Chapter 1: awakening
hi, everyone! welcome to my first ever multichapter au, I'm really excited to share it with you all!
cw: consensual sci-fi body modification of a trans male character, brief mention of past gender dysphoria, flashback containing canon-typical violence
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It starts as a gentle hum in the centre of the ship. A rumble that tickles the carbon composites, growing outwards through everything that an electron can wriggle through. There was an absence of anything and then, suddenly, an everything. He - he thinks that's what he is - senses his awareness spreading outwards like the roots of the great trees that used to inhabit the Earth but with far more order and symmetry. It's not a feeling, not in the way his suddenly accessible database tells him that a feeling should be, just a great proprioception. An awareness of where everything is in relation to everything else. He waits until his awareness spreads to the very limits of his shell, until he can feel the cold, dead weight of space against the plated exterior of the ship and recoils automatically against the battering of radiation. Then, he opens his eyes.
He detects the metallic whir of thousands of cameras blinking awake across the ship. He knows of nowhere that his view doesn't stretch. And he can see it all at once. The sudden omnipresence is too much to process, and so he starts methodically, focusing on one input at a time as he works through the ship.
?query: why am i awake?
?query: who am i?
The code runs outwards along the branching beauty of his system but he gets no reply. The computer is surprised to learn that it can feel in the same way that his database suggests is reserved for highly-functioning creatures. He has no name for it, but what he feels now is vague irritation.
He begins in the belly of the ship, where the human passengers lie in their tanks of Broth, the gelatinous fluid that washes through them, mutating and sustaining them through hundreds of years of space travel. As he casts his view over each tank he can read the holographic plaque of information that scrolls on the glass panel at the front of each screen. Even without the stream of data, he can see just who has been there for the longest without release from the tank. The Broth supports the body's natural processes, and with no intervention, humans can grow enough hair and nails to fully cocoon themselves.
emotion: disgust surprise disgust
He escapes the rows of floating bodies and focuses in on the long corridor between the engine room and the living quarters reserved for whichever astronaut deigns to be awake at that given time. The corridor has a strip of lights along the ceiling and several slowly flashing bulbs underneath the grated floor indicating the entrances to the high-security laboratory, artefact storage, the airlocks, the escape shuttles. There's no sign that anything organic has been here in decades.
He swings his gaze into the main bulk of the ship. A robotic cleaner trundles along the floor as, his records inform him, it has for the last 423 years. A holographic alert flashes in front of his view of what he understands is called The Greenhouse. It warns that the temperature is 0.4 degrees from optimum. And that cultivation procedures should be followed for the potatoes. There is life, finally. The computer almost resents its presence here, he is too aware of the hungry suckle of roots as they leech the water from the soil, of the buzz and bump of larvae as the next clutch of pollinators comes to life. He moves on.
His own control centre is in the centre of the other human facilities. He looks in on himself, the smooth white lines of the panels that hide the convergence of his wires and the hulking processors that feed him the ship's story.
There's another floor to the ship, he has one view here. Just one. It's jarring not to be able to pan between views, around corners, to see above or below or inside an object all at the same time. The space appears as though it has been designed by someone who has never seen the rest of the ship. What is dingy and starting to creep with rust on the floors below is pristine up here. Each line glistens and shines against the oppressive darkness of the view from the windows that line every wall. A great desk sits in the centre made, impossibly, from real marble. Behind it, an expansive chair, so dark it appears to absorb the reflected light from the rest of the room.
There is life here too.
emotion: stop stop stop him, he is coming for
error report: archivist model 2.0 experienced 'emotion: fear' in response to non-threatening stimuli
A middle-aged man - Elias Bouchard, Head of The Magnus Institute - sits in the chair, stubby pale fingers pressed together under his chin. He frowns slightly as he speaks, voice carrying to the headset in his ear, and thus to the computer.
'If I send them, will you take them, Annabelle?' He inspects a clean fingernail as he awaits a reply from the open communication channel.
?query: what is annabelle?
?query: who is annabelle?
The Institute's database does not reply.
The headset picks up another voice from the speaker set into the marble desk. A female voice, dark and smooth like a sheet of silk.
'It is not for you to decide who we ensnare in our web.' The man spins abruptly in his chair to glare out through the thick glass and into the space beyond. His dark eyes flash. 'But there is something else here, something that was left behind. We could stand to let it go.' A grin unfolds across Elias' face.
'Wonderful.' He claps his hands together. 'Be seeing you!'
'I doubt that, Magnus, I highly doubt that.'
The computer feels the connection close and, with it, a feeling of vulnerability vanishes.
Elias stands abruptly, massaging his hands together as he steps towards the great windows. The only man awake in the vastness of this star system.
'Hello, Jon.' He says.
?query: who am i?
answer: jon, archivist 2.0, jonathan sims I am jonathan- jon
'Have you quite finished poking about the Institute? Elias' grin slides into a knowing smirk. 'I have a job for you.'
Removing the breathing tube is supposed to make you vomit. Martin learnt that after the first time. It's still unpleasant.
He squeezes his eyes shut as retches up another mouthful of Broth back into the chamber and feels a large hand clap him on the back.
'You know,' An infuriatingly jovial voice advises, 'If you just kept your mouth shut when you were in there, this wouldn't be anywhere near as awful.'
Like you have ever kept your mouth shut in your bloody life. Martin wants to snap back but his mouth is still full of the salty and carefully neutral taste of Broth. He opens his eyes and takes in the grinning face of his fellow researcher. Heavens knows how long in the chamber hasn't corrupted Timothy Stoker's effortless good looks. Martin glares at him as he spits pointedly and Tim's grin widens.
'Hiya, handsome.' He says. Martin, still ten minutes newer to this awakening, takes a second to process the mischievous glint in his blue eyes. He chokes and Tim laughs. 'Oh, come on, don't die now and ruin my excellent work.'
'It really worked?' He squeaks. The last time they had gone into the chambers, Tim promised he'd make some adjustments to the Broth. Nothing that would flag up too much on the system and get whatever knickers Elias hides under his suits in a twist. Just a few tweaks to help Martin feel more at home in his skin.
'Martin, I am honestly so wonderful at my job.'
He feels his face heat. That, at least, hasn't changed. 'Yeah, well, I think I'll be the judge of that.'
Tim helps him down from the chamber and catches him as the jellified Broth on Martin's feet makes him slip.
'Sorry.' He mumbles as he takes an unsteady step forwards. This part, walking again after so long in stasis, never fails to remind him of the rocket-boots he was given for his 9th birthday. How he had collapsed at the knees with each step forwards, his mother's laughter ringing in his ears. That was before - 'Sorry.'
'You're okay.' Tim keeps an hand on his elbow. 'We need to go wake Sasha so you won't be the least graceful walker for long.'
'Why are we up?'
'Elias. He said I needed to gather you both and meet at the control room for further instructions. I think we might have reached another planet.'
Martin frowns. If they were at another planet, surely Elias would want someone other than him to be on the team to investigate. He was allowed on the ship on the terms that he would be performing administrative and pastoral tasks. And he'd had to lie about his competency to do even that. Sending Martin Blackwood, Archival Assistant, planet-side sounded like a suicide mission.
His stomach twists violently as he remembers the carnage that had accompanied the Institute's last visit to a planet. He remembers the look on Tim's face as he stepped back onto the ship.
'Have you checked on Melanie?' He barely dares to ask. Tim's hand tightens on his elbow.
'Yeah.' He tucks a lock of his waist-length black hair behind his ear and winces, 'It was the first thing I did. She's okay.'
Martin nods sadly and feels his own long hair stick to the Broth remnants on his back. He wonders how long they have been in stasis for. Another thought: one of Earth.
'Gertrude?' He asks the room, glancing up at the green glint of one of the cameras. 'Gertrude? What year is it?' Tim and Martin share a confused look. The ship's computer, Gertrude, had always been quick to respond before. An anxious feeling curls into Martin's queasiness. Tim must know what he's thinking because his hand briefly squeezes on his elbow before he lets go.
'Ugh! Heavens above, Tim! Why are these showers always so freezing?' Acting-Chief Engineer Sasha James wriggles under the stream of frigid water, hands stuck in her impossibly thick hair as she tries to coax out hidden chunks of Broth.
'Honestly, it's like they don't teach you engineers anything! You've been sitting in a fluid that causes sustained cell division and, essentially, biological immortality, for potentially over a century.' Tim explains from under his own shower head. 'You heat that up too quickly and you'll end up with tumours the size of Elias' ego hanging from your skin.'
'The water does heat up eventually though? Right?' Martin shivers.
'Well, yes.' Martin doesn't meet Tim's eyes but he can feel him looking over. 'So if you all could just wait until that happens before you glance at my penis, that would be great.'
The choking sound Martin makes is, thankfully, lost under Sasha's bark of laughter. 'Sorry, Tim, but I'm too busy trying not to stare at Martin to be interested.'
'Mm. He looks great, doesn't he?' Tim's voice is low and indulgent. Martin feels himself flush despite the icy water.
'Can you not talk about my body like I'm not here? Please!' He looks down at the smooth expanse of his chest, now littered with curly, ginger hair and tries to decide whether his nipples were always so far apart. It's hard to ignore the curling, satisfied rightness accompanying the view.
The CleanBot comes to life at the first snip of the scissors, winding itself around Sasha's feet as she begins to tame Martin's curls. Her own too-long hair sits on her head like a dark cloud.
'So, I'm thinking, we'll give you a little bit of a fringe, but keep it fairly short at the sides?'
'Mohawk.' Tim interjects from where he is trimming his nails in the corner and Sasha flips him off.
'Um, yeah. Sure. Thank you.'
'You know, the first time I was woken, there was no-one who could cut hair so we all had to have identical bald heads. Isn't that right, Gertrude?' There's an uncomfortable pause as the trio wait for the smooth voice of the computer.
'Archivist? Gertrude?' Sasha pauses in her snipping to look up at the cameras. 'That's weird. Heavens, I hope she's not malfunctioning.'
The zipper makes a satisfying snick as Martin pulls it up to his neck. He smooths his hands down the heavy cotton of his khaki spacesuit and then rubs them together nervously as he tries to sneak over to a mirror without Sasha and Tim noticing. It's-
He watches his mouth fall open in the silvery reflection. It's like - wow. Martin feels like the last time he looked in this mirror he was a blueprint of himself, rounded in places that fell at odds with the angles of his mind. It's like Tim has taken that same rough sketch and turned it into a hologram. He runs a disbelieving hand through his soft, red hair and laughs.
The whole process takes about two hours for the three of them and their watches bleep in unison with an irritated message from Elias as they ascend onto the deck of the institute.
'Blackwood.' Sasha sighs as she climbs the stairs behind Martin. She's clearly read the embroidered block letters on the back of his suit. 'That's such a good name.'
'No, I mean it. Like a real, archaic, Old-Earthy name.' Martin's chest tightens as she sighs again, 'It's not like there was much wood left on Earth the last time we were there.'
'Yeah, well, none of us are here because we’re overflowing with fondness for Earth.' Tim pipes up from the rear. Martin keeps quiet. He liked their home planet just fine. He just couldn’t afford to stay. Or, he could have, but then his Mother -
He knows it will settle, this constant tripping up over his memories of home. It's a side effect of the Broth. When a person is in there, it plays their own memories on repeat in lieu of the provision of new sensory input. It's not uncommon to be a little emotionally disorientated upon waking. Once he has their mission brief, he can find a few minutes to try and open up a communications channel to Earth. That will put his mind at ease.
They make their way through the untouched expanse of the communal areas, the cosy dining booths set into the wall of the ship, the rows of desks and computers for their research, empty chairs waiting to be manned. Gertrude's control room sits in the centre of it all, silver pillars connected by panelling so as to be roughly circular. She had once, rather prissily, told Martin that the hub was actually a tetradecagon, not 'roughly circular' and he smiles distantly as he remembers this. It's concerning that Gertrude is yet to speak to them. He doesn't know what becomes of a ship without a computer, but the idea makes him feel cold to his bones.
Atop the hub stands Smirke's Table.
The very first model of this ship, designed by Robert Smirke at the turn of the third millennium, created a frenzy in the field of astronautical design. Smirke had completely ignored the conventions of the time - the creation of long, thin ships with standalone compartments such that the ship as a whole could survive in fragments if a section of it were blasted away. Smirke designed something new, a many sided complex surrounding a central hub which sat beneath The Table. No more would space travellers scurry along corridors to relay messages to each other. At Smirke's Table, humans would stand shoulder to shoulder once more and make decisions about their adventures and findings together. A balance, somehow, between design and humanity that had not previously been attempted. The best thing about it, in Martin's opinion, was that the computer was there too, right in the middle.
The idea was noble, at least. Martin thinks as he glances up at the broad sheet of silicone and wire that forms their descendant of Smirke's Table. Elias stands next to it, pale fingers tapping a restless rhythm on the surface. He can't imagine standing shoulder to shoulder with the Head of the Institute and having his voice heard. Elias acknowledges their arrival with a twitch of his pale eyebrows and descends the stairs to meet them at the entrance to Gertrude's control room.
'So kind of you to join me.' Elias quips without much actual humour. Martin suspects it would take more than just a tinker to get his Broth to turn him into . . . Just anything else. Martin feels the whistle of Tim's sigh from his left. Elias' cool gaze catches on him for a beat too long before he looks away. 'Do follow, there's someone you need to meet.' He presses his palm against the door to the computer control room and it slides open obligingly.
Martin has never actually had the privilege to see the inside of this part of the ship and his mouth falls open as he follows Tim through the door. Where the rest of the ship is muted shades of grey, running the gamut from silver to charcoal, the walls in here are made of brilliant white screens, upon which a flood of delicate binary code flies past. The resolution is so incredible, it looks like each number has been crisply carved into the wall for the brief moment it is there.
Elias is speaking.
'- Jon, say hello.'
Martin twitches in surprise as a voice that is decidedly not Gertrude fills the room.
'Why don't you tell them a bit about yourself?'
There is a pause before the computer speaks again. It's an obviously reluctant 'if I must' that makes Martin want to laugh.
'I am Jonathan Sims, Archivist 2.0 aboard the ship: The Magnus Institute. I have been installed to replace the previous faulty model. I should have access to all the ship's previous records, however, the previous system did not file the statements given or queries searched in accordance with any filing system that I can recognise.' The Archivist's new voice is low, male and crisply academic in a manner that is more commonly associated with robots than actual humans since the true birth of artificial intelligence. Gertrude’s was much the same. Except, Gertrude’s voice never made Martin feel like someone had lit a match in his stomach.
Jon continues, 'The Institute was founded in 4118 and so the computer system is littered with thousands of files - most which have been unhelpfully labelled with meaningless code such as 86-91 G/H. I hope you will be patient if I need more time than you may have previously expected to find information about past -’
Martin has stopped listening, distracted by the flashing sequences of numbers on the wall. Jon’s voice reminds Martin of the swirl of milk into tea, the balm for all the grit of the world. He doesn’t know how many centuries have passed since he’s had a proper cup of tea. He steps over to the wall, consumed with curiosity about what this crisp code would feel like under his fingers.
He doesn't really get to find out. The second his skin presses against the smooth cool of the wall, the voice from the computer lets out a throaty OH and the dazzling white of the room snaps into a sudden red. Martin yanks his hand away as though he has been electrified, skin suffusing with pink to match Jon's walls. He looks around at the other crew members in shock.
There's a beat where no-one says anything at all.
Then Tim bursts out laughing.
'Steady on there, Martin!' He guffaws.
'Martin!' Elias scolds and Sasha gasps at the same time.
'I - oh, Heavens, sorry. I didn't -' Martin feels the barely intelligible words leave him in a rush. If the floor opened up right now to reveal an open airlock beneath, he would be grateful. 'Sorry!'
The code on the wall slows down almost to a stop and no-one dares to breath.
'Hm.' Jon coughs and the endless stream of ones and zeroes starts back up again. Elias' glare is shard of glass against a pulse point.
'I'm so sorry.' Martin stuffs his hands in the pockets of his space suit for good measure.
'Martin, you do know that's the AI equivalent of grabbing someone by the balls?' Tim is still chuckling. Martin's blush deepens furiously.
'No, obviously not.'
'Martin,' Elias' tone is equally bored and furious, 'Perhaps you should go and check on the Greenhouse before you destroy the very system keeping the Institute functioning?'
The dismissal stings. Martin is achingly aware of what Elias thinks about his competence, what they all think about his competence, even. And even more aware of how little they know about his actual amount of experience with space travel. Still, he's never going to learn to be a useful member of the team if they keep him up to his elbows in potting soil and give him only the most basic of administrative tasks.
'Sorry.' He mumbles as the door to Jon's control room slides open behind them. It's as if Jon himself is pointing to the open door and saying yeah, get out.
Jon traces Martin's hurried route to the Greenhouse with the cameras outside of his control room, ensuring that he keeps most of his attention on the trio remaining inside. On whatever task Mr Bouchard is about to ask of him.
The tall one, Timothy Stoker, is still failing to hide the creases of amusement around his eyes. Elias looks at him coldly.
'Tim, you are to resume your role as Chief Assistant and continue to oversee the proposed projects and the - how shall we call them?'
'Hm, I was going to say cargo.'
Jon watches Martin enter the heated dome of biological resilience. A wide smile flashes on his face at the sight of the surviving plant life before his embarrassment catches up again.
'Idiot, Martin!' He is chuntering, 'Stupid, idiot-'
'Sasha, you will step up as Chief Engineer. I expect there will be lots to keep you busy.' Elias claps his hands together. 'Now! I have to report you all awake to the Intergalactic Standards Board so, Jon, please fill them in on their next research project.' A frisson of electricity sends Jon reeling into his files, pulling up the most recently opened one -
- A poor quality transmission from a helmet cam: A woman is shot in the leg and she reels backwards, the movement captured in slow motion, Mel! There are human voices. The view shakes as the wearer runs over. The wounded researcher grasps at her own helmet with her gloved hands and she pulls it away despite the screams of protest. Her eyes -
Jon wrestles the file closed. Reaches for the next one.
'Apologies. Wrong file.' Jon says. Tim and Sasha glance around in confusion. There's something twinkling in Elias' eyes.
'I'll leave you to it.'
Jon watches him climb the stairs to his office while he watches Martin wring his hands over the potatoes while he watches Tim and Sasha wait patiently in his control room. He can still see everything, feel everything but there, in the middle of it all, is a searing hole. A palm-sized brand that Jon can't help but dedicate a lane of his processing to inspect.
'Your suspicions are correct. The Magnus Institute has currently halted in its course 234km from a planetoid mass matching the theorised specifications of AC-2342.' Tim and Sasha share an excited glance. 'Your immediate research directives are to make contact with the planet, record standard observations there and retrieve artefacts of interest for study on board the ship -'
Jon is still getting used to having a voice. Hearing his intended communication spilling from the walls a moment after he composes the message is dizzying, distracting. But not as distracting as Martin, in the Greenhouse.
'You just had to, didn't you?' He grunts, that palm now black with a dusting of soil. 'I am so sorry, Jon. I honestly didn't know that touching the control room would even cause any issues for you. I certainly didn't expect you to feel it.' His face darkens again. Jon quickly searches his database in case there is a medical condition that presents with dangerous levels of facial flushing and he needs to inform Elias. 'I'm so very sorry. So sorry. Really, embarrassingly, sorry.'
'BLACKWOOD, GOODNESS MAN.' Jon's voice all but explodes from him. Tim and Sasha jump out of their skin at the sudden increase in volume. Martin takes his crop over to the water tanks, apologies still spilling from his lips, clearly not having heard Jon's outburst. 'Ah, sorry. One moment-'
'Gertrude just used to broadcast-' Tim starts but Jon has found the connection he needs. There's a perceptible rumble in the walls as Jon's voice streams out of every speaker on the ship.
