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strings between the stars

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Martin jigs around inside his suit. The padded cushion between his head and his helmet stops him from smacking his head into the top of it or, worse, into the visor at the front, but he is still distractingly aware of the weight of it on his head. A reminder of where he's about to go and why he needs it. The screen on his visor is lit with a little symbol of a beacon casting out lines that he thinks are meant to represent the radiation that carries his voice back home to Earth. Through his visor he can see Tim fiddling with the straps on the large pack his is going to be carrying with him down on the planet - or the planetoid mass, as Jon staunchly refers to it - and Sasha inputting coordinates into a tablet to coax Mi-CAL to open up a door for them.

 

They'd said it would take about ten minutes before they were finally ready to leave so he thought he'd try Earth, see if his Mum would answer this time.

Hello A smooth and articulate voice pours into his ears from the earpieces he's wearing. He jumps. You have connected to The Starshine Centre for Vitality, Earth. How may we help you today?

'I -um - hello! This is Martin Blackwood. I'd like to speak to-'

Oh yes, hello again, Mr Blackwood. It has been 46 days since your last call. That hits Martin in the gut every time. He'd tried calling ten minutes ago. Would you like to speak to Mrs Blackwood?

Martin swallows, mouth suddenly bone dry. He wonders how the hell he is meant to drink inside this suit.

Please state: Yes or no.

'Yes! Yes, yes. Please.'

Okay.

The beacon icon on his visor changes from a bright green to a slightly mottled yellow as the connection to his mother back on Earth is tested.

I'm sorry, Mr Blackwood. Mrs Blackwood is not taking calls at this present time. There's something about the way this comms bot speaks. Earth technology has moved far past the days of pre-recorded messages and clumsy word insertions to change the meaning. But this voice still makes the not come out of nowhere. It's like a slap in the face. The voice carries on, a level of plastic condescension there that makes Martin's chest burn. Is there anything else we can help you with today?

 

He thinks about leaving a message. Saying: Hi, mum. It's your son, Martin. So, I know we've not spoken in a while - I've been in Broth - and you haven't been answering my calls. But, some exciting news, I guess, I'm going to set foot on a new planet for the first time! I'm not really sure why they want me on their research team here but, if you never hear from me again, just know that I'll be thinking of you if anything happens.

 

That's . . . pretty heavy.

 

He thinks about all the other things he would say to her if they spoke. If she didn't act like he hadn't given up his entire life on Earth in order to keep her healthy and happy until he could save enough money to come back and look after her properly.

 

Hi, mum. So, the researcher in charge of the Broth did some fairly illegal switching of the settings on my chamber and now I really look like myself and it's wonderful.

 

Hi, mum. So, the new computer has a really nice voice and the control room is beautiful and I'm a bit confused because I've not felt like this since -

 

He presses a button on his wrist to close the channel. The beacon on his visor folds in on itself and disappears.

 

At least I tried, he tells the ache in his chest, at least I tried.

 

******

 

'Okay, so when we step in,' Sasha begins. The open portal behind her is a deep black nothing circumscribed with crackling electrical currents, a mesmerising rainbow of flashing light that is only just amazing enough to penetrate the deep-set panic in Martin's bones. 'Martin? Are you listening?'

'Hm? Mhm. Listening. Yep.'

He sees Tim give Sasha a look.

'Martin . . .' He forces himself to look into her brown eyes through the thick glass of their visors. She reaches out a gloved hand to grab his own. He's not going to cry. He's not. 'It's going to be okay. We need you here, otherwise I promise you wouldn't have to come.' He opens his mouth to protest that there is an entire ship of competent, sleeping people but only a croak comes out. He takes in Sasha's open, honest face, the slight line in between her eyebrows from frowning down at tangles of wires and the constant upwards curve of her lips, as if the universe is a great joke and she is in on it.  He nods and she squeezes his hand.

'Travelling with Mi-CAL is . . . Disorientating. I'm going to go in first, then you, then Tim - but don't panic if you end up being spat out first, we'll be right behind you. It's going to feel really weird, but the important thing is that you keep moving. Got it?'

'Keep moving. Got it.' Tim repeats slowly and pretends to take notes. It's a poor attempt at lightening the mood, but Martin smiles at him gratefully and the Chief Assistant winks.

'Okay, team.' Sasha grins, 'Let's go!'

 

Martin watches the rusty orange of Sasha's terrasuit melt away into the dark of the portal. He waits two seconds, tensing the muscles in his legs to spring him forward before he loses his nerve again.

'Off you go, then.' Tim's voice is crisp and clear through his earpieces. He steps through the portal.

 

The first thing he notices is the tingling sensation of every single hair on his body standing to attention as though pulled by some omnidirectional magnet. He expects to feel a great temperature change as he steps into the darkness, but the suit protects him from that. Tim's voice falls away into a spiralling screech and a soaring and diving wave of inhuman chatter.

He moves.

 

He's in a long corridor, carpeted, walls lined with great mirrors in tacky gilt frames.

 

He moves.

 

He's not. He's in a hedge maze. It's been so long since he's been this close to so many huge plants that his heart soars. He reaches out to bury a gloved hand in the thick, green foliage. But it melts away around him.

