicking off the safety. A few paces in front of him, a small door in
the wall opened up, and a cleaning robot emerged. It began its daily chore,
turning and running along the edge of the hallway, sucking up the dust that had
collected in the last day.
Andrew chuckled and stepped forward, then was assaulted
by a vision and a ringing in his ears. He reached to the wall to steady
himself, but the wall wasn’t there.
He was suddenly inside a large flat, stepping
toward a partly open door. A smell was stuck in his nostrils like dried mud. It
was a rotten smell, and he knew what made it. He pushed the door wider, looking
only down the sights of his rifle, knowing that it would not save him from the
horror. The lights flickered on, and his mind was fracturing further, seeing
further, as if the vision could not be contained within a single moment.
He screamed as he saw a crib; the scream did not
stop him from continuing forward and seeing what remained inside the simple
wooden bed. Nausea scraped across the back of his head, his neck, his ears,
down his throat. He could smell his own bile. He screamed with every piece of
himself, screamed and bled and cried and collapsed.
Then he was standing back in the hall. The cleaner
had moved one door down. His prescient self was still screaming, and though the
images remained, preserved like endlessly looped video files, the screams began
to slowly fade, responding to the subtle push he gave to that part of his mind.
Soon it was a dull roar in his mind: echoing, distant, and yet not gone.
“No reason to continue,” he
said, his voice dry like reeds. “They walked away. Those that could walk away.”
Then he was standing back in the hall. The cleaner had moved one door down. His prescient self was still screaming, and though the images remained, preserved like endlessly looped video files, the screams began to slowly fade, responding to the subtle push he gave to that part of his mind. Soon it was a dull roar in his mind: echoing, distant, and yet not gone. “No reason to continue,” he said, his voice dry like reeds. “They walked away. Those that could walk away.”