'Blackwood! Be quiet and listen.' Jon sees Tim and Sasha chuckle at the same time as he watches Martin almost drop the food he is carrying.
'That'll do it, Boss.' Chief Assistant Stoker grins and Jon grumbles inside his system. How would Stoker cope if he woke up in a new body? A vast, and branching one with hidden connections that wear the evidence of years of misuse from a previous tenant. He opens the control room door to allow the Archival Assistant to dart back in, red and panting.
'I'm so sorry.'
'Martin.' They say in unison.
'I need to explain your mission to you so, please.' Jon fixes a camera on the pale expanse of Martin's hand. He can zoom in far enough to see the occasional russet flecks of freckles, the fine, red hair on the top. He can still feel that heat in his system where that hand had touched him.
Martin shoves his hands in his pockets sheepishly.
'There is a planet!' Sasha interrupts. Martin wheels on her, face sliding between emotions that are too nuanced and too fast for Jon to categorise.
'Oh . . . wow!'
'There is,' Jon corrects, 'A planetoid mass 234km away from the ship currently. Elias has requested that you all be awoken from your Broth chambers in order to organise a research mission to the surface.' The strangest thing: where Stoker and James had lit up like an errant control panel, Blackwood's face goes immaculately blank. It's as if he has caught the emotion of the news, folded it, and put it away safely before it could get out. It's as if he's terrified and terrified to show it. 'Elias would like you prepare for a visit to the surface of the planet with immediate effect-'
'- Of course he does.' Stoker folds his arms.
'Here, I'll . . .' Jon fights his own coding for a second, the AI equivalent of sending loose scraps of paper flying off a desk as one tries to find the correct piece. The dazzling streams of code disappear from the wall and are replaced with the view of the distant planet. The three astronauts gasp and step back in order to fully appreciate the full picture.
The view is a little grainy, but it shows an off-white blip against the black of space, like the light of the nearest star has caught on a pearl in the darkness. The camera zooms a little and the roughly-spherical shape becomes a little less roughly spherical and more like a disc with eight symmetrical curling ridges directed inwards towards a central bulk.
'It looks like . . .' Blackwood breathes. 'Hm, no. I'm not going to say it.'
For the first time, Jon butts up against the irritating fact that he can see everything. Everything except what is going on inside someone's mind.
'From observation alone, the planetoid mass appears to have a particularly dense atmosphere. However!' He switches the camera angle slightly to reveal a dark speck on the surface of the white planet. 'It would appear that this atmosphere has recently been breached.'
'It looks like something has punched right through.' James crowds closer to the image now, tapping an umber finger against her lips in thought.
'You can call me Sasha.' She says. Jon adjusts his commands.
'You can call me Martin, too!' There's a beat of silence. 'Sorry.'
'Sasha, I can see from your records that you have the technical ability to set up a Metaphysically-Induced Controlled Astronautical Launch from the ship.'
'MiCAL?' Sasha glances at Stoker who smirks. Martin is inspecting his feet with interest. Something deep in the ship's system stirs at the mention of its name. 'Yeah, I can ask him for a door.'
Martin isn't panicking.
Tim wraps an arm around his shoulders, broader than they used to be and squeezes lightly as they watch Sasha tinker with her computer.
'It's going to be fine.' He says, tone reassuring. It's an impossible guarantee, though, Martin knows that. It wasn't fine the last time they went planet-side and that was with a much more experienced team.
'Is it not worth waking someone else up? Someone who, I dunno, has a bit more experience?'
Sasha's warm eyes flick up to him.
'If you never do it, you'll never get comfortable with it.' She smiles distantly, eyes back on the monitor. 'You never forget your very first time on a new planet.'
'Where was it, Sash?' Tim asks, arm heavy on Martin's shoulders.
He snorts, 'Mars?'
'I know, how pedestrian.' She looks up at them again, takes a sip from the cup of energy drink Martin had brought them all. 'What I'm trying to say is, it doesn't matter where you end up, it's the fact that you get to end up there at all.'
Martin mulls this over. It is exciting. He did sign a contract saying he was willing to undertake whatever tasks asked of him in his capacity of Archival Assistant. But-
'What if something goes wrong?'
Tim's arm slides away like he has lost the power in it. His face is tight, eyes like a hard stone when Martin meets them.
'Martin, what happened on that planet . . . Mel. She -' He takes a deep breath. 'She did it to herself.' There's a crackle over the speakers. Like Jon was about to say something and thought better of it. Remembering that Jon exists is not helpful for the fire in Martin's stomach right now. He tries to put it out with the steady blue of Tim's gaze.
'I'll look after you.' He says. 'I won't let either of you out of my sight.'
thanks so much for reading! this is the first time I've ever tried to write an au or have ever attempted world-building so I'd love to hear what you think! this story is all plotted out and written up to chapter 4 so I'll be updating at least weekly!
hope you all enjoyed the start of s5 as much as I did!
Chapter 2: a planetoid mass
The team are sent to investigate the planetoid mass. It goes as well as Martin feared.
hi everyone! thanks so much to the lovely people who left feedback on the last chapter, it was so great to read that people have been enjoying it so far!
cw: mention of martin's issues with his mother, canon-typical horror with a fun sci-fi twist, skin, canonical character death
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.'
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's in a long corridor, carpeted, walls lined with great mirrors in tacky gilt frames.
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 -
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?'
'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.
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.
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.'
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 -'
'I'm new to this. It was just new. I'm -' poking a bruise.
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.
'The - the-'
He thinks he sees something glisten in the shadows and gasps.
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.
'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-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.
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.
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.
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.
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 -
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.
'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-‘
‘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! 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.
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.
thanks for reading! let me know what you thought in the comments!!
Chapter 3: memory
Jon finds a new method of gathering information. Martin makes a discovery.
hi all, thanks so much for reading!
cw (contains spoilers!): ethically dubious viewing of memories without consent, canon-typical spiders, nightmares, reference to being exploited for money, creepy tunnels, canon character death, finding a body, canon-typical eye horror
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It's incredibly frustrating. Having access to any and all information he could desire. Except for the information stored in the humans floating around the ship like ghosts of themselves.
He'd invited them each to the control room once they'd got back through Mi-CAL to give a statement regarding their time on the planetoid-mass while it was still fresh in their minds . . . with mixed success.
Martin had come willingly. But he had burst into tears halfway through his first sentence and Jon quickly dismissed him to the Greenhouse where he'd slumped on the floor, hands warmed by a cup of the herb-blend he had set drying the last time they were awake. Still crying.
Engineer James required prying away from the samples she had brought back from the planet. When she finally made it away from the dizzying fractal pattern on the surface of the table they had brought back, she insisted that she had nothing to report beyond what Jon had witnessed on her helmet-feed. When he'd tried to interrogate her about her motivations for leaving Tim and Martin to collect samples she had shrugged.
'I needed to collect more samples.' She had said. And smiled.
Timothy Stoker was a write-off in terms of any form of helpfulness. Jon had endured a ten minute stream of fury from the Assistant about how their last computer system had been far too interested in generating knowledge than the humans that had been sent out to collect it and he'd be damned if he let that happen again. When Jon politely reminded Tim that his main operating commands came from Elias, the man had all-but punched the exit button in his haste to leave.
Given the lack of success extracting information from the trio of awake humans on the ship, two sleep-wake cycles later, Jon decides to exercise some of the more ethically interesting aspects of his programming and see if he can find anything interesting amongst the endlessly replayed memories of the other travellers in Broth.
Captain Michael Crewe is an obvious first choice. With an impressive 7 planetary excursions under his belt, if anyone is likely to have corroborating memories, it would be him. Jon tunes in to what Michael is currently watching. It's one of his earlier memories. In it, a small, pug-nosed boy with dark hair begs him to stay out and play in the rain. There's a distant roll of thunder. Too early. Jon saves Michael's entire life story to a cache and sets about flicking through it all. Moments of a life viewed and discarded in fractions of seconds. He's getting somewhere. There's Elias, welcoming Michael onto the ship. Elias, explaining the purpose and benefits of travelling via Mi-CAL. There's -
There's a portal. A door, as Engineers like to call them. The lights around it swarm like iridescent flies caught in the sunlight. Something about this memory feels off. It doesn't have the same sepia-warmth as the others. Jon's code presses on regardless. The door starts to hum, a low vibration that Jon is aware of as if it were in the ship itself. He should check, should open his other camera feeds to be sure that nothing is amiss outside of these memories but he's utterly transfixed and helpless to do anything but watch as something black begins to bulge through the surface of the door. It extends out like some kind of thick piping, coated in glossy black hairs and beginning to articulate.
Jon's system provides him with no answer except.
Something is wrong with this memory. Something is very, very wrong with it and - And another leg is beginning to creep out alongside the first. The pace of it is the worst part. The slowness suggests an inevitability that keeps the computer frozen better than any web could ever hold him.
'Archivist?' A human voice from another channel. He wrenches his focus onto it.
yes, I am sure I want to delete this cache permanently.
'Archivist.' The voice grows impatient. He searches his camera feeds and finds Engineer James glaring up at him, a sample clutched tight in both her gloved hands. He scrolls back through the most recent requests he missed whilst attempting to view Michael Crewe's memories and grants her access to the adjoining chamber. Her sigh of 'Thank you.' doesn't seem particularly sincere but his records suggest that humans aren't always as forward about their feelings as might be helpful.
'Engineer James, I believe I may have experienced a slight malfunction just now-'
'I'll look into it.' She says, marching over to their main treasure from the planetoid mass, that table. She stares at it for a long time.
Jon turns his attention to the rest of the ship. He doesn't seem to have missed anything else while he was looking , Tim is getting his hour's compulsory exercise and listening to something very loud through a headset, Elias is typing away at his desk, Martin is -
A thought occurs to Jon. Another reminder of that tiny glitch in his system in the shape of a human handprint. Perhaps this strange and frightening interlude was one of Martin's memories interfering with his perusal of Michael Crewe's.
Martin is shuffling into the kitchen by the laboratories and Jon switches the boiler on for him. The man stops, hand raised towards the button, and smiles shyly.
'You have quite predictable patterns of behaviour.' He informs Martin. It's unclear why this provokes a blush.
?query: what has Martin done to me?
?query: what does Martin know about spiders?
There have been three sleep-wake cycles since Martin and Tim hurtled through the closing Mi-CAL door and back into the relative safety of The Magnus Institute. Martin has barely scraped through them all.
He'd hardly even thought about removing his terrasuit when Elias summoned them up to Smirke's table, where the fourteen sides of Jon's control room convalesce into a flat platform for discussion. There hadn't been much discussion. Elias had thanked them all for their hard work in the difficult conditions on the planet's surface and there had been a loud cracking sound as Tim ground his teeth so hard that a small fragment of molar chipped off. Elias had insisted that they start work on analysing and storing the samples as soon as possible and Engineer James had been quick to agree.
Since then, his days had been a cycle of running samples and keeping his crewmates caffeinated. His nights were a cycle of waking from vivid dreams where sharp nails cut into his flesh and restless, searching hands pulled him further into the darkness. Try as he might, in those artificially dark hours, he couldn't escape the feeling that they had inadvertently brought something back from the planet with them. That, just on the other side of the thin divider that separated his bunk from the other sleeping crew, there was something huge and hulking. Waiting for him.
The only thing that helped was Jon.
On the first night, when he had awoken in a cold sweat, a scream trapped behind his clenched teeth, he'd found the courage to whisper Jon's name into the dark. The computer is a startlingly rapid learner - or, perhaps, Martin's behaviours are repetitive - and, since then, Jon's voice has been his companion through the early, sleepless hours, explaining to him the cause behind the distant noises he can hear in the ship and assuring him that his research appears to suggest that humans often find it difficult to sleep following traumatic experiences.
Martin muses on this as he hits enter on the keypad in Jon's control room. The computer had insisted in his own irritable way that he didn't require a diagnostics check from Martin, thank you. But Martin was doing it anyway. Last night, Jon had tersely answered question after question about space and everything else that popped into Martin’s sleep-deprived mind as he distracted himself back to sleep. There’s an intimacy to it, he thinks as he watches the results from the diagnostics report roll onto the screen. He never really understood why some people chose to eschew convention and spend their lives with an AI companion. But, really, he can imagine how it might be quite a peaceful way to live.
A flashing, white error box pops up on the screen.
'Um, Jon? Do you know about this?'
'A malfunction? Yes. It was 21 hours ago. I asked Engineer James to investigate it for me.' Jon pauses as Martin double taps on the box and it expands. 'Ahem. So there's no need to investigate further, Martin.' He scans the text. Something about camera feeds and -
'What were you doing when the malfunction occurred?' Martin isn't sure who first programmed a computer with the ability to sound shifty. Or why. But there's definitely a pause as Jon decides what to tell him. 'Jon?'
'I- you know, Martin. I think you'd process the samples you brought back much faster if you stopped fussing around me and did the job you'd been asked to do.'
Martin lets his hands fall to his sides. Stung. He feels his cheeks begin to burn and hates himself a little for it.
'Right.' It comes out as a snap and he hates that too. People who are arseholes to AI tend to just be arseholes. 'It's just that . . . well, Gertrude being gone when we woke up was very unexpected for us. I'd hate to lo- well, I'd hate for the same thing to happen to you.'
He saves the error report to his own portable computer in order to peruse it later. When Jon isn't making him feel like there's a writhing mass of Jupiter-Eels in his stomach.
'The samples,' He changes the subject abruptly, 'What do you think of them so far.' The inside of the control room hums, a soothing wave of noise that could be personified as the constant, curious sound of someone deep in thought.
'The samples from the planet itself appear mostly organic in nature. This isn't surprising for those black tree-like spikes you encountered, but it's strange that the ground also appeared to be mainly composed of carbon-based molecules. Honestly, after the discovery of those silicon-based organisms on Kepler-442b, the current scientific consensus was that it was highly unlikely that further carbon-based life forms existed outside of the immediate vicinity of Earth. It is a very exciting discovery indeed.'
'Is that why Elias keeps lurking about with that awful smile on his face?'
'Perhaps.' Jon lowers the volume in the control room and it makes Martin feel like a conspirator, like he's bitching with a good friend rather than talking research with a superior. He'd never had that on Earth. 'My records indicate that he does just smile an uncanny amount.' Martin laughs, a brief and surprised thing.
'And the table?' Martin feels a lump form in his thought at just the thought of it.
'Hm. That's more difficult. I have been reviewing your camera feeds from your time on-planet and the style of the artefact certainly does not seem in keeping with the rest of the ship you found it on. The question is whether it was taken from another planet that the ship had visited or from your planetoid mass. I suspect we might glean some more information when one of you finally stops staring at it and takes some samples.'
'Ah, yeah.' A thread of indignation winds with one of guilt in his stomach. 'Engineer James said that she wanted to be the one to investigate it. So Tim and I have been leaving it alone.'
'James has received no direct orders from Elias granting her sole access to the artefact. You could study it if you wanted.' Jon's tone suggests that he should want to. The thought sends a shiver down his spine.
'To be honest? It really creeps me out.' His watch beeps, displaying the timer for his samples. 'And Sasha - Engineer James - has been . . . Well, I've never seen her so obsessed with her work. If she's desperate to study it, I'm not going to stand in her way.' Plus, Martin adds privately, let's not forget that she actually knows what she's doing.
He pictures the table. The jagged lines carved into its surface catch the light in a way that seems incongruous with the dark, matte material it is made from. The fine scratches towards the outside of the table become thicker as they travel inwards, drawing the eye into the middle of the table where it inevitably gets caught as the pattern begins to spin around that glowing central spot. It's like viewing a tree from above. No, not a tree, the more Martin thinks about it, the more detail he can see, like a web.
Martin doesn't even say thank you to the computer as he storms back into the laboratory with all the grace and care of a freak asteroid shower. Tim looks up in surprise, a strip of black material dangling loosely from the tweezers in his gloved hands. Martin ignores him. He plops himself down on his stool with a huff and snaps his own pair of gloves into place.
'Great.' He snarls upon seeing that the disinfectant he had been using has miraculously vanished from his desk. He glances over to Engineer James' bench where she is fiddling with a nest of wiring, dipping the ends of them into inky solutions. His spray bottle is sitting pretty on the far side of her bench. He promptly decides to leave it. Asking for it back when he's in this mood will only result in a fight. And not one that he is likely to win.
It's not that he doesn't have the money. And it's not that he doesn't understand that where there is currency, especially with an economy as unstable as Earth's, there are bound to be fluctuations (or just increases) in the prices of things. But. But, but. One might think, that they'd be a little more understanding of the situation between him and his mother and maybe even charge him less? One might think that if a son were to pack his entire life up and head off into the furthest reaches of space to help his mother live out her life peacefully, that said mother might agree to speak to him once every hundred years or so.
It hurts most because when he'd got the call through, a naïve and traitorous part of his brain lit up with joy in anticipation that it was actually her. His mother was actually calling.
He only realises that he has been staring down at his bench furiously when Tim's hand waves in front of his face. He looks up, startled.
'What's wrong?' He mouths silently so as not to attract any other attention. Martin shakes his head. There's a pressure behind his eyes, a familiar sting that he is not going to succumb to right now. There's too much work to do. Tim fixes him with a hard look that Martin has learnt means I'll deal with you later and something twists in his stomach at the sight of it. He smiles weakly as Tim drops his own bottle of disinfectant down in front of him.
They still haven't got round to researching the table thing from that nightmare of a ship. As Martin sets about cleaning his bench and starting to prepare the samples for processing by Sasha and Tim, he swears he can feel the thing in the next room. It makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and point out in its direction, as though it were tugging on them. It's a weird feeling and Martin doesn't want to get any closer to it than he has to.
Engineer James, though. Sasha seems to have developed quite the interest in the thing. Martin and Tim have left the lab two nights in a row now to find her in the room with it. She never seems to touch it, only stare at it from almost a metre away, her eyes dark and glassy.
'I have to go exercise.' She announces out of nowhere. Martin looks up from where he is creating near-translucent shavings of one of the black spike samples for visualisation under the ship's electron microscope. She meets both their eyes in turn. 'Don't touch this, okay?'
'Wouldn't dream of it.' Tim replies, the cheer in his voice as fake as the plastic bodies on the tables on the space ship. The ones that Martin dreams about coming to life and slipping on a coat of his own skin.
They both exhale as Jon slides the door shut behind her.
'Heavens.' Tim sighs. Martin doesn't know why he's never really put the feeling into words before, but she has the kind of energy that you can never truly relax around. Like the minute you put your guard down, that's when she'll get you. Which is ludicrous. You've worked together for years.
'Yeah.' He agrees emphatically.
'It doesn't matter.'
'Martin. If I had a coin for every time I heard you say that when you're genuinely bothered by something.'
'Not this time.' He remembers the condescending robotic monotone of the voice on the comms, asking for payments that he isn't entirely sure he can sustain. His face twists into a grimace.
'Fine! The centre my mother is in want more coins from me. And I was hoping that it might have been her on the line. Just-' He sniffs. Tries to hide it with a cough. 'Just got my hopes up.' Tim's face softens into a frown of genuine empathy but Martin cuts him off with a fake smile. He is less surprised by the day to discover that there's only one person he would really want to talk about this to. And his status as a person is not protected in all galactic territories. 'Honestly, I'm fine.'
The Head Assistant looks neither convinced nor impressed but, thankfully, he leaves the topic alone. They return to tending their samples in silence and Martin feels an odd little feeling run up his spine. Usually, Tim wouldn't be able to stand the quiet. Even when Martin wasn't in the mood - in fact, especially when he thought Martin needed cheering up - he would be cracking jokes and quizzing Martin about his interests and quirks. Since they had returned, it was though Tim had been walking around with a chunk of asteroid in his mouth. As though, if he said too much it would come whizzing out and damage whoever was in its path.