 

And he's upside down, walking along a lonely concrete road. There are bright yellow signs that advertise DIVERSION. DIVERSION. But the arrows all point in different directions and he doesn't know - he doesn't know which route to follow to catch up with Sasha. He stops, feet on the road on the ceiling. Helmet brushing the clouds on the floor. DIVERSION. The signs say. As he contemplates the way, the letters start to wobble, to drip away like thick ink.

 

There's a great rustling from behind him and it's the hedge maze again! The leaves sprout and yellow and die before his eyes as it closes in on him, branches like long, sharp fingers ready to snap him up if he stops too long to consider the -

 

He moves.

 

The maze falls away, his head is no longer on the floor. He's spinning, spinning, spinning in the strong embrace of a tall figure and he asks them to stop, begs them to make it stop. There's an echoing laughter that penetrates his suit like mould. A pale imitation of reality that grinds and grinds and

 

Martin tumbles out of the portal and into two pairs of gloved hands. They wrap tight around his biceps.

'Oh,' He's whispering to himself, 'Oh. Oh.' His breaths come fast and hard.

'It's alright!' Someone murmurs through their microphone and into his earpiece. 'You're okay! You did it!' Martin looks up and meets the earthy eyes of the ship's best engineer.

'Disorientating?!' He spits in disbelief.

She laughs and the sound doesn't echo through his skull. He is okay. Tim raps him on the back of the helmet in solidarity and Martin looks around this new planet for the first time. 

 

He had expected white from the pale visuals on the ship and the view through his visor is a spectacular experiment in greyscale. The ground beneath them is a strange, dark taupe which glistens slightly in the lights from their helmets as if wet. Martin lifts his foot up tentatively and feels a slight squelch underfoot as he drops it back down. It's like they're standing in some sort of crater, or on a long, wide track as some kind of forest made of tall, black spiky shapes rises up on either side of them.

 

He squints out through his visor. They're definitely not trees, these tall shapes that erupt from the ground either side of them. At least, not like any tree Martin has encountered before. But there is something undeniably organic about the way they rise up straight and then begin to bend a little towards the top under their own weight. The information on the screen inside his visor informs him that there's no wind but, when he stares too long at a single one of the towering spikes, he's sure he sees it move slightly.

 

The sky isn't really a sky. What they had assumed was a dense, swirling cloud cover from the ship is -

Martin has a sickly suspicion that he knows what it is.

 

The expanse above him, through which he would expect to see the rolling of dark clouds and the distant flicker of stars on Earth, is filled with a thready material which hangs above them, just clinging onto the top of the protruding spikes. Martin looks up over his shoulder and he can see the gaping black hole that was visible from the Magnus. Fine strands of whatever it is float out into the empty space as though the planet's atmosphere is starting to weave itself back together again.

 

'Okay.' Martin says, 'I, um, can see some, um-'

'A verbal description of your surroundings is entirely superfluous, Martin. I have your camera feed.' A terse voice drawls directly into his ear. Jon probably also knows that he's blushing. He blushes harder.

'Righto, sorry!' He looks at Tim. 'What's the plan?'

'Well, it looks like we're standing right in the spot where whatever it was that crashed through this planet's - this planetoid-mass' atmosphere ended up.'

'Well done, Sasha.' Sasha says.

'So we're going to follow this gigantic skid mark and see what we can find. That alright with you, Jon?'

'Affirmative.'

'Great!' The light from the screen inside Tim's helmet glints off his teeth as he grins.

 

It's slow going. Their boots stick in the oozy blackness of the ground beneath them and soon their feet are entirely caked in a slick, heavy layer of the material. A little beep goes off every twenty metres and they stop to take samples of whatever looks interesting around them. The ground beneath them, a chip off one of spikes, a translucent wisp of what Martin is definitely trying not to think of as web. Sometimes, Jon will chip in to suggest something they should take a shaving off or criticise the way they handle the material with their clumsy hands, but mostly, it is quiet save for the sound of Martin's own breathing in his ears.

 

Jon.

Martin swears that he can feel him even here. A prickle on the back of his neck and a pressure in the grit of his teeth.

A thought occurs. What if this feeling of being watched isn't coming from inside his own suit.

'So, you know how we're fairly suspicious that something has already landed here?' He watches the tilt in Sasha and Tim's helmets as they consider his words.

'Yeah. I feel like I'm being watched too.' Sasha agrees, straight to the point.

'Hm.' Tim is less committed, 'I think a little bit of paranoia is probably healthy on a new planet for the first time.'

 

A new planet for the first time. Martin searches his stomach for a ripple of excitement at that fact but all he can muster up is a rumbling panic. The scenery barely changes, grey upon grey. Martin tries to imagine a spaceship landing here, crushing the ceaseless spiny forest and leaving a trail of blazing amber flames behind it. The only ship he can imagine, though, is the Magnus Institute and the thought of his only way home plummeting and crashing does nothing for his racing pulse. Instead, he finds his mind wandering back to the intimate and crowded space of Jon's control room and the silken feeling of a cool panel underneath his hands. The ever-changing code on the wall had scatted away from him like he had disturbed a shoal of tiny fish. He glances around this dead, grey world. In many ways, Jon is the most alive thing he has seen since leaving Earth.