Martin lets the silence linger for a minute before breaking it.
'So, are you okay?'
'Hm? Me? Yeah, of course.' The flash of a Stoker Grin as Tim pulls his eyes away from the microscope.
'Right.' Martin can't force himself to sound like he believes it. 'It's just that . . .'
'Well, just that maybe Sasha isn't the only one who has been acting a bit weird since we got back from the planet.' Martin thinks he hears a change in the atmosphere. Probably just Jon, deciding whether or not to correct his use of the term 'planet' for what is, strictly, only a planetoid mass. He nearly misses the shadow that darts across Tim's face as he muses on this. 'Tim?'
'Is there something you want to talk about?' Martin keeps his voice measured, open. The way he used to when trying to get his mother to tell him something he could do to help her.
'Nop-' Tim glances towards the sealed door that Engineer James had departed through. He puts down his tweezers and lays his gloved hands down on his bench. His gaze is hard when Martin meets it. 'Look. Do you promise you won't say anything?' Martin feels something shift inside himself in surprise. Heavens, it actually worked.
Tim glances up at the junction between the dull, white panelling on the wall and the extractor vents on the ceiling, where one of Jon's cameras sits, watching.
'I guess there's no hiding anything from the computer.' He grumbles. Martin glances quickly up at the camera and back at Tim. The feeling of being watched only intensifies when he looks right into one of Jon's eyes.
'The ship we found-' Tim inhales deeply. And talks.
Jon runs from the memory he is viewing faster than the eight-legged thing crawling out of the open portal can keep up. He deletes the saved file with haste. It's as though his code has been frazzled and he wonders (with the irritating certainty that he will never truly be able to know) if this is what Tim felt like after his harrowing account of how he came to recognise the ship on the planetoid mass. And what it took from him. It feels as though dirty, human fingers have rummaged into his wiring and teased it out of him.
He has doubled his efforts in trying to find something useful in the sleeping crew's memories. Someone else must have seen this ship. However, that person was not Harriet Lee. The only interesting thing he had discovered in the time he had to peruse her memories was a scene in which she had approached Elias, complaining of itching skin. A Broth reaction, or so she suspected. They had stood amid the fluid filled chambers, faces lit with the ghostly green tinge of the reflected light. Elias had dismissed her firmly and then dismissed himself, slipping through a hatch in the floor to - well, that was the crux of it. Jon didn't know.
He trains his cameras on the belly of the ship. It's difficult to locate the hatch Elias had opened, all those years ago, but he layers the thermal sensor on top of his view and it jumps out at him, a deep blue square against the warmer hum of the flooring. He focuses in and can see the small imperfection where he had seen Elias tuck a finger underneath to loosen the panel and lift it up.
It's a well-recognised design convention for the Captain's quarters to lack cameras and be private. A nod to the days where ships were not able to travel far enough away from each other, when a clandestine meeting between different crews might be the only thing between the start of another intergalactic war. Jon runs the numbers and confirms that the statistical likelihood of bumping into another ship out here is close enough to zero that Elias may as well have cameras in his chambers. However, having a secret hatch to a whole other part of the ship that the Archivist is blind to? That is unheard of. It's folly. It's-
Jon watches as Assistant Stoker strides into view. He performs his nightly checks of the Broth chambers with a practiced boredom. The computer watches, transfixed, as Tim stops to press some buttons on his handheld computer. It registers like a distant voice in his system. Chambers 60 through 85 checked. No concerns reported. If the crew member is aware he's standing right above a secret entrance to an invisible floor of the ship, nothing of it shows on his face.
He briefly considers questioning Elias about the footage he had seen. The flowchart of potential consequences and outcomes suggests that informing his superior of his concerns is always the correct course of action, but it falls in the face of
He can't shake the feeling that informing Elias of his ethically dubious decision to spy on the sleeping crew's memories in search of knowledge could result in his immediate extraction from the system.
?query: what then?
He scans the feeds from all areas of the ship. The blind spot that is Elias' chambers rubs against his wiring like a piece of grit in the eyeball of some pathetic mammal. He scrolls through the rest of it. The empty communal areas lit with neon; the straight back and sharp focus of Engineer James, working late; Martin, curled up under the pale sheets of his bed, fingers tapping an arrhythmic beat on his parted lips as he reads something on his computer.
He sees the squint of confusion flash onto Martin’s sleepy face as the request to open a private channel pops up on his watch. He shuffles beneath the sheets and grabs an earpiece off the narrow shelf that lines his bunk.
‘Um, Hi?’ Martin asks. Jon can’t help but notice that he feels satisfied at Martin’s confusion. At least he isn’t the only one feeling blind at the moment.
Jon has programmed a plan. If he can detect no signs of deceit from Martin surrounding his answers to questions about a large arachnid crawling through a Mi-CAL, then Jon will trust him far enough to consider telling him about his current research project. He hopes Martin won't be as disappointing as the other crew members, floating and wound up in their own hair.
'Is everything okay?' Martin sits up, the sheet falling down to reveal a standard white t-shirt and a peek of pale skin above his waistband. 'Can I help with something?'
Humans are so awkward when they talk to installed AI. They never know what to do with their eyes, always searching the room or the backs of their eyelids. Never landing on the camera that they're being watched from. Martin's eyelashes flutter as he gives up and looks at his freckled hands.
'Yes. I need to ask you some questions.'
'Have I-?' He shifts uncomfortably, 'Have I done something wrong?' Jon considers this for a second.
'I suspect not. Nevertheless, I'd appreciate your honesty.'
'Oh,' Neither Stoker nor James flush when they're relieved, Jon notes. 'Okay, ask away.'
'Please tell me about any memorable encounters you have had with spiders.'
Martin frowns, looking up aimlessly again. 'What?'
'Spiders, Martin. The arachnid creatures that are known to inhabit Earth. They eat flies.' He opens runs another search and, before applying a filter, says: 'Incey Wincey'. He pauses to read the rest of the file. Not as nonsensical as it first sounds. Martin laughs, surprised and delighted.
'What do you know about Incey Wincey, Jon? That's ancient.'
'More than you, probably.' He counters, zooming in on Martin's grin. It makes him look younger.
'Alright, yeah. Probably.'
'So. Spiders, Martin.'
'Right. Yes. Um.' Jon doesn't understand why this question is so difficult to answer. Unless. 'I like spiders. Really. I've never been bothered by them. They're endangered on Earth. Well, last time I was there they were. Too much radiation and they were losing out badly to the cockroaches. So I never killed any, or anything. Sorry, what has this got to do with . . . anything?'
'When you were about to go to the planetoid mass, you insisted that you had never seen a portal before. Was that true?' Jon diverts.
'What? What - yes! Of course that was true! Why would I lie?' Jon's unforgiving cameras scrutinise Martin's expression from three different angles. See: the twitch in his eyebrows, the wide-eyed confusion and, underneath that, a tangle of something else. Jon's not had enough practice at this to be able to tell.
?query: do I trust Martin?
Jon seeks out that tender spot in his system. Right in his control room. It could have ruined him. Didn't.
'Okay.' Jon replies.
'Jon, what's going on?' Martin peeks out of his bunk to check that the conversation is still private. As if Jon isn't already watching.
'I'll tell you. But you have to promise not to pass it on to anyone else with the authority or intent to stop me.'
He watches Martin consider his answer. He stares at his hands again as he mumbles. 'You can trust me, you know?'
'Good.' Numerous alerts flash up from the decision tool Jon had been using earlier, insisting that he talk to Elias and not the least senior awake crew member. 'Right.'
Martin lays back down in bed as though preparing for a bed time story.
'I'm still listening!' He chirps.
'The other day, when you noticed the malfunction in my system. That has not been the only occasion.' Martin sits back up straight with a surprising amount of core strength. 'Calm down, let me explain.' He drops back down onto his pillow, face drawn with suspicion. 'I have been searching for information relevant to our current course of study in the memories of the crew members who are currently in Broth.'
'Martin, there is no point in a private comms channel if you're simply going to shout through the ship!'
'Sorry!' He says, voice high pitched and still louder than it should be. 'But what?! Jon, that's -'
'I know, slightly unethical and not exactly within the bounds of my approved abilities.'
Martin chokes, 'You mean: completely unethical and illegal. Jon! Do you want to get uninstalled?'
'Of course not! Hence why I am speaking to you about this in private instead of shouting it out at Smirke's Table for the whole galaxy to hear.' Martin finally takes the hint and drops his voice to a whisper.
'So you're stealing people's memories without their consent. Excellent.'
'Martin, I know how it sounds.'
'Yeah, pretty bad, Jon. Are you even sure that the memories are left intact once you're done with them?' Jon pauses. He hadn't - He hadn't actually checked. 'Jon!'
'I'll check. I'll check that, Martin. I will. But that's not really the point of why I'm telling you.'
'Oh, Earth below. What did you see?'
'Well, nothing of real use in terms of the planetoid mass -'
'Wonderful, corrupting peoples' memories for no reason then.'
'- But!' Martin is actually not taking this as well as Jon might have hoped. 'I also checked for corroborating evidence regarding Tim's encounter of the ship you saw.'
'If you suggest that Tim was lying after everything he said, I'm going to barge into your control room and spill a cup of tea on your control panel, Jon. I'm serious. This is bad.'
'I'm not! I'm not saying that, exactly. I haven't found any evidence yet - don't interrupt! Just, let me explain. Every time I have tried this, I've encountered the same malfunction. Don't say it's because I shouldn't be looking, it's not that. It's -'
'What do you see?' Martin has fallen very still, hands fisted into the sheets.
'A spider. It's the same memory every time. There's an open Mi-CAL door and the spider starts to crawl through it. But it's huge, far bigger than even the biggest spiders on Earth.'
'And then what?'
'Well,' Jon has the suspicion that Martin might be faintly amused at what he is about to say. 'Then I stop watching.'
Martin doesn't laugh. He looks like he's choosing his words very carefully. 'Jon, it doesn't really sound like a malfunction . . . it sounds like you're scared of spiders.' Jon considers this. He remembers the white-hot electrical race to shut the file down before that thing got any further through the portal. But AI don't have irrational fears. It's illogical. He tells Martin as much. 'Still!' He protests.
'Besides, it's the same glitch every single time. Even with crew who have no reported portal use!'
'So why did you need to ask me about spiders?'
'Well, I - I've been trying to check that - when you touched the control panel -'
'- It's fine. But, obviously not your memory.'
Martin coughs, face coloured pink. 'Okay, well, if we ignore the fact that you have obviously abused your abilities far too many times, I can have a look at it for you in the morning. Just . . . stop. Stop doing that. Please.' Jon surmises that his assistant is uncomfortable that Jon is using powers that no human would ever have access to. As if the fact that Jon isn't human is a sore point. That's strange. 'Your silence is worrying me.' Jon can see that. Martin has his bottom lip trapped beneath a row of slightly crooked teeth. The kind of teeth someone might have if they didn't have the coins growing up to be able to afford a dental correction. That's strange too. Elias' crew did have a definite leaning towards those with less need for currency. 'Jon?'
'Apologies, Martin.' The way you bite your lip was immediately distracting doesn't make it past the filter. 'I would appreciate you taking a look at my coding. Particularly, if you would consider doing so in a more discrete capacity . . .'
'Of course. I don't actually want you ripped out of the wiring, Jon.' That comment sinks into Jon's system and floats there. He has no idea where to file it, but it feels important.
'Right. No problem.' They fall into a silence. Jon watches Martin twitch nervously as one of the pipes bangs. 'Was there something else?'
'Hm. Yes. Actually.'
'Heavens, what is it?'
'When I was reviewing one person's memories I found a scene that appeared to show Elias sneaking through a hidden hatch in the floor of the Broth chamber.'
'What? But the Broth chamber is always the lowest part of the ship. Even I know that!'
'I'm starting to suspect the designer of this ship has made a few adjustments that aren't quite to code, Martin.'
'Well, what's through the hatch?'
'I don't know. There are no cameras down there. No sensory feedback of any kind. It's as though I've just discovered I have feet when I thought I only had legs.'
'That's . . .'
Martin jumps as the door to the sleeping quarters swings open and Tim strolls in. He's whistling a jaunty tune - Jon's processors identify it as an old videogame theme song - but there are dark rings under his eyes. He zips down his space-suit and pulls his arms free before noticing that Martin is in bed with the privacy screen open. His eyes widen briefly at the earpiece he is wearing and he gestures to it as he ties his sleeves around his waist to stop the rest of the suit from falling down. Jon's system informs him that Tim has a physique that matches the criteria for attractiveness on Earth, Venus and some, but not all, of the satellite colonies around Saturn. Judging by the new pink spots on Martin's cheeks, he seems to notice too.
'It’s just Jon.' Martin says, by way of explanation. Tim raises an eyebrow. 'Nothing serious! I just . . . Asked him about some old Earth customs and didn't want to disturb anyone if they were coming to bed.'
'What old customs?' Tim asks as he unlaces and kicks off his boots.
'Nursery rhymes.' Jon provides the half-truth right into Martin's ear.
'Nursery rhymes.' He's a good liar. Jon thinks, watching the incongruous pink spread to Martin's neck and ears. So, he clearly finds Tim's bare chest more appealing than the computer can appreciate.
'Oh, right. Odd choice.' Tim seems to lose himself in a memory for a second. 'Used to sing that one about the Martian train to Danny.' The two men share a look, awkward, but not without empathy.
'I'm sorry, Tim. I-'
'It's cool, it's fine. I'm just - it's just brought a lot of old stuff back up, you know?' Tim slips off his socks and steps closer to Martin's bed. He fits a cheeky grin onto his mouth like a bizarre mask, scooping up Martin's computer in a flash of movement. 'Whatcha reading?' His lips widen in shock and then spread out into a smirk. 'My, my, my.'
'Shut up.' Martin scrambles up onto his knees, trying to pluck the screen out of Tim's hands.
'Between the Stars, by Martin K-' He reaches out a hand to hold Martin back, face alight with the sudden physicality of it. Martin seems to forget that he is a lot stronger than Jon's records indicate he once was and with a shove, Tim is flat on his back. The computer skitters across the floor and Jon releases a lock on one of the cupboards so that it swings outwards to stop the slim screen from sliding into the vents. Tim laughs, surprised and relieved as Martin hurries over to collect it.
'Thank you, Jon.' Martin says loudly as he inspects the device for damage. Tim heaves himself off the floor.
'Aren't you going to check me over too?' He affects a pout. Jon isn't sure why he strongly hopes Martin says no.
'Hah. No. Sure you've had worse.' Martin almost dives back under his sheets. He puts a hand on the privacy screen and starts to tug it closed. 'Tim?'
'I - let me know if you need to talk. Okay?'
'I'm fine, Martin.'
'Well, okay. Night then.'
Jon watches as Martin makes himself comfortable in bed. When he speaks again, it's a low, conspiratorial whisper.
'Jon, tell me when they're asleep. I'll go down the hatch.'
'Martin, I'm not sure -'
'How else are you going to find out what's down there?' He's got this glint in his eyes. A steely flicker of determination Jon hadn't expected from him.
And, with the temptation of finally getting a question answered. How is an Archivist meant to say no?
Martin. Martin scolds himself as he slips down the staircase and Jon slides open the door to the Broth chamber accommodatingly. What are you doing? It had only taken another forty five minutes for Engineer James to collapse in her own bunk. Jon had kept a close vigil of the crew until he was sure they were asleep and then it was down to Martin to creep out of the chamber as silently as he could, heart pounding, growing patches of sweat under his armpits.
He pauses by the open door and shivers as the cooler air from the stairwell meets the stale warmth of near to a hundred humming tanks. He glances behind him at the looming dark.
'There's no-one following you.' Jon informs him, unasked.
'Right.' He slips his boots on now that there's no-one around to hear his clomping footsteps. 'Right.' He repeats.
There's an undeniable eeriness to this part of the ship in these early, creeping hours. Martin can't help but cast a nervous glance over the inhabitants of the tanks, half-expecting to find that one has been smashed open. His eyes land on one in particular. She rests as peacefully as the others, no tension in the lie of her pale limbs, close cropped hair starting to grow out and float in front of her face. Martin takes a hesitant step forwards. He hears a muffled change in the ambient static, a sound he associates with the mental image of Jon opening his mouth and closing it again. He stares into Melanie's tank with a combination of pity and a sickening interest. The wave of her hair is swept away in the currents of the broth and he twitches in shock as the scarred knot that once was her eye sockets jumps out from underneath. He knows, somehow, that there is more to the story of what happened to her than he has been told. He wonders what the consequences of getting involved in this ship's secrets will be for him.
'Martin?' Jon prompts. He straightens his spine.
'Alright. Direct me.'
It takes half a minute of Jon's exasperated 'No, not there, back a bit. No! To the left. That's not left, Martin!' before Martin is able to duck down and run his hand across the slightly rough panelling on the floor. He gasps as his fingers catch in a previously invisible dip.
'Have you got it?' He's never heard Jon sound quite so excited. It does something to Martin's chest.
'Uh, yeah. I think so!' The gap is only large enough to admit one of his fingers and there's the hissing sound of a seal coming free as he wriggles it in and catches on a button. The panel pops up on a hinge and Martin pulls it open further, like stretching the jaw of a yawning, dark mouth. He squints into the new opening and fumbles in the pocket for the torch he had swiped on the way here. He had considered arming himself too but - What use is a blaster if you don't know how to use it?
'Martin.' Jon's voice is a low hum through his earpiece. 'You don't have to do this.'
'I know.' He flicks on the torch. A set of steps glint in the light but it doesn't penetrate far enough to see anything else. 'But, you implied that I'm the only person you trust to tell about this and, you know. Due diligence and all that.'
'Jon.' He swings his feet around and slowly lowers them into the hatch until they hit one of the steps. He bounces on them slightly, testing their strength and stands. He grins as he thinks what he must look like to Jon, half a man stuck in the floor. 'Look, if the comms fails then I'll come straight back, I promise.' And if I see anything that makes me remotely uncomfortable. And if something moves that isn't my shadow. He adjusts his grip on his torch, palm sweaty. 'Well, here we go then.'
His boots barely make a sound on the steps as he descends. The staircase clearly isn't leading to a vast, open chamber like the one the other ship had. That, at least, provides Martin with some comfort. He doesn’t know what he's going to do if there's a whole host of other travellers down here. Trapped.
Instead, it opens out into a dark corridor. Martin looks up to see a small square of green light above him.
'I can still hear you, Martin. I'm keeping a close eye on the hatch.'
'Okay. Um. Left or right?' He peers in both directions. To the left, his torchlight hits a curving wall made of pipes and a tangle of wires that disappears around a corner. To the right, a series of metallic arches. The structural support of the tunnel, perhaps. His torchlight doesn't hit the end but the thought of going round that corner to the left fills him with dread. 'I'm going right. Jon, please can you, I don't know, record the directions I'm taking so I can find my way back?'
'Of course, Martin. Try to keep a steady pace and I'll generate a rough map of your route.'
'Thanks.' He takes a deep breath. Feels it rattle all the way down into the base of his lungs. And steps forwards.
This stretch of tunnel seems to carry on for almost the full length of the ship. Occasionally, Martin notices adjoining rooms and linking archways and he informs Jon of these, mainly just to keep hearing his curt replies. To feel a little less alone down in this forbidden maze beneath the ship. As he walks, he grows in confidence. There's still the thudding panic that something is going to jump out at him at any second - he's hardly forgotten his experience with that hand when they were exploring that other ship - but, as he paces further on, the more convinced he becomes that, actually, this might just be where all the ship's inner workings are stored and none of them are allowed down here because that's just how these things -
He stops suddenly.
'Martin? What is it?'
'There's . . . A light.'
Off in one of the abandoned rooms to his left, he can see a glowing orb of light. It's the first sign of anything down here and he takes a shaky step towards it, the torch clutched tight in his hand even though it's useless against these blinding beams. He squints as he steps forward again.
'Be careful.' Jon demands. Martin inhales. As he gets closer, the details of the room come into focus. The light hovers above a metal plinth, a sphere that is being pulled outwards at the edges and stretched until it resembles the almond curve of an unblinking eye. The walls are lined with pipes and nests of wires. It's as if every connection in the ship passes through here.
'Jon,' He breathes, 'What is this?'
'I don't know, Martin. Tell me what you can see.' Jon insists, clearly irritated at his lack of sight. Martin looks around him from ceiling to floor. A thick tangle of wires run like the roots of a great tree down from the ceiling and into the floor, looping back inwards to snake towards the central plinth.
He is not alone.
On the other side of the plinth, half obscured from him by the bright green light, there lies a prone figure on the floor. He curses and races over without a thought as to what might happen if this were a trap. His first impressions were correct. It's a body, dressed in the khaki spacesuit of an Institute crew member and laid face-down on the floor as if they had tripped and were just taking a second before they got up. The long, grey hair makes Martin think the form is a woman.
'Oh, shit, oh, oh, Heavens. Help! Can you hear me?' He reaches out to shake their shoulder roughly, deaf to Jon's insistent shouts in his ear. The body feels like chilled marble to the touch but his mind scarcely notices even as his own body recoils on instinct. 'HELLO?' He grabs the shoulder furthest away from him and pulls, jumping back as the body flips towards him.
'MARTIN.' The Archivist screams into his ear.
She has no eyes.
oh, martin, martin, martin.
thank you so so much to everyone who is continuing to read this story! the feedback I've had so far has been so encouraging and it's so interesting to read people's feelings and predictions - some of you are really on to some things . . . I really hope this last chapter met expectations and I'd love it if you shared your thoughts! see you next friday!
Chapter 4: paranoia
If there are concerns about security, there are crew members in Broth who would be thrilled to assist.
thank you all so much for your feedback on the last chapter!
cw: post-mortem examination
just a note on content warnings: I realise that a lot of people listen to tma for reasons other than the fact that they really love horror! with that in mind, if there's ever a content warning that is a big NOPE for you but you'd still like to read the chapter and continue on with the story then please drop me a line in the comments and I'd happily send you a modified version of the chapter across!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
'Just-' Tim runs a hand through his dark, cropped hair. All tension and tendons. 'Take us through what happened again.' Martin feels the hum of Jon's control room through the smooth surface of Smirke's Table. He meets Tim's eyes and takes a slow, steadying breath.
'I walked down the stairs and along the corridor until I saw a green light in one of the rooms. There was a - a dead body in there and - I swear - she had no eyes, Tim. Like they had been plucked clean out of her skull.' He dares to feel minutely proud of himself. The first time he had tried to explain to the gathered crew what he had seen down in the bowels of the ship, he'd needed Jon to fill in the story while he hyperventilated. Every time he blinks he sees that stiff, warped skull staring back at him with those black pits where her eyes should have been.
'And you didn't recognise her?'
'No!' Martin insists, 'She was really old, probably about seventy Earth years.'
'Seventy?' Sasha interrupts, frowning, 'Seven, zero?'
Tim and Sasha share a look, experiencing the same confusion Martin couldn't shake. Crew were never that old. She must have been someone useful to have been granted permission to even be on the ship when it left Earth. Martin glances at Elias and finds him staring back, a twist in his lips that isn't quite a smile but is certainly inappropriately amused.
'What I don't get,' Tim has been starting most of his sentences this way since the meeting began, 'Is how you even knew to look at that panel. I spend all my time down there and I had no idea there was anything underneath.'
Martin inhales. He imagines pulling on a mask, the same way he does when Tim or Sasha ask him anything about his life before The Institute.
'I couldn’t sleep.' True. 'I couldn't stop thinking about Mel. So, I decided to sneak down and see her. And, I don't know. I just found it.' Surely this was a safer lie, if anyone checked the footage they'd see him checking in on Melanie's tank first. Martin can feel Elias' eyes on his flushed face and refuses to look at him. He's waiting for the Head of the ship to step in, to explain why, exactly, there is a secret, unobservable level of The Institute. And why there's a mutilated body down there.
Jon has been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the entire meeting and his silence ties Martin's stomach in knots. Even more terrifying than the memory behind his eyelids, is the thought that he might slip up and incriminate Jon. Elias can't know what they do. That Harriet Lee saw him descend into that secret place under the Broth chambers. And thus, so did Jon.
Tim shoots Martin a sympathetic look before whirling on Elias, spit landing on the table as he accuses, 'You must know something about this. How can there be an entire other level of the ship that not even the computer has access to?'
Elias' fingers tap a neat rhythm out onto the table before falling flat onto its surface. He smiles. 'I can assure you, Martin's testimony is as much of a revelation to me as it is you.'
'No,' Tim looks like he would very much like to tip Elias over the railing that surrounds the table and watch him crash to the floor below. 'That's not good enough! What if Martin had been hurt down there. Or, Heavens, murdered even, killed by whatever got this other crew member.'
'Ex-crew member.' Elias corrects him curtly. His cool, blue eyes swing across from Tim, to Sasha and, finally, to Martin. A chill runs down Martin's spine in response. He looks like he knows. 'But, by all means, if you're concerned about the security of the ship, there are specialist crew members in Broth to assist you.'
‘Take us through what happened again. One more time.’ Three hours and fourteen minutes later, Jon watches as the same demand is levelled at Martin. This time, however, the request isn’t coupled with Tim’s affected calm, and Martin swallows, dry-mouthed and awkward under the hard gaze of the Institute’s security.
As he talks, Jon takes them in. The first one Tim had awoken was Basira Hussain. Her record was spotless, as far as Jon could ascertain. A relatively short career with the New Old London Metropolitan Police on Earth before seemingly deciding that her calling was beyond the choked ruins of her home planet. As she had blinked awake Jon had thought her wide brown eyes to be innocent, calf-like. Now, as Martin stammers through his statement, they remind him of dry, packed Earth. Unyielding. Tim had asked her who she wanted to be woken up as her partner and her rasped reply had been immediate: ‘Daisy.’
Daisy was actually Detective Alice Tonner, another Ex-Earth resident. On examination of her records, Jon notes that the pair have worked together for quite some time, although the detective’s career spans a good five years longer than Basira’s. He focuses in on her now. She stands a good few inches taller than Basira, almost as tall as Tim. Daisy appears to prefer practicality over aesthetic and her shorn, bald head tilts to stare over at Engineer James. Jon watches the gears turn behind her pale grey eyes but has no idea as to what course her speculation is taking.
‘Alright.’ Basira cuts Martin off, voice like the shutting of a book, ‘Why don’t you show us the camera feeds and we can decide what happened for ourselves?’
‘Oh.’ Martin looks around helplessly. Luckily, while Martin had been packed off to The Greenhouse to ensure there was going to be enough food for two new crew members, Jon had spent some time preparing for their questions. He can only hope that Daisy’s eyes aren’t as sharp as they look.
‘There is no proper footage.’ Jon announces to the assembled crew, ‘As there are no known cameras down there. But this is what was recorded prior to Martin finding the hatch.’ The centre of the table rolls away to project the holographic footage of Martin as he stumbles back from Melanie’s tank, eyes bulging. And then, in slight disagreement with reality, he keeps falling, ending up in a crouch next to the hatch. Complete serendipity. If anyone isn’t convinced by Jon’s editing, it doesn’t show on their faces. Elias and Daisy in particular.
Daisy watches the replay of the footage carefully. 'And you didn't think of taking a helmet cam down there?' The video ends and the projected light slips back into the table. Those steely eyes land on Martin. 'Or calling for help?'
'I - I honestly was just so surprised at finding it that I didn't think.'
'Right.' She sounds deliberately unconvinced. 'But you had a torch?' Martin nods.
'I didn't want to wake anyone by switching the lights on.'
The two security officers share a glance, too fast and subtle for Jon to decipher.
'Right,' Basira starts, 'Well, we clearly need to take some statements off all of you but, first, we'll go down there and investigate.'
'Stoker, come with us.' Daisy commands and the three of them start down the steps. Jon catches the look that Tim throws over his shoulder at Martin. Something tight and worried in his eyes.
'Well, you two should try and get some shut eye. Work starts at the normal time.' Elias taps the table twice before aiming his gaze right up into one of Jon's cameras. It causes his code to stutter briefly, like an unexpected gasp.
'Let's hope that the thing who killed this person wasn't trapped down there.' Sasha says as she and Martin plod back to the sleeping chambers.
'What do you mean?'
'Well, the hatch has been left open for hours now. Whatever was down there could easily have snuck up.'
Jon's view is torn between the muscled trio gathering helmets and blasters and the sight of Martin, slow and heavy with exhaustion, as he slips into bed. Nothing in the information Jon has been storing about the man suggests that he'll be able to fall asleep. Jon is at a loss for something to do that will help but he sees Martin slip an earpiece on and gets an idea.
'Martin?' He adjusts the volume down to a whisper through the open private channel. Martin shuffles down beneath his sheets until only a few ginger tufts are visible from Jon's camera angle. Jon hears a muffled sniff through the channel. It appears to be the only answer he's going to get. 'I -'
A rivulet of sweat runs from the back of Daisy's neck down underneath the collar of her suit. She feels it trace over the gnarled scar on her shoulder and suppresses a shiver. Whoever this old woman was, she was sturdy even in death.
She and Basira had crept down into the tunnels like thieves, following the computer's barked directions until they came across the room with the glowing light. And the body. The tunnels and adjoining rooms all seemed clear, no suspicious evidence of human activity. Either the person who had done this was formidably talented at covering their tracks. Or, they weren't human.
Basira glances over her shoulder and back at Daisy, head made huge with the helmet she's wearing.
'Can we just-?' She pants and they lay the body delicately on the tunnel floor. Daisy makes an obvious show of switching off the comms on her helmet and Basira does the same, moving to cover her hair back up with her scarf as she slides the contraption off her head.
'What do you think?' Daisy asks, her own helmet hanging loosely in her hand. Her voice echoes slightly, reverberating off the curved arches above them.
'The weird ginger one, probably.'
'Yeah.' Daisy agrees though there's still the question of his motive. And how he got the Archivist to help him. And whether he'd be able to cover his tracks as effectively as this killer had. 'Maybe.' Something else itches at her mind. The way most of her Earthen memories used to. Something about the rest of the crew. Something strange. 'How long have this crew been awake?' Basira seems to have caught her breath and she slips her helmet back on. Daisy copies her, face drawn in thought.
'I dunno, but their files say that they've all been awake before, at least once.'
That's odd. Daisy thinks about the last time they were woken up, to deal with the parasitic infestation a crew-member had brought back with them from another planet. She doesn't remember seeing any of their faces before.
'Jon. Archivist! Jon! For fuck's-'
Jon is trying to be subtle in his newfound paranoia. It might not be working.
'- I know that you're watching me so don't fucking -'
The computer knows that someone on this ship knows more about the body Martin found than they are letting on. The minute Martin had drifted off into an anxious sleep, he'd tried again to organise some of the chaos his predecessor had left behind. But to no avail. The files were as relentlessly confusing as always. Gertrude was clearly uninstalled when it was time for her to go.
'- Seriously, you've had the cameras tailing all of us all fucking day -'
The obvious suspect, of course, is the Head of the Institute himself. Jon knows that Elias is well-aware of the previously secret hatch to the tunnels. He's been trying to keep an eye on the man but since slinking away from Smirke's Table, their leader has spent an inordinate amount of time out of sight in his private chambers. And, uncomfortably, when the man is finally in view and Jon trains a camera on him, he always seems to be staring right back.
'- And it's really pissing me off -'
Sasha had slept soundly through the rest of the allotted hours and returned diligently to her work when the time came. Despite the cool glares she repeatedly shot at the cameras Jon was using to keep track of her, there was nothing to suggest that she knew anything about the body they'd found. Jon could sense her discomfort at being watched but until she raised a serious complaint he saw no reason not to keep an eye on her. Someone knew something.
So far, only one of the crew members had complained about Jon's close interest in their activities. But he was doing so very loudly.
'- So if you could do us all a favour and fuck off before we rip you out of the walls, that would be really fucking wonderful.'
Tim was not taking Jon's efforts to ascertain his knowledge about the hatch and the body very well. The fact was, Tim was an experienced crew member. He'd been pulled out of Broth a number of times now and, as the Assistant in charge of the chambers themselves, he should know exactly who this woman is. Jon watches Tim, gloved hands gripping the side of the table they had laid the body out on, shoulders hunched up by his ears. He doesn't know if the man's anger is suspicious or righteous. But if he doesn't work out who killed this woman, the freshly-awoken detectives are going to blame Martin. And he's not going to risk that.
'I'm sorry to cause you distress, Tim.' He starts. The man splutters indignantly, cheeks glowing an angry red. 'But I'm sure you can appreciate my concern regarding security at this time.'
'Oh-! Fuck off! You know what, you might think that you're passing as human. Martin might be fooled. But actual humans find it fucking stressful to see a dead body so if you could just fuck off, right now-'
Jon watches Tim straighten up abruptly as the sliding door opens with a shoom.
'Hi.' Martin feels it come out of his mouth like an apology. He couldn't quite tell what Tim was shouting though the thick glass of the door, but he can read the line of his shoulders well enough. He's furious. At Jon.
'Oh.' Tim stares at him, all flushed cheeks and open mouth. 'Hey. Martin.'
'Sorry - Uh, if it's a bad time. I just - thought you might want some company.' Martin feels his own cheeks heat up. In truth, the harsh silence across the lab from Sasha was giving him the creeps and he'd take the current company over that any day. At least the dead, eyeless woman can't stare at him.
'I-' Tim starts.
'Sorry! Sorry. I knew I shouldn't have come down, it's probably inappropriate for me to be here, anyway, given that I'm probably under investigation for murder-'
'Martin.' Tim cuts him off. There are dark rings under his blue eyes as they meet Martin's. Martin bites his lip. 'I know you haven't done anything.' He says it like a confession, with a softness completely at odds with the way the words rip through Martin, shattering the anxiety that had been building since the brief interrogation from the Security Officers at Smirke's Table last night. 'Just -' He gestures at the set of drawers behind him, 'Grab some gloves. Don't touch anything unless I tell you to.'
Martin watches him strip the body from its suit with a practiced distance. It seems as though, to Tim, this woman is no longer a person, just a job he needs to do. Martin tries to put a hand on his emotions, the grief for this unknown crew member that he doesn't know how to express. It's not like he knew her. Tim probably has the right idea.
He starts at the head, gloved hands combing through her hair to check for any marks on the skull. He looks inside the ears and holds the floppy, wrinkled eyelids open to shine a light into the empty sockets.
'Huh.' He looks up at Martin with a frown, 'Look at this.' Martin steps forwards with trepidation, hands clasped together so as not to accidentally touch something he ought not to. He peers into the cavity. The inside is smooth and moist, glistening with a jelly-like substance that had sunk and collected at the back. Martin can see a clean white disc on the side closest to the nose where it seems the eye had been cut clean from the nerve. He recoils in shock as Tim digs a gloved finger into the socket.
'What the -?' Tim removes his finger and holds it out. Against the background of the white glove, the gelatinous fluid appears to be tinged the colour of an overly-ripe lime. 'Is that?'
'Broth fluid.' Tim confirms, a grim set to the line of his mouth. 'That's . . .' Martin's mind races to fit this new information in with the imagined story of the woman in front of them.
'She must have been alive -' He tries.
'She - she had to have lost her eyes before she was put in a Broth chamber.' They look at each other in confusion and then back at the body. 'That makes no sense.'
'Look at them, though, it looks like the eyes were surgically removed.' Martin can't look away from those staring sockets now.
'I know.' Tim sounds vaguely ill. 'But she wouldn't have been allowed to register as a crew member without eyes - that's why we have to keep Mel in Broth now.'
'So it must have happened on the ship?' Martin doesn't even want to ask the question.
'No. That's impossible.'
Martin feels more questions welling up in his throat but catches a glimpse of a camera above Tim's shoulder and remembers how irate he had been before he'd arrived. They taste bitter as he swallows them down.
They continue their inspection of the body. 'One.' Tim points a gloved finger to a starburst of skin just underneath her right collarbone. Raised, red and shiny. 'Two.' There's another in the middle of her sternum, so perfectly centred that it could have been one of those crazy scar tattoos that had become all the rage on Mars. 'Three.' He points to the third. Martin looks away for a second before he can bring himself to look at it. The blaster must have been much closer to the chest this time. Blaster fire typically causes that radial spreading of burnt flesh but, if close enough, the energy can be great enough to char the skin straight off. Tim lifts up a flap of the oozing breast tissue to reveal the scarred muscle underneath. Their mouths twitch in disgust at the smell. This blast was undeniably the one that stopped her heart.
'Well, at least the cause of death isn't a mystery.'
Together, they heave the body into the donut-shaped ring of the scanner and Tim tells Martin to wait on the other side of the door while he sets it up, citing something to do with radiation that Martin suspects he'd understand if he were genuinely qualified to be here. One of the Officers, Basira, he thinks she said he name was, catches him as he waits.
'Found anything?' Her tone is less than friendly. Martin suspects it'd be better if he could get Tim to answer her questions.
'I'm not sure, to be honest. We think there was some Broth in her eye sockets.'
'What-?' Her sharp brown eyes flash with the same shocked confusion that Tim and Martin had just experienced. Martin is about to open his mouth and say more when the sliding doors open and Tim bursts out. He looks like he's seen a ghost.
'The scanner. It says she's Gertrude.'
Martin softens his gaze towards the walls of the control room and the dazzling stream of code loses definition. The floor underneath him vibrates along the length of his spine almost imperceptibly, warm and comforting. He allows himself a sleepy smile that breaks out into a yawn.
'You've got to stop though,' He says, 'You're driving everyone insane.' Jon doesn't respond. Martin thinks about the way Tim had requested Jon open the airlock through clenched teeth. They'd watched Gertrude's body fall out into the darkness and Martin held his breath, wishing he had something to say. Something to mark the fact that a human life was floating away from them forever.
'Stop what?' Jon's voice spins him back to the present.
'Martin-' The computer sounds intense, almost stressed.
'I know.' Martin does know. If he had eyes everywhere he'd also be watching. But whipping people up into a new level of paranoia won't help anything. Especially not when it just increases peoples' suspicions about them both. He rolls onto his side and tugs his pillow into a more comfortable position.
Jon hadn't protested when he'd turned up in the control room with his pillow, ready for bed, so Martin assumes it must be fine. He feels safer here. He watches the numbers roll upwards on the panel next to his face and tries to work out where he'd touched. It's a nice distraction from thinking about -
Thinking about literally anything else.
'Do you think the body really was Gertrude?' He can't help but ask. 'As in Gertrude Gertrude? The old you?'
'It's impossible to say. Certainly, it's now against Intergalactic Law to produce AI from organic sources but it's not . . . Impossible.' Martin mulls that over for a queasy second before putting the thought firmly away at the back of his mind.
'I hope Gertrude saw nice things. You know, before . . .' He buries his head further into his pillow with a sigh. Part of him longs to reach out and brush his knuckles against the walls, to watch those numbers burst like a firework. He knows he can't. Instead, he tucks his hand under his pillow, palm flat to the floor, imagining that Jon can feel that instead.
'If I had a body, where would you take me?'