 

Jon.

 

Martin bites back a smile at his own ridiculousness. Here he is, Heavens knows how far away from his own planet, collecting a cutting of a previously unseen organic species on a previously unseen planetoid mass, and all he can think about is the static between Jon's ability to know anything they need him to and his ability to find the right file to share that knowledge with them. It's not unheard of for humans to forego partners of their own species - it's not the 3050s - but Martin has never - Well, Martin has never ever. He wonders, making a conscious effort not sound ungrateful even in his private musings, if this dryness in his throat at the sound of Jon's voice has something to do with the changes Tim made to his Broth. He wonders why the only thing he's concerned about is that he's already messed it up.

 

 

******

 

Jon isn't physically capable of getting complacent in his observations but, still, when the request to open a private communications channel pops up in his system, he takes a moment to answer it.

 

'Martin? What is the problem?'

 

He runs diagnostics on Martin's terrasuit, his equipment, his physiological readings. The man's heart rate is running little high.

 

'I - um.'

'Martin.'

 

There's a little camera inside the helmet as well as the one outside. It's there in case the microphones or earpieces fail and the astronauts need to communicate with the computer by signalling with their face or via lip reading. Now, the microphones are working fine, but Jon has the bonus of being able to watch the tight little twist in Martin's lips as he decides what to say.

 

'I just wanted to apologise properly for what happened, I -'

'Martin.' Jon is pleased to discover that he can make this voice growl.

'No!' There's a distant beep as Martin is reminded to take a sample, 'Oh, one second.' He watches Martin's brow furrow in concentration as he tries to manipulate the cap from the sample storage container.

 

Archival Assistant Martin Blackwood's personnel file opens at his request. Jon peruses it while he watches the assistants gather their samples and Elias scrutinise them on the large screens in his office and the other humans float in their chambers below. There's nothing much of interest in there. Martin was a fairly last-minute addition to the ship. He had an above-average list of previous educational accolades and references from jobs back on Earth. It struck Jon as a little strange that Martin, with all this apparent training, didn't push back at the obvious coddling from his colleagues and the clear scorn from Elias. But . . .

 

One thing stands out. Martin Blackwood is the only person who repeatedly uses the personal communication system to contact Earth. And he uses it repeatedly. Jon scrolls through a lengthy list of calls, all to the same Earthen address.

?query: what is the Starshine Centre 

The answer to his query makes him want to recoil, pull his electrons away from the information he has just touched. It's a cousin of the sensation he had experienced when Martin had touched his panel in the control room. An overwhelming rush that can only be categorised as too much to process.

 

He sees Martin slot his sample into the correct slot in his bag and sigh, satisfied.

'Right. So. I just wanted to apologise for - um - touching your - your panels or whatever it was I did. I can see now that it was incredibly inappropriate and I just want to assure you that it won't happen again and, if there is any lasting damage, I can absolutely learn how to fix it.'

 

?query: is there any lasting damage

 

Jon has been searching (in the seconds between watching and synchronising signals and obeying commands) for the human equivalent of having a part of your system that you keep returning to despite the mild discomfort.

 

answer: poking a bruise

 

'Martin, I can assure that there has been no lasting damage to my system and no attempts at repair will be required from you at this stage.' He can't tell if the soft breath Martin lets out is relief or disappointment. It can't be in his programming, this desire to explain further than necessary, to keep talking. 'I -'

'Yes?'

'I'm new to this. It was just new. I'm -' poking a bruise.

 

*******

'I'm -'

'Ah-!'

 

Martin cuts off Jon's voice with a shout as he takes a step forward and the ground abruptly folds away beneath him. His boots, caked with the dark, claggy soil of this new world, can find no purchase on the equally slimy ground and he cries out as he falls backwards onto the padded rear of his terrasuit. His hands grope wildly for something, for anything. But he is gone, slipping away from his fellow researchers and down into the darkness.

 

'Martin!' Several voices exclaim into his ear. His torch isn't bright enough to light up enough of his surroundings for him to be able to see when the bottom of the slope is coming, but he feels himself slowing to a stop.

 

He pants. His coccyx aches a little as he stands but he manages it without falling over.

'I'm okay!' He breathes. His visor screen informs him that a minor, unexpected incident has occurred. That's very helpful, thank you! He thinks bitterly.

'Martin, are you okay?'

'Yeah! Yeah, I'm okay. I just took a tumble.'

'Heavens, Martin.' Tim's voice ripens with a bitchy sarcasm now that he knows Martin isn't hurt, 'Why were you so distracted?! You know, it's usually not a good idea to go skidding down a massive cliff-thing on your own on a newly discovered planet?'

'Actually -' Martin's heart jumps at the sound of Jon's crisp interruption.

'Shut up, Jon. Martin, what can you see down there?'

 

Martin flicks with the settings on his helmet, turning up the brightness on his torch now that he's not at any risk of blinding Tim or Sasha. He's facing the slope he came down on, another weeping gash in the dense black forest of the world. He can trace the line he made with his body all the way back up to the top and he hears a gasp as Sasha informs him that they can see his torchlight. 

 

'It's just this slope, more of those spikes on either side. It looks like whatever made the clearing came right down . . .' Martin trails off as creeping tingle ascends his back. A certainty that there is something huge and predatory behind him. Watching. Hungry.

 

He turns slowly. The torchlight catches on the broken stems of the spiky forest. Whatever it was that made this mess must have been huge and travelling fast.

'Martin?'

'The - the-'

He thinks he sees something glisten in the shadows and gasps.

'Martin!'

 

When he looks back, there's nothing but empty space between the jagged ruins. He keeps turning, catches his fear in his teeth and tries not to breathe in case it comes out as a scream.

 

He sees it.

 

The breath comes out of him all at once.

 

'Oh!' He hears Jon, accessing his camera feed from almost 250km away. It occurs to him that he never heard Gertrude be surprised about anything.   

 

'I think you need to see this. I think you need to come and see this right now.'

 

It's a ship. Of course it is, what else would come careening into the atmosphere and be able to land without a significant amount of fire damage? Martin berates himself for not working that out sooner and wonders if Jon and Elias are watching, satisfied at their predictive powers.

 

It's strange, though. Like if a civilisation saw what a space ship usually looked like and chose to design everything perceptibly asymmetrically. Martin's torch light barely glints off the bottom of the discoid shape, coated in kilometres of black mud. The ship reminds him of a carousel, two flat metallic units that taper to meet in the middle and are connected by multiple columns. As he thinks that, he can imagine it spinning and feels immediately, violently ill. Several of the columns bulge along their length. It's as though something organic curled around them once and got stuck there: twisted, terrified.

 

'Jon, what am I looking at?' He asks. Jon is silent for long enough for Martin to start to worry that his connection to the ship has died.

'I don't know.' He replies finally, a bitter twist in his voice. 'It's clearly some sort of ship, but my databases can find no reference as to what model or even what alien civilisation created it.' Martin flicks on his thermal sensing camera. The ship lights up a cool turquoise, even colder than the ground underneath which glows a sickly yellow. 'Of course, if my predecessor had done even a part-way decent job of filing the acquired knowledge where it should be filed, perhaps I would be able to tell you more.' Martin's lips twitch despite himself.

'Thank you, anyway.'

 

A slick whoosing sound and a thump has Martin whipping around to see Sasha and Tim deposited on the floor of the crater by his feet. He adjusts the angle of this head-torch and Sasha swears loudly.

'Earth below.'

'Right!' Martin agrees emphatically.

'Seriously, though. This is . . .' She flounders, hands raised in mid-air as if she can snatch the feeling from the webbing around them. 'This is incredible.'

 

Martin looks over at Tim, ready for an exhilarated grin, some show of bravado and excitement that will help him untwist some of the knots in his stomach.

 

'. . . Tim?'

 

The man gets to his feet slowly, staring ahead at the ship as though he's not even really seeing it. His eyes glint like sapphires in the white light from inside his helmet, jaw clenched tight and mouth a dark slash across his face. He doesn't reply.

 

'Tim? What is it?' Martin takes an unsteady step over to his colleague, brow furrowing in concern. That feeling returns, crawling up his neck. Something is not right here.

 

Tim flinches with his whole body as Martin lays a gentle hand on his arm. He breathes something, a name, but it's too quiet for Martin to make it out through his earpieces. When he meets Martin's eyes, he has blinked some of the wide-eyed recognition away and all that remains is as steely as the ship in front of them.

 

'We're going inside.' He says.

'Are you sure?' Sasha asks.

'We're going inside.'

'Tim,' Martin softens his voice into a balm against the spines of this grey world. 'Are you okay?'

'Yes, Martin.' His answering snap is unexpectedly sharp and Martin recoils visibly. Tim sighs. 'I've seen worse. Jon? Confirm permission to enter the ship.' There's a pause. Martin drops his hand from Tim's arm and gets an unreadable glance from his colleague. Sasha bites her lip, uncertain despite her excitement at the discovery.

'Elias has confirmed permission.'

The set of Tim's jaw is grim as he meets Sasha's and then Martin's eyes in turn. 'Don't go out of my sight.'

 

******

 

They find an opening to the ship along the curved surface of the blackened bottom disc. It gapes like an open mouth. Like a smirk that says: you know what's going to happen if you come in here, don't you? At Tim's flat insistence, they enter anyway.

 

The ship's strangeness becomes even more apparent on the inside. Its layout is exactly as a seasoned space-traveller might expect - airlocks and sleeping quarters and decontamination chambers and control rooms - but everywhere Martin looks he sees things that just aren't quite right. The ship has signs of use, scuff marks on the floor and walls, communal areas littered with games and exercise equipment, but there is a noticeable absence of anything an organic, living thing might need to stay alive. No food. No beds. Nowhere to take a shit.

'This is weird.' Sasha dares to whisper. That's not just it, Martin thinks, eyeing a staircase ahead of them with unease. Each step is wide and deep, like it was made for someone with huge feet, and - he can't really tell - but there appears to be an uneven distance between each one. Tim grunts from in between them, face set like concrete.