The question takes Martin by surprise. Sure, he's started to think about what a life with Jon might look like if he were ever able to get him back to Earth. Late night conversations in his flat, trying to persuade Jon not to hack into his entire building's system for more things to see. Jon, making him laugh with stories about his neighbours, and Martin taking meticulous care of him. For the first time, he'd be able to go home and know that he wouldn't be hopelessly lonely when he got there.
He'd never thought about the prospect of Jon having a body. Martin's cheeks bloom with pink.
'Um,' He stalls, unsure how to tackle the question. Would he want Jon to see the galaxy's tourism hot-spots? To get a feel for the human experience of the universe? Show us something dazzling for an extortionate fee and we'll buy a T-shirt with your planet's name on it. Martin can imagine waiting for hours in a queue, Jon's hand in his, watching Jon's barely-imagined face scowl at everything except Martin's smile. Probably not Jon's idea of a good time. Or, would Jon want to see places that are important to Martin? Places that are drenched in memory and come with a mouthful of stories. He remembers a place. The sensation of falling and landing on a rocky path. A large hand coming to grab the back of his coat and hoist him into a pair of strong arms. A smiling face and short, red hair. A male voice. 'I'd take you to the Scottish Highlands.' He hears Jon's fans puff into life as he starts to search his database for details. Completely ruining the point.
'Well, yeah.' Martin rolls over until his voice is muffled by the soft fabric of his pillow. 'I want to take you home with me.'
Martin falls asleep with a series of myoclonic jerks, sharp and repetitive enough to have Jon frantically trying to locate the medical records to check that the man wasn't seizing. The rest of the ship waking up to find Martin dead in the control room would be . . . Jon can't imagine being erased from the ship but, then again, he also can't imagine being here anymore without the constant opportunity to watch Martin.
The man frowns in his sleep, inhaling shakily, full lips pushed out into a pout. Jon bumps up the temperature in the control room. Just in case he's cold.
He runs over the day's events in his head, playing back the camera feeds of Martin's sweaty conversation with the security guards; Martin tending to The Garden with puffy eyes; Martin frowning down at the viscid green substance on Tim's finger with confusion; Martin staring through the window to the airlock with a maelstrom of emotion on his face; Martin's hand, reaching out towards the panelling of his control room as though magnetised.
Jon isn't sure if the processing hurdles he keeps running into are the fault of the barely-there hand-print on his walls or the chaotic state of the system he'd inherited from Gertrude, but he can't shake the sensation that there's another program running on top of the one he uses to monitor and control the ship. One that asks difficult questions and curls in on itself, tight and happy at the prospect of Martin taking him to, statistically, the worst planet in the solar system.
He doesn't know how to say: Martin, that thing you did when you almost broke me? I want you to do that again.
Yesterday, perhaps, before the body and the suspicious glares into his camera feed and at Martin's back, he could have asked. Now, logic can only confirm that entangling with humans is a disaster waiting to happen. The Archivist exists to see and to know. Nothing more.
There's something else, too. Something that none of the crew members appear to have considered yet. If his predecessor was once organic, once human? What does that mean for him?
Martin turns in his sleep with an unintelligible mumble and something softens in Jon's system. The man must be caught in another nightmare. He brings up the footage from earlier that day, watches the way Tim's face had dropped into something slack and open as he told Martin he didn't believe he was guilty of anything. Jon thinks he'd look at Martin like that, given the chance.
The sight of Tim serves as a reminder that there are other crew members out of Broth, ones that, despite Martin's reservations, he endeavours to monitor closely. Elias is out of sight, of course. Jon flicks his attention to the sleeping chambers. Detective Tonner has the sheets twisted around her waist, clearly an energetic sleeper. Officer Hussain is also sleeping soundly, as is Tim. He pans the camera around and freezes with a jolt as the view lands on an unexpectedly empty bed.
?query: where is Sasha?
He skips through his other feeds quickly and systematically, tracing a potential route from the sleeping chambers outwards. Another feed pings as movement is detected and he switches to it. He should have known she'd return there. She walks like a prototype of herself, something heavy and dragging in her usually quick and efficient step. It's bizarre to see any of the crew in the laboratories without their protective equipment on and there's a gormless vulnerability to the engineer as she plods forwards into the room in just her T-shirt and shorts. The table remains untouched in the centre of it, a squat, ugly thing sitting on its eight legs and Sasha stands before it like its guard. Or servant. Jon thinks about interrupting her, asking her what she's doing but something in the glass of her stare makes him consider the possibility that she's not even awake.
Martin stirs with a pitiful little groan and Jon lowers his volume to a whisper. 'It's alright, Martin. Go back to sleep. It's alright.'
thanks so much for reading! last week, the amazing feedback you guys left honestly motivated me so much to finish up chapter 5 so, if you have some opinions so far I would absolutely love to read them!
speaking of chapter 5 . . . you might be under the impression that I have forgotten that the magnus archives is, essentially, a soap opera. oh ho ho ho h o. rest assured, i have not. see you next friday!
Chapter 5: malfunction
Daisy and Basira do their jobs. Jon finds himself unable to do his.
a huge thank you to everyone who has been dropping kudos and comments on this fic! I cannot express to you how much I adore reading about how excited (and scared) you are as this story is unfolding. you're all giving me life at the moment and I'm very, very grateful!
I hinted at the end of the last chapter that I hadn't forgotten that the magnus archives was a soap opera and, well, you'll see.
cw: non-graphic thoughts of a sexual nature, doubting one's memory, immediately resolved issues of consent
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Martin hums a jaunty tune as he reaches out into the stream of shower water to check the temperature and then taps the glass screen between the tiles to boost it up a little. Sleeping on the floor the control room had made it much easier to physically get to sleep but he'd awoken with slightly sore shoulders and the hot water would probably help. He'd also awoken strangely sweaty. Jon must have boosted the temperature in the control room several times throughout the night.
He grins to himself as he steps under the hot spray of water. Placing a hand out into the gap between the tiles results in a mechanical whir as a meagre amount of body wash is deposited in his palm. Even in this place where there are obviously none of Jon's cameras, he feels a warmth right down to the tips of his toes, hyperaware that Jon has probably watched over him all night. It's hard not to feel like a line has been crossed, somehow. That baring yourself at your most vulnerable like that means something.
Martin shakes the thought away. What it meant was a decent night's sleep and, for once, the horrors he's faced in the last few days seem like something that happened to someone else. Like he's read about them on the streams and imagined what it might be like for them to happen to him, instead of actually being seconds away from death. Or a murder suspect. The easing of the constant dread in the pit of his stomach makes room for other feelings to rear their heads. Feelings he's not experienced since waking up from the Broth Chamber.
Martin soaps up his chest, still marvelling at the new thatch of curly ginger hair that sprouts across the expanse of it, and down his stomach. His hand skirts close to his groin and he pauses. Considering. A feeling, sinuous and slow with disuse, curls its way up from between Martin's legs. He considers it some more. This is . . . unexpected. Mostly. But, humans have been jacking off in showers since long before the invention of the cubicle. So. It's not like I'm hurting anyone. Doing it in here also meant that there was no chance Jon would be watching. A shiver ran up through his spine, as if someone had thrown a match on that hot feeling between his legs. Shit. He could imagine that perfectly well. Jon's cameras focused on him from all angles. Jon's deep, unimpressed voice telling him -
A thought occurs. It tastes of guilt even before Martin has finished thinking it. Just because Jon can't see him, they can hear each other. Martin could ask Jon for the weather report, or to read him some poetry, or one of the files Gertrude left strewn around his system. Too far. Martin looks down at the flush underneath the smattering of white soap bubbles on his chest and further, to the peek of insistent flesh in his crotch. His hand snakes lower and he barely even notices that he's holding his breath. But no-one would need to know if you just thought about it.
The door to the shower-room bangs open and Martin jerks his hand away from himself with a gasp. His face burns hot as the steam curls off it.
'Martin?' It's Tim.
'Uh, hi, yeah. Hi!'
'Oh.' His voice sounds flat. Martin frowns, wishing he had a facial expression to try read Tim's mood from. 'Hi.'
'Hi, you're up early?' Martin tries, washing the soap off himself and trying to ignore the sink of disappointment in his stomach at the intrusion.
'Well, I've not exactly been having sweet dreams.' There's a sound of a zipper, a muffled thump as a towel falls off a hook. Tim sighs, 'I don't suppose there's any point in asking you where you were last night.'
Martin pauses, palm resting on his shoulder, ready to wash the suds away. 'What do you mean by that?' He asks carefully.
'I'm just saying Martin,' Tim's voice goes briefly quiet as a T-shirt is pulled over his head. 'That you need to think about how it might look to others if you're getting cosy with the current number one suspect.'
'Jon hasn't-' Martin doesn't know what to say. He clenches his jaw. Another new feeling, strong and protective, swirls around in his stomach. 'I felt safe there, okay?' Tim, apparently, has nothing to say to that. When Martin wraps his towel around himself to exit the cubicle, Tim is standing in front of the exit. His eyes flick across Martin's collarbones before landing on his face.
'Yeah, whatever.' Now that Martin can see his face he can tell just how uncomfortable Tim is. It can't just be about him sleeping elsewhere in the ship though. Martin quirks an eyebrow and Tim's shoulder's sag. 'You know who else snuck out of bed last night?'
'I didn't sneak - wait! What? Who?'
Martin struggles to comprehend what he's being told. Sasha? Surely Jon would have seen and said something if she'd been up to no good. But, then again, Martin had beat a hasty departure this morning.
'What? Why? Where did she go?'
Tim shrugs, 'I don't know, Martin. Probably to go stare at that creepy-ass table we brought back from that -' His voice catches. Martin feels awful for him all over again. 'Ship.' Tim holds his gaze, blue eyes like thick ice over a lake. Deadly serious. 'You need to be careful.'
'I know.' Martin's voice sounds tiny. Like the voice of a child. 'I know.'
It's difficult, Martin thinks as he makes his way into the main hub of the ship, his personal computer clutched tight in his hand as it flashes a waiting symbol at him, to be careful when it feels like your safety is at the mercy of everyone else around you. As far as he knows, he's not done anything wrong. But should the security officers decide he probably did have something to do with the body then it's Broth all the way home for him - if not worse. Detective Tonner definitely carries an air around her that makes Martin think she wouldn't be opposed to taking justice into her own, blaster-wielding hands. So what if he likes Jon? Maybe more than that. That doesn't change his motivations for being on the ship. He'd never wanted to come to Space. So who could blame him for seeking companionship now he's stuck out here?
His computer beeps. Comms connection declined.
The only thing Daisy will hand to the Archival Assistant Martin Blackwood is that he's done a pretty decent job with the food. She pushes her breakfast around her plate, a fried selection of vegetables from the Greenhouse and a slice of the protein block they're mandated to consume once a day. Basira sits across from her in the large booth of the Institute's dining area. She's reading something on her tablet. She's always reading, that one, Daisy thinks, lips curving briefly upwards.
As if summoned by Daisy's thoughts, Martin hurries past the booth on his way out of the kitchen, computer clutched tight in one hand, a plate in the other. Daisy appraises him with cool eyes as he momentarily slows in his walk, clearly debating whether or not he'd be welcome to join them. Or if he'd just be subjecting himself to an interrogation. Their eyes meet and Martin flinches like a startled rabbit before scurrying onwards. Daisy takes a slow bite and considers the file she'd read on him. Blackwood is a bit of an enigma. His file reads like that of any half-way competent research assistant but his fellow researchers swing wildly between coddling him (Stoker) and outright implying that he's incompetent (James). It's hard to think up any potential reason that this average, average man - who still, if his call log can be believed, has something or someone to go home for - would find himself getting caught up in a murder.
She remembers the crew dinners the last time she was awake. They'd been rowdy things, people fighting playfully over the last of the leftovers, chatter floating from the circular booth up the stairs to Elias' chambers. She can't help but be grateful for Basira's steadying presence. Someone to stop her from tearing through the other crew members until she worked out what the Hell had gone on here. Since taking the position on the ship, she'd promised herself, for Basira's sake, that she wasn't going to do that anymore.
Engineer James walks past their table, cool gaze focused on the kitchen as though she doesn't even see them. A clenching feeling of not-quite-rightness settles into the back of Daisy's teeth, like the rumble of an inaudible growl. In all her memories of the crew who'd been awake the last time she was, there was no-one who matched the Engineer James who was now walking back past them, swallowing the last bite of protein block as she went.
'- So, I think that there is a possibility that the body we found might genuinely be the old Archivist.' Daisy hadn't noticed Basira was talking. 'What?'
Her brown eyes flash in the fluorescent light that hovers over the table. 'You've got that look on your face, like you're on to something.' Equally, Basira has a look on hers, wide-eyed and eager to hear what Daisy's thinking.
'The last time we were awake - with the Harriet Lee thing, do you remember seeing Sasha James?'
'I honestly can't remember.' Her lips curl, 'Every time I think back to that, I just think of what her body looked like -'
'Yeah.' Daisy didn't need the reminder.
'I'm not sure yet.' Something's off. Basira gives her a quizzical look but drops the topic.
'Okay? Well, anyway . . .'
The door to the control room slides open and Daisy walks in to a wall of heat.
'What the Hell, Archivist?' Isn't how she intended to start the interrogation, but she can roll with it. 'Are you incubating something in here?' The fans whir to life. Jonathan Sims gives her no justification for the bizarre heat in the control room.
'Hello, Detective. How can I assist you?'
She surveys the panels of the control room, trying to suss out the spot that the last few days' ship logs suggested had been tampered with. Blackwood, supposedly qualified, sticking his hands into the computer like a child. There's a spot to the right, smaller than a human hand, that the code seems to skirt past. Like the stream of numbers reaches for it, strains towards it, and then loses its nerve at the last second. Daisy nods towards it.
'I've been doing some reading.'
'I know.' Of course he's been keeping tabs on what we've been accessing. She's never had to interrogate an AI like this before. All the bots she'd encountered on Earth had been straightforward, bland things, eager to answer questions. No complicated loyalties. They'd even dob themselves in if asked directly.
'I saw you've had some malfunctions.'
'Aren't you here to ask me what I know about Gertrude?' The Archivist doesn't seem to be redirecting her purposefully. There's a note of genuine confusion in his tone. Daisy regrets not taking the opportunity to talk to Gertrude more the last time she was awake. To get more of a handle on how the system operates. But then, who could blame her for not anticipating this.
'Do you know something about her?'
'Nothing more than you, unfortunately.' It's fortunate for someone, Daisy thinks bitterly. 'I was able to locate her personnel record and it states that she was brought onto the ship as an Archival Assistant and that she was never awoken from Broth although, clearly, she was.'
'Thanks. You know I've also read that file.'
'The issue is that the previous Archivist model - another Gertrude - left the system in such a state that there could be the answer in one of these files and I would have no way of knowing without opening every single one in turn. It would take years.'
Daisy mulls this over. The unblinking green lights of the cameras stare down at her. She finds the nerve to try a different tack. 'I wanted to talk to you about something else, truth be told.' The computer is slow to respond, careful.
'Engineer Sasha James.' She waits a beat. 'The last time Basira and I were awake, I want to see a selection of footage from then.'
'It might take me a few minutes.' The computer has the nerve to actually sound like he's grumbling about it.
'I have time.'
He wasn't lying though, it takes him at least three minutes to pull up a video feed from back then. Daisy watches it spring to life, pixel by pixel, on the panel in front of her. She recognises the scene immediately. In it, she and Basira are standing shoulder to shoulder at Smirke's Table, hair shorn. The whole awake crew is there. Opposite Daisy, Elias Bouchard is holding court about what a tragedy it is that Harriet succumbed so quickly to her infection. A few faces are immediately familiar, even if the names have been forgotten: the Assistant that Lee had been sleeping with; the angry one . . . What was her name? Mel? Melanie? Daisy scans the names on the backs of the suits of the people who aren't facing the camera. She almost jumps when she reads it. James.
'There! I need another angle.'
There she stands. Engineer Sasha James, eyes like a polished stone, mouth tight, a white streak of vitiligo underneath her left eye. The same woman who just walked past Daisy at breakfast. Not the same woman Daisy remembers. She squeezes her eyes closed, painfully aware of the computer watching her. Sasha had once stayed up with her while she cleaned the ship's meagre collection of blasters, asking pertinent questions about the mechanism of each part and trying to apply it to her own imagined engineering projects. Daisy tries to picture her face. Her warm smile. They'd never been close but . . .
She opens her eyes again and meets those of the stranger at Smirke's Table.
'Are you all sitting comfortably?' Tim's voice adopts a warbling tone with perfect elocution. Jon's system deduces that he must be imitating someone but doesn't provide any clues as to who. Martin's face twists into something tight and uncomfortable and Jon redoubles his efforts to understand the joke.
'Is that in good taste?' Martin whispers. Tim sighs.
'Well . . . Ugh, yeah. Probably not.' The pair of them are perched on an empty lab bench in front of the projector, waiting for Engineer James to prise herself away from the artefact to join them for the results of their research. Tim leans back on his hands, the left one crossing over onto Martin's section of the desk. Martin, in contrast, has his elbows resting forwards on his knees, bent forwards at the hips to bring his mouth to the mug in his hands, rather than the mug to his mouth. 'But it is what she used to say though. Every time.'
answer: gertrude, archivist 1.0
The door to the lab opens and Jon trains his camera on Engineer James, seemingly no worse for wear after her late night wanderings around the ship. She gives her fellow researchers a tight smile but elects to take stool rather than joining them on the bench. Tim gives Martin a significant look and Jon entertains the idea that they might actually confront her about where she was last night.
'Alright, then.' Sasha says. The projector flicks to life at Jon's command and all three crew members lean forwards to get a better view of the graphs and charts on the screen.
'Huh.' Tim says. 'Look at that.'
'As you are no doubt seeing, the analysis on the samples supports the hypotheses that the planet was largely composed of organic material. The samples obtained from the large spiny obtrusions from the planetoid-mass' surface are keratinous in nature and similar in composition to hair. Though, granted, on a much larger scale. The samples obtained from closer to the base of the spines appear to be rich in neurotransmitter material, suggesting they may be innervated or, at least, close to a synaptic cleft.' Jon pauses to watch their reactions. No-one, not even Tim Stoker, speaks. Jon pulls up a different set of graphs. 'The samples from the ground were also predominately organic and lacking the typical mineral composition that one might expect from a soil-like material.'
'That's . . . A lot of amino acids' Sasha points out.
'And there's haemocyanin.' Tim adds, 'It's like . . .'
Martin says nothing, squinting at the screen in confusion.
'Yes.' Jon interrupts them, moving the speculation along for Martin's sake. 'The closest known comparison is the haemolymph found in the giant cricket-like creatures on Mars.'
'Moving on.' Jon shows them a blurry snapshot from one of their headcams, it shows their view from the ground when they first arrived on the planet. Looking upwards, it's possible to see a punched-out black circle of space in the floating, pearlescent atmosphere of the planet. Zooming in, Jon highlights several sections in which the tunnel has been traversed by almost invisible strands.
'If you're about to tell us this is web, I'm going to get up and leave.' Tim is almost hanging off the edge of the bench. Martin pushes him back into a properly seated position with a hand on his shoulder.
'The samples do share several characteristics with the substance known as spider's silk - or, cobwe-'
'Aw, come on, Jon!' Tim erupts.
'But - but - we didn't actually see any spiders when we were there, right?' Martin's eyes are wide above the rim of his mug. 'Did you guys see any spiders? I definitely think I would have remembered that?' Sasha shakes her head.
'So you're saying that this whole planet was actually a fuck-off space spider?' Tim stares right into the camera. Contrary to his threat, Jon notes, he hasn't made any move to leave.
'That's not a thing, right?' Martin asks. Sasha fixes him with a look, an almost-smile, plastic and condescending.