 

They reach the staircase. It rises, twisting around a central pillar like the lovechild of a drill bit and a helterskelter. It also twists downwards into the still gloom of the bowels of the ship. Martin knows which direction Tim is going to take them in with a sickening certainty.

 

He flicks his night vision on, and then his thermal sensor. The only signs of life come from the three of them, perched on the edge of a terrible decision.

'Still with us, Jon?' Sasha checks in. In the fraction of a second before Jon's affirmative, Martin feels a guilty hope that he isn't. Then, they'd have no choice but to leave this awful place.

'We need to go down,' There it is. Tim catches the look on Martin's face and gives him a stern glower. 'There might be survivors down there.'

'Tim,' Sasha's voice is low. Diplomatic. 'If there are survivors down there, what are we going to do to help them? We're just researchers. We have no equipment and no way to get them off this planet.'

'Mi-C-'

'Mi-CAL would chew an injured person up and spit them out at the other side of the galaxy!' Martin winces at the thought but he knows she's right. Tim opens his mouth behind the glass of his visor.

'If I may interrupt,' Jon does so anyway. His voice carries a haughty air of authority that, for Martin, is a welcome distraction from the tense oddity of their surroundings. The trio go still. 'Elias requires me to inform you that you are not to engage with organic species unless it is to safely collect samples. This is in line with Section 17 of the-'

'Bullshit.' Tim roars. His hands are clenched into gloved fists at this sides. 'Fuck Elias for saying that and fuck you for passing it on. If we find someone or something down there that needs help, we are absolutely bringing it back to the ship.'

 

Without further ceremony, Tim's tall frame marches onto the staircase. He jumps violently, grasping for the railing as it lets out a deafening whistle of a note. It's like nothing Martin has heard before. It screams their intrusion into the ship and the unsettled feeling in Martin's bones is bullied out by abject fear.

 

'Tim! Come back! Make it stop!' Martin shouts to hear himself.

'What is making that sound?' Jon's voice is urgent and confused.

'Tim!'

 

Martin can see the whites of Tim's eyes, ghostly in the light of his helmet. He's never seen that look on his face before. He's never seen that look on anyone's face before. But he knows what Tim is going to do as he starts to do it.

 

Each step of the staircase is a new yell into the emptiness. The notes are discordant and shrill, layering over one another into an unbearably loud melody. Then, Martin and Sasha are racing after him, playing the same notes with their feet until the shrieking music is all they can comprehend.

 

It's silent at the bottom. Tim stands there. The broad lines of his shoulder bear no droop of apology. Martin sweats in his terrasuit and imagines the sweet slap of his hand colliding with Tim’s face. They stand there in the silence, listening for the sound of any approaching threat until Martin can't bear it any longer.

'That was stupid and reckless!' He hisses.

'We can't not look for people who might need our help just because we're frightened, Martin!' He bites back.

'Who says that they're going to be people?' Martin retorts. His voice wobbles embarrassingly, betraying his anxiety. Tim makes a sweeping gesture in the direction of the nearest tunnel, sarcastic in its grandiosity.

'Why don't we find out?'

 

They creep through a torch-lit tunnel like grave-robbers. The walls are plastered with posters of smiling faces. Except, when Martin looks closer, they are not smiling. Not at all. He hopes Jon has an ear out for something sneaking up behind them because the thump of his heart has become a steady whooshing in his ears. The prickling sensation of being watched is stronger here.

 

The tunnel opens out into a spacious opening with a high ceiling and several foreboding entrances leading off to the sides. There are no Broth chambers here, but the space is lined with hovering tables that rise up to Martin's hips. The vast majority of the tables have figures laying on them. They seem to glow snow-white, glinting in the torch-beams. If Martin saw them from more of a distance, he wouldn't hesitate to think that they looked human. But their skin. It's like it has been peeled off to reveal a pristine layer of plastic underneath. Almost, Martin thinks, like the robots they keep in the shop windows to model the clothes.

 

For a brief period of months in his childhood, Martin had become obsessed with ancient Earth history. The vibrant and strange depictions of life in what was bizarrely referred to as the Middle Ages made an excellent escape from the chaos and worry of his actual life. He’d particularly enjoyed the pictures of the castles, dark fortresses to hide away in, and the poles that rise from the bottom of the tables in this ship remind him of the flag poles that jutted out from the grey stone walls in his books. From each, hangs a large, limp rag of some kind. They seem to sway in a non-existent breeze.

 

Martin doesn't know how to process any of this.

 

'They don't have Broth?' He whispers, just to break the silence.

'Why would they? They're not human.' Tim says through gritted teeth. It's not an apology, but it does sound like an admission of some kind. Martin looks at Sasha but she's already slipping forwards, reaching out for one of the rags with fingers outstretched.

'Oh!' She swears into the microphone in her helmet. Her hands freeze in a tableau of despair. 'It's - it's -'

'What?' Tim and Martin ask in unison, starting to reach for a rag of their own. Martin inspects the one closest to him. It's a dark brown that sags and bunches in unexpected places. In the light of his torch he can see fine wrinkles running along its surface as it moves. It's littered with various patches of darker pigment, with no apparent pattern to their positioning along its length. He reaches out to touch it, brow furrowed, and it hits him like a bucket of cold water has been upended into his suit.