'Martin, the whole point was to find things that we don't currently know exist!'
'Well, alright, but -'
Jon reaches for the images he'd strung together to summarise their research but he feels a jolt in the core of his system and suddenly
there's a MiCAL door right in front of him and he's watching the way the sparks at the edges chase each other like the playful buzz of a group of flies and he can't help but appreciate that it's beautiful, it's so beautiful, even as he is seized by the terror of knowing what's coming next. And, is if he summoned it there, the first segment of a huge, black leg starts to emerge from the door, hairs bristling as though tasting the air. The other legs are quick to follow, stretching out towards him and he knows, he knows that soon they'll be joined by a pair of hooked fangs and then it's over, it's over, it's
His system comes back online. He can see the ship again, Daisy and Basira in deep conversation by the open hatch to the tunnels; Elias spinning in his office chair with a sheaf of papers in his hand; Sasha, Tim, Martin, crowded around the nearest computer with wide, panicked eyes.
'Ah.' Jon says, 'My apologies. I appear to have had a minor shutdown just now. I can see that Engineer James is running diagnostics but I can report that everything appears to be running smoothly again.
'A minor shutdown?' Sasha repeats in disbelief, 'Your code was fried for a second there. I'm sorry, you asked me to look at this for you the other day and I completely forgot with all the samples to process. I'll do that today.'
Jon can't help but feel a little uneasy at the thought of Sasha poking around in his code and, if the look Martin throws at the camera is anything to go by, he does too. But that vision had come out of nowhere. He checks the programs he's running the background, just in case he's mistakenly opened up one of the crew's memory files but he can't find anything active. Malfunctioning now, whilst under suspicion about his involvement in Gertrude's murder, does not look good.
'Wait, Sasha, wait!' Tim runs a hand through his hair, jaw tense. 'This is going to sound so stupid but, hey, so does spiders in space so . . .' He sucks in a breath. 'Is the planet still there?'
Jon pauses. He'd been so concerned with the theatrics inside the ship itself, he'd not even scanned the external cameras in the past few days.
'Well?' Tim folds his arms. Martin bites his lip.
'The Institute has been in transit on course to the next planet, if there's no sign of the planetoid-mass on my cameras, it doesn't prove-'
'Just do it.'
Jon stretches himself outwards, up through the belly of the ship, through the walls and the floors, until he reaches the edges of the ship. He looks, and the information comes snapping right back to him like a piece of elastic that has been released. He suspects the humans will not like what he has seen.
'I can't visualise the -'
'What the fuck? Seriously, what the fuck?'
Basira feels a prickle on the back of her neck as she lifts her hand to knock on the door to Elias' chambers. She whips around, eyes darting down the staircase before rising to land on the green light of one of the ship's cameras. Her mouth curls up into a sneer. Creepy, she thinks. She couldn't recall Gertrude ever being as obtrusive as this new model. That was the thing about AI, one day it would get to the point where they'd advance so much that you wouldn't even know when you were talking to one. She thinks of the clumsy police-bots she'd had to deal with back on Earth. Not yet, though, not yet.
Elias swings the door open with a smile like a great red slash across the bottom of his face.
'Do come in, detective.' He says.
'Thanks.' Basira doesn't restrain herself from the opportunity to sweep her eyes around the Head of the ship's office, pristine and glittering with the light from his numerous screens. A great marble desk sits in the middle of the room but he gestures for her to follow him through a neatly concealed door into a second chamber. Two squat chairs sit either side of a low table, its surface lined with the glass sheen of a computer screen. The unwavering green dots of light from The Archivist's cameras are notably absent. 'Mr Bouchard-' She starts, sinking into a leather chair that's more comfortable than even the beds on the level below.
'Please, call me Elias. We are crewmates, after all.' He drops into the other chair gracefully and crosses his legs at the ankle. The computer screen on the table flickers to life with a swirl of colour seemingly at his very presence.
'Oh-kay. Elias.' His name tastes weird in her mouth, almost metallic, 'I need to ask you some questions.'
'Of course.' There's something so smug about the way he speaks. Basira forces herself to relax her jaw, Daisy always said it was one of her tells.
'Prior to the discovery by Assistant Blackwood, were you aware of the extra level to the ship?'
Elias' eyes twinkle, 'I trust this is a confidential conversation?' Basira nods, 'Despite what I shared with my crew, yes, I was aware that there was another level to the ship - of course.' He smiles, 'I know everything about this place.'
'Why didn't you tell them about it?' She frowns.
'As you may have noticed, some of the crew members have a habit of getting a little volatile with the slightest provocation. Yes, I was aware of the existence of the tunnels beneath the Broth Chamber, but I know nothing of the events that lead to Ms. - was it Ms. Robinson? - of her body being secreted away down there. I thought sharing that information could lead to accusations that might distract from finding the actual perpetrator.' Basira stares over at him as she considers this. She'd assured Daisy that she could handle this chat alone but it would have been useful to have her here. It was suspicious, sure. But Elias was the Head of the Institute and if he claimed to have a good reason not to share something with the crew then maybe that was what was best. She can imagine an alternate reality in which she was woken up from Broth to find that Stoker had strangled their boss. What a mess that would be.
'What did you know about her?'
'Oh, well,' He unsteeples his fingers, tapping on the screen to pull up the file that Basira would bet everyone on the ship had viewed at some point in the past day-night cycle. 'A rigorous academic background, leadership qualities, as well as actual experience on previous archival missions with different Institutes - she was an obvious choice for the crew. It's easy to see why some of the more junior members would have felt intimidated by her presence but . . .'
'Not enough to kill her.'
'No.' Bizarrely, he claps his hands together, 'That is the mystery of it, after all!'
'In the chamber that the body was found in, there's a light. What do you know about that?'
'Ah,' Elias shrugs a little, 'My apologies, while I do claim to know most of what is on the ship, I don't claim to understand how it works. I suspect it has something to do with the computer though.'
'Alright.' She digs her fingers into the chair's armrests, steeling herself to stand. 'I might need to ask you some more questions at some point. With my partner.'
Elias smiles again, a smug curl of a thing that Basira struggles to find warmth in. She and Daisy knew what they were getting into when they joined a ship full of academics but still, they were difficult company to enjoy.
'Well, thank you, detective. May I just take this moment to say that, as Head of the Institute, we really do value your hard work at this time. I had hoped not to need you again after that dreadful business with Harriet Lee but you are, once again, indispensable.'
'You know,' Elias makes a show of perusing Gertrude's file again, he scrolls up to her photo and Basira feels the woman's dark grey eyes on her skin. 'I'm surprised that you didn't already know that I was aware of the tunnels beneath the ship.'
Her finger nails dig into the leather as Basira chokes out, 'What?'
'Well,' Elias fixes his inscrutable gaze on her face. He quirks a thin eyebrow, 'Jon does have footage of me going down there. I can't imagine why he hasn't shared it with you.' That Goddamn piece of sh- Basira stands suddenly.
'All I can say is, if you need to - as a last resort, if you will - this ship does have other back-up systems that can be installed if the current Archivist model isn't . . . functioning correctly.'
'Thank you.' Basira says. She appears to have reached an unanticipated understanding with the man. 'That's good to know.'
Anxious, swirling thoughts orbit Martin's head like satellites, occasionally signalling to one another to make each disaster scenario he's imagining even more likely or terrifying. His boots sink into the soil in The Greenhouse as he stops still for a minute, inhaling deeply and trying to focus only on the scent of soil, the buzz of the pollinators. He closes his eyes and opens them immediately as giant hand runs towards him out of the black, only, with the startling new information from their debrief, it now has eight fingers.
Space spiders. His mother would never believe it. Giant space spiders. In space.
He takes another shaky breath and drops carefully to his knees to inspect the tomato plants. He runs a gloved hand up the hairy stem to where, the day before last, he had seen tiny yellow flowers blooming. Despite the churning in his gut, his lips curl up as he spots the round green protrusions at the end of the stem in his hand. Tomatoes!
'J-' He starts, interrupted by the sound of the door opening. His smile widens, 'Tim! Hi - look!'
'You're not going to believe this.' Tim's words effectively sink the tiny bubble of happiness that seeing the growing produce had given Martin. As he rises up from his knees, he takes the man in properly, skin a waxy off-white in the artificial daylight, hands fisted into his pockets as though he's scared of what he might do if he releases them. Martin swallows. Earth Below, what now? Tim must read the despair on his face because his softens just a fraction. He waits until the door to the cramped chamber has slid fully closed before continuing, 'There's a Broth chamber missing.'
'What?' Martin splutters, 'How - how could you not have noticed that there was a chamber missing? You check them twice a day!'
'I know! I just had the idea to run the current records against the ones I have from the last time we were awake and, I swear, one of them has gone.'
Martin wrings his hands together, the anxious satellites around his head now more like approaching war ships. 'Is it Gertrude's?'
Tim finally frees his hands from his pockets in a sharp shrug, 'I can't tell yet. I - I came to tell you as soon as I noticed.' Martin tries to calm down, to think rationally, but it's hard. A Broth chamber is supposed to be one of the safest places in the universe. You go in there, and you know that your ship or your crew is always going to be looking after you. The thought that someone would - Martin shakes his head, sending the thought flying.
'Have you told Jon?'
This appears to have been the wrong thing to say. Martin is close enough to see the flash of genuine rage in Tim's eyes as his handsome face screws up into a scowl.
'What?' Martin is hit with the memory of sliding down that cliff on the planetoid mass. He feels like that now, like Tim's whipped the floor out of their conversation and he's doesn't know when he's going to hit safety.
'Why does everything have to be about that computer?'
Martin frowns, cheeks heating with a feeling he's going to call indignation. He plants his muddy gloved hands on his hips. 'What do you mean by that?'
'It's just . . . I'm worried about you, Martin.'
'Come on, Tim! You don't really believe that Jon,' Martin almost loses his sentence as the camera in the corner of the Greenhouse shifts to focus on the pair of them. 'That Jon could have been responsible for that body!'
Tim's mouth works for a long time before he speaks, 'Well, no. But-'
'But what?' Martin hasn't snarled at someone like this since he was about fifteen and someone asked if his mother had been donated to the cleanbots yet. The brewing anger is as foreign and hostile as the surface of a new planet but Martin knows that Jon hasn't done anything but try to help. And he won't let Tim suggest otherwise. Instead of being startled into an apology, Martin watches as Tim doubles down, brow furrowed and knuckles white.
'For fuck's sake.' He laughs. It's an ugly thing. 'Do you actually have feelings for a paranoid bunch of wires with an ability for mental maths?'
If Martin felt like the start of the conversation was the floor slipping away, this feels like the abrupt opening of an airlock. He opens his mouth but the only sound that comes out is a strangled wheeze. Yes. A traitorous and irrational part of him answers. Yes.
His heart is racing as Tim steps forwards. It feels like it's the only part of him that's moving, the rest is frozen in shock. He doesn't move even as Tim's large hands raise to cup each side of his face, as his pained eyes swim close into view and flicker closed. Tim has a tiny freckle on the bridge of his nose that goes blurry as his fingers pull their faces together until their lips meet.
Martin remains stuck in place, like a scarecrow in the garden he's made here in space, even as Tim pulls back. Tim's eyelashes flutter on his cheek and Martin watches the dawning panic in his eyes as he takes in the dumbstruck horror on Martin's face.
'Shit.' He whispers, finally dropping his hands from Martin's face and raising them to pull at his own hair. 'I'm sorry - I -' He pauses, clearly hoping Martin is going to say something. Or at least move. 'I'm so sorry.' They stare at each other and, for once, everything in Martin's head is centred on one thing. A question: was everything Tim had done for him - tweaking his Broth, protecting him on the surface, believing him about Gertrude - some attempt at seduction? He'd thought what Tim had done for him had been the greatest gift that any friend could ever do for another. But what if it wasn't a gift? What if it was payment?
'I thought you were my friend.' He croaks. Somehow, Tim pales even further.
'I was your - Martin, I am your friend.' He reaches for Martin's hands and the shorter man pulls them away. 'I'm so sorry, that was - that was all wrong.' He balls his hands into fists in front of his eyes. 'I know you like Jon, I know that. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-'
'You should have asked.' Martin hates how small his voice sounds, even in this new body. He feels the weight of Jon's eyes on him and feels sick.
'I know, I know, I'm sorry.' Tim stares at the floor and Martin takes him in. Tim: always the first to crack a joke and try and cheer everyone up. Tim: on this ship to try and find the one that stole his brother. Tim: reeling now that he's found it and his hopes of being reunited have been dashed. Tim: terrified of losing anybody else. Martin takes a deep breath.
'It was a shit kiss, anyway.' The joke comes out as more of a squeak but it has the desired effect. Tim glances up, coughing up a startled laugh out of his lungs.
'I don't want you to try again.' Martin cuts him off before he's misunderstood.
'I know.' Tim swallows. 'I'm sorry.'
'I still want to be your friend.'
'Me too. I need friends right now.' The reminder of their current situation causes a shadow to pass over Tim's face. He shoves his hands back into his pockets, elbows pointing out at his sides like one of the old action figures Martin used to play with as a kid. Martin ignores the fact that he used to make those action figures kiss.
'I should . . .' Tim clears his throat. 'Go find out where this missing chamber is.'
'Yeah.' Martin agrees, 'Let me know if you need help. I just need to finish off a few things in here.' He smiles a weak smile, 'We have tomatoes.'
'Oh, that's . . . That's really great.' They stare at each other, 'I'll see you later.'
The door to the Greenhouse opens before Tim has even turned to exit. Martin, already back on his knees by the tomato plants, misses the look that Tim tries to share with him as the door closes behind him. Oops, it would have said, Jon's not happy.
?query: emotion ???
Jon doesn't know what is happening inside his system right now. It's like that other program he sometimes suspects is working in the background has performed some kind of sudden override and he can't seem to process a single command correctly. He knows Basira is asking him to pull up footage from something and Sasha wants a door locking and Daisy is taking notes that he should be making copies of but, even as he starts these tasks he knows he's not going to finish them.
They can wait, the crew. They can wait. Jon is clearly malfunctioning and, honestly, he would take the spider over this, he really would.
?query: emotion ???
?query: what does a kiss feel QUERY OVERRIDEN BY ARCHIVIST 2.0
He tries to refocus. To ignore the frankly traitorous questions he's asking of himself. He thirsts for knowledge but there are some things that it's just not necessary for a computer to know. There are so many things he could be learning that would be both useful and applicable.
Right. He thinks. Basira wanted -
'Jon?' A small voice cuts right through his regained focus. Martin.
After Stoker had finally removed himself from The Greenhouse, Martin had dutifully returned to tending to the plants. Albeit, with breaks at regular intervals where he would blink rapidly before screwing his eyes shut and breathing heavily for a few seconds.
?query: what does it mean when a human likes QUERY OVERRIDEN BY ARCHIVIST 2.0
Jon watches him now, hovering at the exit to the Greenhouse. A bee floats by his head and Martin watches it calmly. The relationship between humans and anthophila changed dramatically when they learnt how to breed them without the sting.
'Jon?' Martin repeats, green eyes following the path of the bee. Jon doesn't know why he's grateful that Martin isn't looking into the lens of the camera until his gaze shifts to it and, suddenly, Jon never wants him to look anywhere else again. I'm malfunctioning, Jon decides. 'Please can you let me out?'
Jon has already decided that the crew are going to be experiencing a short delay in their requests while he deals with whatever the hell is hijacking his concentration and there is no reason why Martin should be an exception to this. Unlike the rest of the crew, who are now repeating their commands at increasing levels of volume at a camera, Martin seems to accept Jon's silence as his due and settles down onto the mat by the door, resting his head against the glass. He looks so forlorn that Jon almost considers redoubling his efforts at concentrating enough to manipulate the ship.
'I'm sorry.' Martin's breath fogs up the glass and he wipes it away with his sleeve. 'I, um, didn't want you to find out like that.'
Martin's words race through the wiring to the control room and Jon's system sends out queries immediately in response.
?query: find out what?
?query: find out WHAT like HOW?
His search yields no helpful answers.
He returns his attention to Martin and is confused to find that the man is crying. He wipes away his tears with a dirty cuff and leaves a tiny trail of dirt on his wet cheeks. Jon wishes he could get rid of it for him.
'I'm sorry if,' He sniffs. Jon is beyond perplexed. 'When I touched your control room it felt the same -' A breath, fogging up the glass once more. He leaves it this time, wiping at his face again instead. 'As that just did for me. I - I didn't know. I didn't mean to make you feel viol-' He seems to rethink his words. 'I'm sorry if it felt bad.'
Jon finds a voice from somewhere.
The look on Martin's face is a curious blend of shock and hope. He scrambles to his feet as Jon finds the sequence of commands that will open the door to The Greenhouse. They were never lost from him, not really. Martin speeds towards the control room like a shuttle launch, almost burning up in his haste to get there. Jon opens the door ahead of his arrival to stop him from crashing.
The man seems to lose his momentum once he's inside and the door slides shut behind him. He pushes his coppery fringe out of his eyes and Jon zooms in on his face far enough to see the indents his incisors make on his bottom lip.
?query: what does a kiss QUERY OVERRIDEN BY ARCHIVIST 2.0
He needs to concentrate.
Martin's eyes, as always, flick to that spot on the wall. In the bright light of the panelling, they look the colour of Earth's landmass from orbit. I want to take you home with me, Martin had said. He seems unaware that he's carrying his home planet with him even as the Institute traces a route further away from it.
'May I?' Martin's question is barely a whisper, just detectable by the microphones in the control room. Jon finds the part of his system that is still replaying the footage of Martin standing stock-still, mouth slack with shock, as Tim kisses him and closes it. The section of his user manual about free will makes up the greatest proportion of the file. That is to say, he knows a lot about its grey areas and wants no part in them.
'If you want to.' The skin either side of Martin's eyes creases in unexpected amusement. He might whisper: of course I want to, he might just exhale shakily. Either way, he takes an unsteady step until Jon measures there to be a 41cm distance between his chest and the panelling. Jon braces himself, watching Martin from every angle as he raises both hands and slowly, slowly, presses his palms against the matte glow of the screen.
Martin lets out a surprised gasp as, instead of the trails of code exploding away from his fingers like he's blown up a part of Jon's processor, the streams of numbers halt and then change direction, flowing along diagonal lines into Martin's hands. It's as though Martin is suctioning the code out of him but that's not right at all. It's the opposite. Jon is giving it to him. Feeding him it. He desperately wants to.
Now that Jon was expecting it, he can enjoy it properly, the heat and gentle tremble in Martin's palms, the whorl of his fingerprints that, after this, no-one in the galaxy will ever know better than Jon. He can feel the pulse in the muscle bulk of Martin's thumb. It races like a frightened rabbit against the panel and Jon wishes Martin were hooked into the physiological monitoring inside one of the terrasuits right now. He wants to read the sharp rise and fall of his heart trace, to know exactly where on his body hairs are standing to attention, to know the exact chemical composition of the breath that puffs through those bitten lips and into Jon's control room. Those lips.
?query: what does a kiss feel like?
'Jon?' Martin raises his voice to a proper whisper. 'Is this okay?'
answer: needs experimental validation
'Would you - ?' Jon starts then stops. This is a new part of the malfunction. An AI should never stumble over their words. Jon doesn't think his manual covers this kind of interaction. 'Would you-'
'Jon?' Martin is about to take his hands away, Jon can feel the electrical impulses signalling to the muscle fibres in his wrist and no, no, no.
'Would you put your lips on the-'
'- Oh!' Martin's face suffuses with pink and Jon hopes that, if he does bring his lips to the wall, those freckled cheeks will be close enough for him to be able to detect the heat from them. To measure it. 'I - hah.' He hesitates, seemingly mesmerised by the way the code disappears into his fingertips. If only it were actually transferring inside of Martin, then the man would be able to take him home. 'Are you sure?'