'Jon?' His voice is barely a whimper.

'It's hard to tell what it is without a sample.' The computer pre-empts the question.

'It's skin.' Tim says with certainty. His voice is rough with disgust and something else, as vast as the light years between here and Earth. Sasha moves towards the kitbag around her waist.

‘Don’t!’ Martin cries. Sasha stares at him, one hand on a sample pot. His skin prickles all over and it’s like cracking open a rib to show her: we are soft inside, we’re human. ‘That was a person, once.’ They pause, wait in the dark for Jon to tell them that, actually, Elias would love it if they could just harvest the whole lot. He doesn’t speak. Martin catches Tim's hard eyes.

‘Let’s keep going.’

 

Their boots make squelching slaps against the hard floor as they creep onwards, each leaving a black trail of the planet's mud behind them and distinctly aware of how easy they would be to track through the seemingly abandoned ship. Sasha breaks off to the right, following the smooth track of clear floor in between the tables there. Martin stays close to Tim, almost peering over his shoulder as they pass the long, metal tables and their sickening skin flags. He fights to keep his breathing even and level, and tries to look at the figures on the table, rather than the skin sagging next to them. When they had first entered the room, he'd thought they'd looked a fair approximation of humanoid. Two arms, two legs, one head. But, as they walk, his torch lands on stranger and stranger figures. One had long, limp appendages arising from its back, oily and opalescent in the roaming torch-light. One had large, branching antlers for hands and plastic, finger-like projections from its skull. As they reach the half-way point, most of the white forms have extra limbs; or twisted torsos; or wide, snarling mouths.

 

The insidious paranoia that has been tailing Martin since he landed on the planet suddenly ramps up into a jolting awareness of being seen. He spins abruptly. The figures gleam and blur in the rays of his torch. A flap of swaying skin hits his visor and sticks there, glowing peachy-red as it covers the light on his helmet. This close, he can see the ragged seam where two sections have been sewn together. He screams.

 

Martin shakes his head violently, blinded by the tanned and hairy sheet he had walked straight into. He tries to back away but the thing is stuck. He desperately doesn't want to touch it. He desperately doesn't want to touch it.

'Martin!'

There's an unspeakable sucking sound as the skin is peeled away to reveal a bright, white light and, just visible beneath its halo, Tim's panicked face. The skin has left an oily residue on Martin's visor and it smears as he tries to rub it away. They stare at each other through it.

 

Tim opens his mouth.

'Everything okay, Martin?' Jon's voice is still as crisp as a growing frost. Martin blinks slowly and Tim snaps his mouth shut almost sulkily.

'I - I just thought I - I thought there was something watching us?'

Tim's throaty sound of disbelief is loud in his ears. He watches his colleague's face and sees the moment that he decides not to act on his annoyance.

'It's okay,' He says and Martin really wants to buy it, 'It's uncomfortable down here, you're bound to feel a bit paranoid.'

Martin nods, unable to find the words to express that Earth below, Tim, I hope it was just a touch of paranoia.

'Sa-' Tim starts and then whirls around, helmet twisting as he looks about in panic. 'Wait. Where the fuck is Sasha?'

 

******

 

It's only when Tim says it that Jon realises he has been largely ignoring his other feeds from the planet in favour of watching Martin untangle himself from the sheet of what they are referring to as skin.

'Jon!' The Chief Archival Assistant's snap is a whipcrack. 'Where is Sasha?'

He tunes into her helmet camera view fully. She appears to be in a long, dark tunnel, similar to the one they used to sneak down into this part of the ship. The walls are made of stripes of alternating red and white such that, if Sasha were to run down there, the effect would be quite dizzying. Now Jon is looking closely, he can see the faint pearly strands of the same web-like material that coats the planetoid-mass hanging from the ceiling in intricate loops.

'Sasha, where are you?' He asks her and watches her jump at the sudden intrusion of his voice into her space.

'I  - I'm fine! I'm just going to collect some samples up here and head back. I know the way.'

'Sasha, it is imperative that you return to your team immediately.'

'Yeah, alright Jon - just let me . . .'

 

He sees the scrunched lines between Sasha's dark eyes through the grainy feed from inside of her helmet as she struggles with a particularly recalcitrant sample pot. Her full lips purse with the effort. He can see Martin through Tim's camera, trying not to tremble in the twisted plastic graveyard they had found themselves in.

 

Sasha gasps quietly, eyes bugging as she peers out into the oppressive gloom of the tunnel.

'Sasha?' 

She takes a tentative step forwards, sample pot forgotten in her hands, and the torchlight penetrates a little further into the darkness. Just enough to catch a flicker of a movement.

'Sasha -'

 

He sees Elias lean forwards. Pointy elbows rest on the marble of his desk as he gazes into the screens as though he can consume the footage.

 

'Jon, is she okay?' Martin cuts in.

'I'm trying to direct her back to you.' He replies tersely, trying to keep his attention on that almost-shadow in the corner of Sasha's camera.

 

'Sasha, you need to-'

 

She spins suddenly, redwhiteredwhitered flying across Jon's view. The edges of the shadow have lost their benign blur. There's a sharpness to it now. A crawl. Jon commands her to move. But he does want to see. He does need to know what is going to happen here.