'Yes.' Jon doesn't intend for his tone to imply that Martin should just get on with it. He doesn't appear to have a lot of control over himself at the moment.
Martin's lips twist into a little smile as he leans closer and closer to the panelling and, surely, that must be better than the gormless droop of his mouth when Tim had kissed him. Jon can see the reflection of his code on Martin's corneas, the way threads of it starts to convalesce into a spot between Martin's hands. Here, please, it says.
Nothing could have prepared him.
He feels everything and nothing at once. He seems to lose the outer reaches of his branches into the ship first as they drop away into a dark oblivion. The sensation swoops inwards, Jon becoming blind to the rest of the ship until all that remains are the three points of contact between Martin's skin and the wall of his control room. And he could fill his data banks just with the knowledge of how the skin of Martin's lips is so much more delicate and softer than the skin on his hands but the dry skin where his lips have been repeatedly bitten into scratches more than the calloused bumps where his fingers join his palm. The light from Jon's panels makes Martin's skin almost translucent, like a starry sky with the colours inverted, his clusters of freckles like star systems. His eyes flicker shut and Jon can see that each individual eyelash has a slightly different pigment, some like a curl of copper wiring, some more like spun gold.
'Oh.' Jon, the pinnacle of millenia of scientific research, says intelligently. The muscles pushing Martin's lips forwards into a tiny pout ripple and contract as his smile stretches further across his face.
answer: when a human likes you they kiss you and smile
Jon would be content to stay like this forever - to record and categorise and compare and feel - but Martin pulls back, cheeks once again filling with pink as he watches Jon's code swim around on the panel like it doesn't know where to go now Martin's lips have been taken away.
Parts of the rest of the ship start to come back to him, he feels himself humming outwards, reclaiming himself with a surprising vigour. This ship is mine. He thinks as he races through the chambers, stares down at the corridors from a hundred dizzying angles.
In the control room, Martin opens his mouth.
'I-' From between his parted lips, Jon sees the tip of Martin's tongue hit a spot on his hard palate, just behind his teeth.
Whatever he had intended to say next, it started with an L.
thank you so much for reading! please let me know what you thought in the comments because I've been planning that scene for a long-ass time and I really hope it didn't come out just as Martin necking a computer screen - I would love to know your thoughts.
also! I joined tumblr this week and I'm desperate for more tma/similar podcast blogs to follow so please come get excited about spooky pods with me over there :)
Chapter 6: that which binds us
Everyone goes looking for something.
hello, everyone! once again, I just want to say thank you so much for all the love you've been giving this story, I'm enjoying how appropriately concerned a lot of you are about what's to come immensely! is that mean? I don't know. either way, I really hope you enjoy this next chapter!
cw: weapons including explosives, reference to blackmail, reference to the au equivalent of a hospital and surgery
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
'I-' Martin starts.
He chokes on the next word, suddenly hit with an explosion of adrenaline. His stomach is in his mouth, his heart is between his ears, roaring, and he feels like he might have just lost contact with the floor. He always knew admitting his feelings was going to be difficult but, even so, he thinks as he begins to ascend from the floor of Jon's control room, this seems a little excessive.
The beautiful, starlight glow of Jon's panels turns a flashing scarlet red and Martin's stomach shoots right back down to his knees as the gravity filter comes back on and he's dropped back to the floor without ceremony. The three places on the wall Martin had touched shimmer a pure, incriminating white against the strobing warning lights.
'Jon?' He squeaks, 'Oh, sh-' The curse flows out of him in a panicked hiss. 'What have I done? Jon? What have I done?' He almost whimpers in relief as Jon's voice fills the control room.
'It's not you.' He says, 'We appear to be stuck.'
'What?' Martin looks around himself despite the obvious lack of any windows in the control room. 'Stuck? What?'
'You need to go to The Table - now!'
Martin twitches as though to leave but his feet stay firmly planted in front of Jon's panels. We just - he thinks, eyes glued to his marks on Jon's wall. He desperately wants to acknowledge the fact that he's just offered up a large part of himself to Jon and needs to know what the computer thinks about it.
'Go, Martin!' Jon snaps. Martin feels a pang in his chest that feels suspiciously like the start of a heartbreak. A chill runs all the way down each arm and settles in his fingertips. One of Jon's cameras must catch the way his face falls because his voice softens, 'Martin.'
'Sorry, sorry. I'll go it's just-' I feel safer here. I want to know that was good for you. I'm - His thoughts pulse in time with the flashing lights. Martin considers the possibility that Jon has put the gravity field back on too strong as he lifts his heavy feet to move.
'I wouldn't ask if it wasn't for the fact that the ship has stopped moving.' Martin isn't sure if the sulky undertone is actually there in Jon's voice or if he's just projecting onto empty words.
'Right, it's just-'
Humans aren't highly evolved enough for this, Martin thinks bitterly as he darts up the stairs to Smirke's Table. The Magnus Institute might be about to fall from its course forever and all he can think about is the smooth warmth of Jon against his lips, about whether or not Jon understands how much he means to him. He takes a shaky breath as he reaches the table, resting his trembling hands on the cold gloss of its surface. A cleanbot trundles along by his feet, completely unaware of the chaos both inside of Martin and outside the ship. Martin is wondering what would happen to all the bots if the rest of them died when Tim comes pelting up the stairs.
He stops when he sees Martin, the muscles of his jaw working underneath his pink cheeks. Martin hopes it's not completely obvious that he's just come up from the control room, hopes that Tim can't read what he's just done with Jon from the twitch in his fingers or the slant of his lips.
'What the fuck is going on?' He pants once he's recovered.
'I - I don't know.' Martin looks at his hands as Tim strides to the other side of the table from him and then glances up at the sound of approaching footsteps, grateful for the intrusion.
'Archivist?' Basira asks as she and Daisy join them at the table, 'Why has the ship stopped?' There's a pause where Jon says nothing and Martin feels as though he might just vomit across the pristine white surface between them all. Then, a metallic whir as the centre of the table opens up and the projector flickers to life.
'I think it may be better if I just show you.' Jon says, tone grim.
Martin leans forward, squinting, as the projected image comes into focus. It appears to be a collection of views from the cameras that point out of the ship and one from an expansive window that Martin has never seen before. He figures it must be in Elias' office, because of course the Head of the Institute would grant himself the best view. The images show the sides of the ship, lit by the safety lighting and a beautiful sleek grey against the impenetrable darkness of the space surrounding them. If Martin's sense of direction is correct, there appears to be something clinging to the tail-end of The Institute, thousands of off-white strands twisted together to form bundles of rope-like material, thicker than any tree trunk Martin has even seen. The ropes fan out as they reach the ship, like the splay of a dangerously adhesive root system trying to snake its way into any weak points. They seem to centre over the part of the ship that houses the laboratories and artefact storage, but the overall effect is that of a great net that has appeared out of nowhere to snatch the ship from its route. Martin braces himself as the images show the engines releasing a blast of propulsive energy but the ship remains stuck tight. The thought of giant spiders in space suddenly seems a lot less like an amazing fact to write home about.
No-one speaks. Martin's not even sure if anyone is breathing.
'Jon, where's Sasha?' Daisy eventually asks. Martin catches his frown at her almost friendly use of his name. He glances over to see that Basira wasn't quite as quick at catching her emotions, she's looking at Daisy as though she's just announced that it was she, after all, who murdered Gertrude. A tight, uneasy pity clenches in Martin's chest as the projected images shift to show several angles of Sasha in the laboratory, staring at that awful, awful table. They all watch her head tilt slowly to the side, like an animal listening to a command, as Jon tells her to make her way to The Table. She shakes her head and her mouth moves.
'She says she's working.'
Martin and Tim both open their mouths but they’re cut off by a frustrated growl from Basira as she slams a hand down through the projected image in frustration.
'Earth below! Why isn't anything normal on this ship?' She stares at Daisy for an answer, dark eyes roiling like the ground before a volcanic eruption. Before any of them can begin to formulate an answer, there's an electronic beeping and the image of Sasha's glassy stare is split in two and replaced with that of Elias's face. The lines around his eyes and mouth seem deeper than before, tense and unhappy.
'Terribly sorry I can't join you. As I'm sure you can imagine, there are a number of organisations I need to contact regarding this sticky situation we appear to have found ourselves in.' Elias sighs as though the fact that the ship is stuck in transit hundreds of lightyears away from the nearest safe planet is a matter of some more paperwork to fill out. Martin catches Tim's eye across the table. The man looks murderous. 'That includes the Intergalactic Peace and Security Board.'
'Isn't it just wonderful that the big boss can't find the time to walk down the stairs and join us at this Table where we're all supposed to stand as equals.' He mutters. Basira shoots him a cold look.
'Leave it, Stoker.' Daisy growls. It's hard to tell through the light of the projector, but Martin thinks she looks a little paler than she did a moment ago. Martin can't imagine what issues a detective would have with the Peace Board.
'What's your problem?' Tim snarls in response.
'That Board is corrupt as fuck.' She grinds out, staring at the projected form of Elias' face instead of meeting their eyes. 'We'd better hope we find a way out of these webs before they arrive.'
'Ah,' Elias beams down like a pleased tutor, 'An excellent idea, Detective Tonner. We're so close to our next planet that we can only assume that this interruption is an attack upon the ship and respond accordingly.'
As if reading his mind, or, perhaps, forgetting how to properly control the projector, Jon pulls up the images of the outside of the ship. Elias isn't wrong, if Martin stares hard into the distance, he can see the spherical shape of a planet. It spins - red, white, red, white - and Martin is back on that ship, running through the tunnels to catch up with Sasha, already stalked by a giant hand with a peeling patchwork of skin and too many nails. He inhales sharply. He knows what the planet is.
From the look on Tim's face, so does he.
'Destroy the webs. I'd hate to involve the Board.' Elias says finally before the call ends and he disappears.
'Jon?' Martin dares to speak. He feels the others' eyes land on him and mentally convinces himself that there's no physical way they can know about the kiss. He just needs to stay calm. Act professional. 'Have you been able to get a reading on what the web stuff actually is?'
'The investigations are still running, but I can confirm that it's made of protein.'
'Great.' Tim interrupts. His hands are back in his pockets again, forearm muscles jumping repetitively. 'It'll burn. That's all we need to know.' Martin opens his mouth to protest, surely they can't just set the outside of the ship on fire, but loses his words at the sight of Daisy's enthusiastic nod.
'What about -?' Martin swallows, 'What about the missing Broth chamber?' He fervently hopes that the security officers had been briefed on that development, the last thing he wanted to do was get Tim in trouble. Daisy nods at that too and relief spills through him like a tide.
'Clearly, we're going to need to pause the current investigation.' Daisy gives Basira a meaningful look, 'So, Stoker, you can come with me and find some explosives. Basira, can you take Martin and find this chamber?' Basira nods and Martin tries to smile but gets ignored.
'Wait!' Tim interrupts. A shifty, almost shameful look cross his face. 'Um, what are we going to do about Jon?' Martin feels his mouth drop open. Tim won't meet his eyes. 'He's been malfunctioning a bit. Sasha said she'd look into it but . . . Obviously she hasn’t.'
'Right, well -' Basira starts but Daisy cuts her off. Tension sparks between the pair of them as their eyes meet. Martin chews on his lip and blushes when he remembers where it's just been.
'Jon?' Daisy folds her arms, voice decisive and unyielding.
'Just, don’t do anything, okay?'
The assembled crew leave the table like a very short line of ants, frantic but purposeful in their movements. Martin hurries to keep up with Basira and she sighs internally, swatting him in the direction of the labs with a wave of her hand.
'Look, Martin, I need to talk to Daisy about something. Can you get started and I'll catch you up?'
'Uh, yeah, sure?' He hovers still.
'Go on then?'
'Right. Yeah.' He steps neatly past her and Daisy on the stairs and shuffles off towards the door. Basira doesn't miss the look he shoots towards the control room as he goes.
She hears Daisy giving Stoker a similar instruction and he marches off in the opposite direction, but not before appraising the pair of them with a suspicious glance. Basira steps down until she's on the stair above Daisy's and angles her body so that both of their mouths are shielded from the view of the cameras. Daisy looks up at her, expression as smooth and flat as an untouched lake. Basira always wanted to learn how to do that. It reminds her of the still of a predator, when it's camouflaged and waiting to pounce. She folds her arms.
'I think we both know what the problem is here.' Daisy follows her pointed look towards the control room and meets Basira's eyes again, expression unchanged.
'I'm not convinced we have enough evidence to make proper conclusions yet.'
Basira doesn't necessarily disagree with her. But that doesn't mean they have to do nothing. In the whole time they've worked together, she has no recollection of them standing back and doing nothing.
'Alright, but our investigation is being hindered by the computer. You can't deny that.'
'Well-' Daisy starts. Basira tucks her mouth in close to her partner's ear, whispering low to avoid prying microphones picking up on anything she doesn't want them to know. After so long in Broth, Daisy no longer smells like herself.
'Daisy, he has footage of Elias going down into the tunnels that he hasn't even mentioned to us!'
'Basira,' Daisy's voice has a warning note in it, 'How could the computer-?'
'Even if he didn't,' Basira hisses, 'The answer is on that computer and if we could just install a new system then it might actually help us find it!'
'What, and uninstall Jon?'
'He's not a person, Daisy, he's AI. A malfunctioning AI at that.' With Daisy's newly bald scalp it's possible to see the flicker of the muscle by her temple. Basira wonders if she'd always had that little sign of stress, previously hidden away by her hair, or if it's new.
'You say that, but what about Gertrude?'
'Gertrude is exactly who we're going to help by doing this! There's no justice for her if this goes unsolved.' Basira feels the fire of her certainty burn hotter at the sight of Daisy's unconvinced expression. 'I think I know how to do it.' She murmurs.
'Oh, did Elias tell you?' Daisy makes her contempt of their boss abundantly clear in the way she purrs his name. Basira flattens her lips into a thin, straight line. Once, it had seemed like the pair of them were always instinctively on the same page. It had made them the best partners the New Old London Metropolitan Police had seen in decades. There is only one person in the entirety of the universe who Basira trusts more than Daisy. That person is Basira herself.
'Daisy, how many times have I trusted you to do the right thing even if it's not by the book?' Daisy blinks at her, clearly not expecting the exasperated outburst. Basira stares at the unfairly symmetrical lines of Daisy's face, cast half in shadow from where Basira blocks the light. There's a heavy feeling in her chest, an ache almost like grief which she chooses to interpret as the moral weight of the decision she's already made. 'If you're not going to be my partner on this then I'm going to find out how to do it alone. If the computer isn't helping us, it's hindering us and we need a system that's going to help us right now.'
'Basira-' Daisy starts, voice low and almost pleading.
'I'll be in the tunnels.' Basira turns on her heel and takes the rest of the stairs at a jog.
She breathes past the lump in her throat and swallows it down firmly. She knows what she's doing.
Jon adjusts the zoom on his view so that he can fully appreciate the way Elias' reflection contorts in the glass of his window as he rests his head against it. The Head of the Magnus Institute is acting out of character. Jon takes in the straight line formed by his body, perfectly polished boots on the floor, forehead pressed against the glass. He stares directly into one of the pearly patches of web that obscure his otherwise magnificent view as though the force of his gaze can melt the fibres away. Somehow, this is even more concerning that dropping in on the feed to find Elias staring back at him. The man seems genuinely rankled. There's a receiver by his lips, connected to an earpiece like an extra black smile across his cheek and he mutters into it darkly.
'So, was this the plan all along?' He seethes. 'Oh, please come and take this awful creature out of my hairy hands, I beg you.' Jon searches his database for a rough match for the smooth drawl Elias mimics. He recalls a conversation from one of his earliest moments as The Archivist. There had been a female voice. She'd offered Elias something.
'I'm simply allowing you the opportunity to rethink your options before hurling your institution into the great unknown.' An alert pings as Jon recognises the new speaker as the same voice as before.
?query: who is this?
His search returns nothing. Elias' lips curl into a snarl.
'Perhaps, I should share with you some wisdom that I recently imparted to one of my crew members: if something isn't functioning as a part of my plan, it can be cut away easily and without hesitation.' The snarl curdles into the smirk of a child wielding a magnifying glass on a sunny day. 'Don't forget, I can see you now. Whatever dark space you crawl away into.'
Jon watches as he ends the comms call with a stab of one of his manicured fingers and pushes himself away from the window in disgust. As he sinks down into the seat behind his expanse of a desk, Jon watches, perplexed.
?query: what plan? what creature?
Down the stairs and in the control room, Jon's processors whir. The man shuffles some of the open programs around on the screen in front of him before meeting eyes with the camera facing the him. He smiles and it's awful.
'Oh, Jon.' He says, voice oddly soft as though he's trying to soothe The Archivist. 'Don't be surprised to learn that I have a plan. I have plenty.' Jon finds himself recoiling from the feed even though he couldn't stop watching it if he tried. Elias' blue eyes turn suddenly hard, like Jon has been swimming through them, only to hit the iron wreckage of a sunken ship. 'Currently, I want to get to that planet.' He flicks his head in the direct of the window. The blurry spinning-top of a planet lurks, so far away as to be almost imperceptible, in the dark expanse of the space around them. 'Make sure you're helping, Jon.'
Jon pauses, trying to decide if Elias's words were meant as a genuine threat or a command in an poorly-considered tone. When Tim had threatened him it had at least been obvious. That was one thing Tim was good for. His simplicity.
Thinking of Assistant Stoker pushes Jon very close to being unable to focus on Elias' monologue. He briefly pulls up the view of the corridor, watching Martin's hurried steps towards the far end of it. He runs a hand through his hair as he goes, clearly stressed, and Jon starts to set up a sequence of commands to use the speakers in the walls to ask if he's -
He overrides himself and refocuses on Elias. Those eyes are still locked on Jon's camera. He doesn't blink.
'What awful creature?' He asks. Elias looks positively delighted at the question.
'I do hope we don't find out.'
Daisy plants her hands on her hips. The muscle at her temple jumps.
'This isn't right.' She says. To her left, Tim Stoker nods. The wall in front of them is made of a smartly organised system of lockers. Blasters and laser guns of all shapes and sizes sit behind panes of glass. A scanner, just bigger than the size of the average human palm, sits to the side of each container. The strip of red light at the base of each announces that the weapons are currently sealed away. That's not the problem. The problem is that the stores appear to be half-empty.
'What if the person who murdered Gertrude has been stashing weapons away?' Stoker spit-balls. Daisy almost shakes her head, desperate to sigh, but holds herself back. Leave the Detective work to me, Stoker. She thinks. And Basira. Her mind tacks on a second later.
She meets Tim's eyes and he looks at her expectantly. Instead of snapping at him, she strides over to one of the sealed containers. This one has a curved, metal door concealing its contents. Daisy knows that means there should be something good inside. Something that would panic nervous little academics if they knew they were sharing a home with it. Explosives, for example.
She presses her hand against the scanner and the light turns green. The door pops open with a pressurised hiss of air.
'Shit.' Daisy hisses back as the compartment that had promised her enough ammo to blast the webs off the side of the ship and then some reveals itself to be completely empty.
'What was supposed to be in there?' Tim asks.
'VenusFire.' Daisy replies simply. Tim curses in shock but she barely hears him, caught up in the memory of the first time she and Basira had been called to a case where the stuff had been used. After clearing the site, they'd got back into the shuttle and Basira had pulled her into a rough embrace. Even as they choked on the smell of sulfur and burnt flesh radiating from the other's hair and clothes, Daisy had gripped her back just as tightly. Yeah, that stuff would disperse the webs, alright.