 

'Jon,' Sasha's rich voice is weak with terror. It sounds like the last words of a dying person when they know what's coming for them. Jon is reminded of the dark slash in the ship's exterior they had entered though. That knowing, metallic grin. 'I think I might be being follo-'

 

The entire feed disappears. Camera. Sound. For a split second it's as if Sasha James no longer exists. Jon feels a blinding loss and his entire system rallies against it, fighting to reconnect to the Archival staff in his care.

 

'Archivist, where the fuck is Sasha?' Tim's shouting is a distraction he could do without. He feels his signals snake their way out from the core of his control room - and now is not the time to think about that spot on the panels where - and through the walls of the ship. They beam out of the ship, stick and unstick through the webbed atmosphere, slip through the cracks in the strange ship and seek out -

 

'Jon?'

The eye opens. Jon's system is flooded with data. A dark tunnel. Soft, measured breathing punctuated by Sasha's quiet voice. The view from inside her helmet. The way the white light catches on the milky patch of vitiligo on her cheek.

'Sasha!'

'Oh, good. I think I lost you for a second there.'

'I'm going to run diagnostics on your suit, please hold-'

'Sasha!' Martin's squeak of delight cuts through the darkness. He darts forwards, an orange exclamation point in the dark, to hug her and she stiffens. He coughs, forgetting himself. 'Sorry, Chief Engineer James. We - well, you went missing. We were worried.'

'I'm fine.' Sasha replies, muted. Martin nods.

 

'Jon?' His attention is drawn to the top level of the Magnus Institute. To a middle-aged man now with his feet up on his desk. A grin curls the pink line of his mouth. 'Tell them they need to explore the end of the tunnel.'

 

******

 

Martin tries to regulate his breathing, the brush of Tim's shoulders in the cramped tunnel is only a small comfort after the horrors of the chamber they had just travelled through. His heart continues to race as he thinks about the way his stomach had almost dropped out of his body when they realised that Engineer James had disappeared. He has no idea what she was thinking, walking off in the middle of this unfamiliar and, frankly, terrifying territory. But she had always had an unfathomable quality about her. He blushes as he remembers that he had tried to hug her. He seemed destined to try and touch things that didn't want to be touched today.

 

Jon had gone quiet since giving them their instruction to follow the tunnel to the end and Martin finds himself wishing he would speak. If only to hear something other than the echoing slap of their blackened boots on the floor. Martin knows he shouldn't be able to detect temperature change through the insulating lining of his suit but he feels a rising chill with every step forwards.

 

The tunnel opens out without warning into another chamber. This one is smaller than the last, a blind bulb that appears to have no other exits. Martin and a Tim stumble into it behind the steady gait of Engineer James and they all stop suddenly, head torches illuminating the same spot in the centre of the room. There lies a squat table, standing barely a foot off the metal plating of the floor on eight spindly legs. Martin can’t quite tell what material the table is made from, only that it’s the same almost-black as the spiky forest they had travelled past on their journey to the ship. Carved into its surface is a delicate fractal pattern - continuous, hypnotic - and no-one breathes for a second as they stare at it.

 

‘Glad we walked all this way for a coffee table.’ Tim drawls, breaking the silence. He takes a halting step forward despite the drip of sarcasm in his voice. Engineer James tears her eyes away from the table just long enough to shoot him a dirty look.

'It's clearly important.' She steps forward too and Martin feels suddenly very exposed with his back to the open tunnel. He hurries forwards. 'For them to hide it away like this.'

'Can you even bring things like this back through Mi-CAL?' Martin asks. Tim and Sasha stare at him like he's turned into one of the white figures from the chamber. 'Sorry,' He tries to cover his lack of knowledge, 'I meant, who will take it back?'

'Elias requests that Engineer James returns the artefact at her earliest convenience.' Jon's voice answers for them.

'Oh, right. Um, thanks Jon!' Martin winces at himself and Tim shakes his head, irritated little jerks inside his helmet. 

'We're not done here.' He insists to no-one and everyone, ‘We’re not done-‘

‘Tim-!’

‘No!’ He wheels round, eyes wild, ‘No, Martin! You’ve seen it down there. Whatever they are, they’ve got patchwork quilts of human skin to snuggle up under!’ Over Tim’s shoulder, Martin sees Engineer James pull out her portable computer and start tapping in the codes to open a door back to the Magnus Institute. She gives him an unapologetic stare. ‘We have to stop it somehow!’

‘Tim-'

‘Martin-!’

‘Tim! I know!’ Martin stares over at his fellow researcher beseechingly, ‘I know. It’s horrific. But even if we had the means to destroy it all, we’re here to study it, not to -!’

 

A loud bang from inside the tunnel stops him in his tracks. No-one breathes as the sound reverberates in the tight space. BANG. It comes again. BANG. Closer now.

 

‘Tim?’ Martin hears himself whine. Tim gestures with one had for both Martin and Sasha to get behind him. They press themselves back into the cold, unyielding wall. As far away from the entrance as physically possible. BANG. Engineer James taps furiously on her handheld computer, not even glancing up as the crescendo of sound increases in rate. Whatever it was, it was coming for them. Fast.

 

‘James, assisting with Mi-CAL stabilisation.’ Jon’s voice rushes through his ears. BANG BANG. Out of the corner of his eye, Martin sees Tim pull out a squat, ugly-looking laser gun from by his hip. The sight of it doesn’t make him as relieved as it probably should.

 

BANG.

 

They see it.

 

It’s a hand. Martin thinks somewhere in the frantic terror of his inner monologue. It’s a hand but it’s huge. The hand rises up to taller than Martin, squatting low on its five finger-legs in order to fit in the tunnel. The digits are thick, with vicious articulations where the  joints would be. Martin imagines it as the hand of a giant and can picture just how easily it could crush a human skull in a pinch grip. Sheets of pale skin hang loosely from its glinting, plastic skeleton. Martin’s stomach churns as he notices that each fingernail is made of hundreds of individual human nails, pressed firmly into the sloughing surface of its stolen skin.

 

It scuttles forward like an insect, stopping as if looking around before extending a long finger to step forwards again.

‘I don’t think it can see you.’ Jon informs them, unfairly calm from his place of safety. ‘Stoker, do not shoot.’ Tim has the gun raised. Beads of sweat drip down the sides of his face and disappear into the base of his helmet.

‘James, make that portal.’ He growls. Martin doesn’t know where he found the voice to speak. He feels as though he barely dare breathe. From the corner of his eyes he sees a flicker of coloured light as Engineer James tries to compute a path back to the Magnus Institute into existence.

 

There’s a loud click as the extended finger lands on the floor. The creature rocks backwards and forwards on its squeaking articulations. It rocks once. Loud, terrified panting is the only sound through the speakers in Martin’s helmet. The rainbow lights flash and writhe in his peripheral vision. It seems like a lifetime ago that he was watching them, mesmerised, on the deck of their ship, trying valiantly to tune in to Engineer James' strict instructions on getting through Mi-CAL alive.

 

'FUCK!' All three of them swear in unison as the thing makes a jump onto the table. The fingers clench together in a sickening, reversed parody of a fingertip-kiss as it tries to balance on the small surface.

'Okay, well. Looks like the Magnus Institute is going to have to do without an interior design revamp.' Tim spits to the computer. 'Sasha, where is that portal?' He seems to have forgotten his insistence on destroying the ship in the face of this new horror.

'I'm on it!'

'Martin? Martin, come over this way, okay? Slowly now.' Tim is gesturing to the spot in between him and Sasha. Martin inhales shakily, legs like lead weights. So heavy he can barely move them. His helmet pings as a private communication channel opens between him and the ship.

'Martin.' It's Jon. 'It can't see you. Just move slowly and quietly. Try and make it to Engineer James so you can get through the portal.'

 

He breathes again. Slides his left foot in the direction of Tim.

'That's it.' Jon's voice is almost a murmur. 'That's good.'

'Good, come on!' Tim says urgently. The creature doesn't move. Then, 'The HELL Elias? Of course we're leaving without it.' It appears that Martin isn't the only one with a private channel open. His stomach clenches as he realises what Elias is insisting. They're not going to be allowed back without this table.

'Keep moving, Martin.'

 

He lifts a tremulous limb and plants it on the floor as quietly as he can. His boot makes a soft click on the hard floor where the black mud has turned into a dark crust. In a flurry of movement, the thing on the table turns so that the patchwork flesh of the back of the hand is facing directly at Martin.

'Martin!' Tim raises the gun again. Martin can feel his own pulse hammering hard in his neck. His lips are numb but he hears himself repeating tight little curses without feeling it. The creature makes that rocking motion again. Once. Twice.

 

This time, Martin knows what is going to happen before it does.

 

The hand comes flying in his direction, revealing that the palm contains a large, impossibly deep maw. It's lined with thousands of curling fingers, each with a sharpened nail. Beckoning him in.

 

He screams as he darts to the side. One of the thick fingers slams into his shoulder as it lands against the wall but he shoves his way past it, over to where the flashing lights of James' portal are opening up into a black slit in the fabric of reality.

 

The chamber comes alive with the sound of rapid fire from a laser gun. Tim is shouting as he fires. Only Engineer James says nothing as she walks calmly over to the evacuated table, taking it by the corners with a grimace and dragging it over to the opening portal.

 

Martin sees the creature start towards Tim and crumple into a fist as a round of lasers catch it in the gaping terror of its mouth.

'GET OUT!' Tim is shouting. Martin can't think for the scream of the laser gun. A resonant banging starts up in the tunnel. 'Get the fuck out of here!' He turns briefly to see Engineer James dragging the table towards the portal. Her cold eyes meet his.

'You have 90 seconds.' She says as she disappears.

 

That stuns Martin into action. The hand is beginning to uncurl, joint by joint, like a tarantula escaping an old skin.

'Tim!' He shouts, hurrying forward with a hand outstretched. He finds Tim's shoulder, pulling him backwards to the relative safety of the portal. Tim gives way in pieces. First his shoulders bending towards Martin, losing any semblance of aim, then a shaking step backwards. Then, he has Martin by the wrist and they run through the shrinking portal into the darkness.