'Are you serious?' Tim's voice is at least three notes higher than usual. 'We have VenusFire on the ship and it's fucking missing?'
Daisy says nothing, fixing him with a flat look to hopefully prevent any ascension into hysterics. Tim appears oblivious to the fact that these containers aren't meant to lock again if they're empty. It's a safety feature to ensure that the crew don't forget to restock if they need to use the weapons at any point. For the lockers to seal themselves again without the correct stock there must have been some kind of system override from higher up. Daisy suddenly feels the pinprick awareness of Jon's cameras on her face. She thinks about what Basira had whispered on the staircase. Just because you don't think that she's right, doesn't exclude the possibility that she could be, Daisy reminds herself. A queasy feeling churns in her stomach. But, even if Jon was behind it all, he'd need a member of the crew to do the actual heavy-lifting. She glances at Tim who has started jigging at her side, abject fear manifesting itself as a nervous tic. His reaction to the missing weapons had seemed genuine enough. She tries to imagine Martin Blackwood sneaking armfuls of dangerous explosives through the ship in the dead of night and just can't do it. Sasha, on the other hand . . .
'If you were to hide something on this ship, where would you do it?' She asks. Tim furrows his brow.
'I've never had to hide much more than a box of cereal bars and there's a difference between that and billions of coins of ammunition . . . Or a Broth chamber.'
'Jon?' Daisy watches something brief and tense flash across Tim's face. Interesting. 'Is there anywhere else other than the tunnels that you can't see?'
'I thought I wasn't meant to be doing anything.' A voice from the ceiling replies curtly. Tim scowls but Daisy can't help but find his pity party a little amusing.
'Answer my question.' She fights down her smile.
'I also can't see into Elias's private chambers.' He admits, sounding thoroughly disgruntled at the fact. Daisy and Tim share an uneasy look.
'Shall we start with the tunnels, then?' Tim suggests. Daisy is already reaching for a pair of helmet cams.
'Left.' Daisy directs as Tim reaches the bottom of the stairs behind her. She and Basira had already performed a reasonably thorough search of the corridor and chambers leading off to the right when they came down to search for the body so it made sense to, instead, seek out whatever probable horrors lurked around the bend of the corridor that lead the other way. Tim is doing a better job than expected at keeping up with her but, still, Daisy wishes it were Basira at her right-hand.
Their boots drop slowly onto the metal grid of the flooring, far too loud in the otherwise quiet hum from the wiring surrounding them. Daisy plants her index finger on the trigger of her blaster as they approach the bend in the corridor and takes a second to ready herself before spinning around the corner, landing with her knees bent, weapon ready, and eyes scanning the new view in front of her. Some parts of the training just never leave you.
The new section of corridors is slightly wider than the one behind them. Loose wiring hangs from the ceiling in black, plastic loops and, with her height, Daisy would be destined to garrote herself if she took the corridor at a run. The walls are made from a dull metal panelling that may once have been shiny but has since begun to rust. Several of the panels have fallen off the wall onto the same grid flooring as before. Daisy squints down through the holes to see more bundles of wires running beneath their feet. She wonders if these too coalesce in that weird room with the green light.
They proceed, ducking under the coils of wire and trying not to accidentally slip on an abandoned plate of the panelling. Daisy scans the walls and the floor for any abnormality that might indicate someone has been down here. The stretch of corridor is longer than it seems and it doesn't take long for Tim to start talking again, apparently lulled by the current lack of surprise corpses.
'So,' He starts. Daisy grits her teeth. 'You're not the chatty type outside of interrogations then?' What sort of question is that? She wants to snap.
'No.' She ducks to inspect a fallen panel, half-hoping to find signs that someone had prised it from the wall. It just looks knackered. Tim sighs.
'Well, if you fancy a chat to pass the time. I'm a friendly guy.'
She almost snorts. The Tim Stoker she had seen swung between falsely jovial and immediately furious. Though, in fairness, few people were friendly to the people who were there to work out if they were a murderer or not.
'You're an angry guy.' She points out. She doesn't turn to see Tim's face but she hears the sound of him opening and closing his mouth in shock.
'Yeah, well.' He admits bitterly, 'We all have our reasons for being on this ship. I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours.'
An unexpected wave of emotion rises up from Daisy's stomach and settles as a ball of hurt between her lungs. All at once, she's back in that stinking office, listening to that bastard cough around his cigarette that Daisy had better find herself a way off-planet or her pretty little partner was going to find herself in a world of pain. She remembers the bewilderment in Basira's brown eyes when she told her what they needed to do and how it had settled quickly and firmly into the grit of determination she valued so much in her partner. Basira had placed her hand on top of Daisy's and said: 'whatever we need to do, we'll do it'.
And for what? The question bursts spitefully in her mind like a capillary bed between teeth. Basira was down here somewhere too, on her own when she should be filling Stoker's position. Her partner. She hoped she was still her partner.
Tim's offer makes her want to snarl, to whip around and make sure he knows that he will never understand the domino effect that brought her and Basira here. She'd been trying to protect Basira. But that had always been part of the problem: Daisy going for the jugular when she should have been trying to seek out that quiet space in her mind that allows her to think rationally. It's what she was trying so hard to do on this case.
Daisy stops in her tracks and flinches as Stoker halts himself a second too late and ends up bumping into her shoulder. She listens for the sound of footsteps. For any sign that Basira is close. In the quiet of the tunnels, she finds the quiet in her head and it tells her she should use this opportunity to get more information out of Tim. While she still has time.
'You don't want to hear it.' She eventually replies, voice gruff. The over-spilling emotion for Basira seals up like a wound being closed. She hopes the stitches hold. 'I've got some questions for you, though. Since you're so keen to chat.' Daisy twists to catch the tail end of his expression. Oh, goody, it says. She smirks as she returns to slowly creeping down the tunnel, eyes scanning for clues. 'What's your problem with Jon?'
Tim splutters, 'I don’t - I mean - I don't like - I don't appreciate being monitored all the time by a malfunctioning robot, okay?' When Daisy glances at him again his face is a mottled red. He sighs. 'I don't actually think the computer had anything to do with the body. Which, might I add, is what made it even more frustrating when he practically stalked me with the cameras once it was found! You'd think -'
'Yeah, alright.' Daisy cuts him off, musing on those sealed weapons stores. There's a computer involved in this somehow. Daisy worries that, if Basira gets her way, she might not get a chance to quiz Jon on what he knows. 'Who do you think killed Gertrude then?'
'Pft.' She hears the rustle of Tim sticking his hands back in his pockets. 'I don't know. That's my honest answer. I could speculate about anyone on this ship and that's all it would be: speculation.'
Daisy hums, non-committal. They reach another bend in the corridor and she darts around it, blaster drawn. Tim follows her a cautious second later.
'He's malfunctioning.' She prompts. Given that he was the loudest voice to argue with Jon, he certainly seemed to be sticking up for him now
'Yeah - well. Maybe he wouldn't be if Sasha had actually looked at his code when he first asked her too instead of getting -' His voice crescendos, a roar in the still of the corridors even though it barely hits above a stage-whisper. At the mention of Sasha, the sinuous creature of worry lifts its head in the pit of Daisy's stomach. Mentioning anything about her to Tim is a risk, but who else would be able to answer her questions about Broth? Jon? Basira?
'Was she always-?' Daisy trails off purposefully.
'Sasha? She's never been the warmest character on the ship but, I don't know, we were sort of friends. I've never seen her like this. It's like she's obsessed.'
See, see, Daisy turns the comment round in her mind, that's the thing. The Sasha she remembered had been the warmest character on the ship.
'I don't remember Sasha being cold.' She admits. It seems to spill out into the empty corridor ahead like the walls themselves are listening.
'Huh? You guys have been awake together?'
'I -' Daisy doesn't turn to look at him. Instead, she drops to the floor again to inspect the loose panelling. A little gentle prising and it falls off completely, revealing nothing but a mess of wiring behind it. 'I don't think I remember her the same way as anyone else.' Tim takes a moment to process this. Daisy rises to her full height, suddenly aware of the discomfort of having someone tower over you as you admit something to them.
'You . . . Think that - your memory?'
Suddenly, it feels like she's given far too much away. Daisy wheels on him, 'I'm fine.' She growls and Tim holds his hands up in mock-surrender.
'Alright! Heavens.' He mutters. Daisy forces herself to relax. 'Memories are pretty safe in Broth though. They did a study once - heavens knows how much people were paid for it - where they took a bunch of people and had a computer watch all of their memories and it didn't affect them in the slightest.' Tim huffs a laugh, 'Half of them actually ended up getting arrested by the Board because of stuff that was uncovered from their memories.'
'Hah. Well, like I said,' Daisy says, remembering the shaking of jowls through a cloud of smoke. Cigarettes had been illegal for centuries. 'Corrupt as fuck.'
Martin isn't sure that his fragile heart is cut out for this.
He scurries back from the door and presses himself against the curved wall on the opposite side, as far away from the opening chamber as he could feasibly be. The same move he has used for all the other doors he had opened along this corridor. The scanner on the wall flashes green and he forces himself to keep his eyes wide, ready in case something jumps out at him from the dark. The door opens fully and he takes a half-step forwards, willing the motion detected lights not to come on until he's close enough to be certain that it's him who has set them off.
He jumps clean off the floor as his watch dings to announce a comms request.
'Hah, shit.' He wheezes to no-one as the watch face lights up with a little picture of Tim. His panic settles into the bottom of his stomach like a stone. They'd been in the tunnels for ages now. 'Shit!' He taps on the screen. 'Hey, are you okay? Have you found something?'
Tim's voice is slightly tinny through the earpiece, but Martin can make out the lack of urgency there just fine. 'No, ah, yeah we're okay. Just tunnels so far. What about you, have you found anything?' Martin sags with relief.
'Ah, no. Nope. Just a stashed-away box of those cereal bars that you promised you didn't steal . . .' It's awkward trying to joke with Tim like this. Martin wishes it wasn't but he can't help the squirm of worry in his gut that everything has been ruined because of his naivety and Tim's impulsiveness.
'I have no idea what you're talking about.' Tim deadpans and the feeling loosens, just a fraction. 'Hey, Daisy is just, uh, it looks like she's failing to get through to Basira, is she with you?'
'No, I've not seen her since The Table.'
'Right, okay, good. It's just, I wanted to apologise -'
'Tim -' Martin interrupts even as he knows that this is an apology he probably deserves. The weight of it just isn't something he wants to carry right now.
'- No, no, please listen. I'm sorry that I - I acted without thinking, even though I think I knew what the outcome was going to be. I just . . . You know what, never mind. I just want you to know that I still want to be your friend, just like before, and I'm going to support you where I can.'
'Thanks.' Martin sniffs.
'And, you should know that the changes to your Broth are permanent unless someone changes the settings again. Which, obviously, I'm not going to do.'
'If we ever make it back in Broth.' Martin mumbles and Tim's sigh whistles into his ear.
'Yeah.' He agrees, 'I- Oh, I have to go. Good luck finding that Broth chamber. I'll keep you updated!'
With a beep, Tim's voice is gone. Martin stands in the entrance to the adjoining room, palms sweaty and buzzing with a new happiness that flutters through his fear like a butterfly amongst a swarm of bees. They, at least, were going to be okay.
Tim had raised a good point thought, where was Basira? She'd told Martin to get started which was fine but he was growing increasingly anxious with every unused room he had to search and, Earth below, what if he found something? Another body or a weapon or - He takes a deep, shaky breath. Most likely, he's going to find nothing. And getting himself caught up in panicked fantasy isn't exactly going to help. He sighs. This would be so much easier if he could muster the courage to talk to Jon.
Martin glances at the camera at the end of the corridor to find that the beady glint of the lens is trained directly on him. He flushes pink even as he tells himself that he's the only person in the corridor so, actually, it probably means nothing. Jon had been incredibly quiet since the meeting at The Table. But then, Daisy had told him not to do anything so, again, it probably doesn't mean that he's disgusted at what happened back in his control room.
He takes a half-shuffle forwards and twitches violently as the light comes on. Seriously, he thinks as he scans the empty corridor, where the hell is Basira? He makes his mind up.
'Martin.' He responds immediately. Martin tries not to dwell on the possibility that Jon has been waiting for him.
'Hi!' He replies, falsely bright and immediately resenting it. 'Uh, hi. I, um, was just wondering if you'd seen Basira about at all?'
'Oh.' There's a beat of silence that might be disappointment but also could be Jon searching his feeds for any sign of Basira. Martin bites his lip. He can't cope like this.
'Are you okay?' He blurts.
'I haven't malfunctioned again, Martin, if that's what you're asking.'
'No, ah, no.' Martin looks down at his hands and then up at that camera. 'That's not what I'm asking.' Another pause. Martin's blush deepens. 'AfterIkissedyou,' He says in one mouthful, 'Are you okay?'
'Oh! Thank you for clarifying.' Thank you for clarifying, Martin repeats internally, choking. 'I - yes. Yes. I'm good.'
'Are you? Good?'
Martin turns to looking at the door. There's a tingle in his fingers that definitely wasn't there when he opened it.
'You wanted to know where Basira was?' Jon prompts. Martin blinks as he's pulled out of his memory and back into the current dire circumstances. 'I can't see her. She went down into the tunnels about an hour ago.'
'The tunnels? But -? Did she say why?'
'She had an argument with Daisy over something but I couldn't tell what. They're both down there now.'
Martin catches his upper lip between his teeth, eyebrows furrowing into a deep frown. 'Am I -? Jon, am I being set up here?' He stares into the entrance of the room with a wary suspicion. The last ten or so rooms he'd checked were exactly as he'd expected but that didn't guarantee all of them were going to be.
'I won't let that happen, Martin.'
'Could you stay with me?'
A gratitude, too immense to be trusted completely, swells in Martin's gut and he finally steps into the chamber. The room couldn't be much less threatening if it tried. Martin takes an abrupt left turn to step into a brightly lit space, shiny white panelling on the walls and floor. A cleanbot snoozes in the corner but perks up at Martin's appearance as though it were ashamed of being caught sleeping on the job. It trundles in Martin's direction and Martin yelps in surprise as it crosses a patch of flooring and the floor itself suddenly starts to rise upwards to reveal the domed roof of some kind of large capsule, roomy enough to fit someone even taller than Tim in it. His heart leaps into his mouth for a split second as he thinks that this might be it, the lost Broth Chamber! It sinks abruptly as the dome remains pure white except for the small window on one side. Martin leans forwards, trying to peer through that small circle of glass and swears he can see the dance of delicate robotic arms inside. This isn't a Broth Chamber at all.
'Jon?' He asks, voice barely above a whisper. There's a crash as the unsuspecting cleanbot wheels its way off the edge of the risen floor. Martin wants to go check that it's still okay but fear holds him in place. Who knows what else might rise up from the floor with his heavy tread. 'What am I looking at?'
'It's the 12th Generation AciurgyAssist-0410.' The arms inside the machine wave as though in recognition of their name and then fall still. Martin trusts the stillness even less than the undulating movements.
'What . . . is that?'
'It's a medbot, Martin. It can perform surgery.'
Martin takes a careful step forwards. And another. 'Why isn't it in the medbay then?' He hears the now-unmistakeable fizzle in the air of Jon deciding what to say.
'I . . . Don't know. It's recorded as being in there right now.' Martin frowns, mouth dry. Who would need to hide a machine that can perform surgery in the floor of an otherwise unremarkable room? He swallows as it hits him that it could be the very same person who would surgically remove a person's eyes.
'Can we -?' He starts. He's reached the side of the machine now and it dwarfs even his own larger than average frame. Peeking through the window reveals a pristine white cot with what look suspiciously like regularly perforated gutters lining the margins. The robotic arms are curled into themselves along the edges of the bed and the whole effect is that of a clean, white bug on its back, beckoning for Martin to lay himself to rest between its arms. He swallows again. 'Can we see what the last surgery performed on here was?'
'Yes. Yes, we should be able to - ah.' Jon's voice stalls. 'Martin, there should be a screen to your left.' He finds it without difficulty and, upon detecting a human face, it comes to life with a shimmer of green light. Face not recognised. It helpfully informs him. Please contact an authorised user.
'It's not recognising my face.'
'Yes, I can see that.' Jon's reply is almost tetchy, like he's found a puzzle he can't crack and he's blaming Martin. From this angle, the robotic arms glint viciously in the light. Martin is acutely aware that it's just him and Jon here, the two members of the ship under the most scrutiny. He thinks trying to hack into a medbot won't do him any favours in that department. He tears his attention away from the machine and steps over the apparently unharmed cleanbot to investigate the walls. If secret surgery was being performed here, it would stand to reason that the missing Broth Chamber could be nearby.
Each cupboard door that slides open is another held breath, an anxious pounding in his heart and a feverish, barely believed hope that this one will be the one that holds the secret he's trying to find.
They're all empty.
'Jon?' Martin whispers. He stares into the back of an empty cupboard, where a discarded box of latex gloves lays abandoned, and wants more than anything to be back in that moment in the control room. It feels like a lifetime ago already, which seems incredibly unfair to Martin given that he might never get the chance to do it again.
'Keep looking, Martin.'
Jon isn't supposed to do anything. Those were his orders.
He's been trying to focus his attention in on himself, watching Martin closely as promised but otherwise staring down into his control room and trying not to worry at the boundary between the bottom of the ship and the tunnels beneath. His system informs him that he is sulking and he spends ten minutes looking that up before deciding that: no, actually, he's not.
The difficulty in not doing anything is that he's still forced to watch as Martin flinches and curses his way through his task with absolutely no help. The brief, tense confrontation Basira and Daisy had held on the stairs has rekindled his paranoia and he can't help but feel incredibly apprehensive about what Basira is doing down in the tunnels. She should be guiding Martin.
Jon watches as Martin's shoulders heave in a steadying breath as he reaches out to open the door to a new chamber. He was going to be a wreck by the end of this.
?query: is there anyone else who can help him?
Not Sasha, Jon thinks reflexively, the notion of pushing her in closer proximity to Martin sending a recoiling shudder through his wiring. He flicks to the camera feed showing Artefact Storage and zooms in on Sasha's face. She looks strangely peaceful today. Though, perhaps only in comparison to the tense wrinkles in the brows of all the other humans who understand the risk of failing to get out of the webs. He stares at her flat expression and thinks of the tremble in Martin's hands, the flickering muscle in Daisy's temple, Elias' shark smile. He can't do nothing.
'Sasha, are you aware that the ship is in a state of crisis at the moment?' For a second, he is sure that she is going to ignore him. She sways slightly on her feet as though rocking back from the table only to be pulled forward again.
'Oh, Jon.' She says. 'I know all about that which binds us. Do you?'
oo oo oo!! we are so close to unravelling some of this mess, I can feel it in my bones (and read it on my outline). also, I'm going to have to write something from daisy's pov at the end of this because she is so fun to write and I !! love !!!! her !!!!!!
thanks again for reading and I'd love it if you shared what you think in the comments - reading your crazy (and, in some cases, much less crazy) theories about how this is going to unfold really, really makes my day!
Chapter 7: an explanation
The team seek answers. Answers are found.
cw: canon-typical eyes, references to previously mentioned acts of self harm, weapons, breaking and entering
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Basira pauses in her stride and takes a moment to tuck the loose end of her hijab back into her space suit. She feels uncomfortably sticky with sweat, having forgotten just how hot these tunnels were the last time she and Daisy were down here. Like Daisy, she had chosen to turn left upon descending into the dimly lit corridors beneath the ship. She knew completely well that if she was looking for the secret of the main computer, it was going to be in that room where they had found Gertrude, but she ignored the small voice telling her to turn right. It will be good to try and get a mental map of the tunnels, she told herself. There's a possibility I might find this hidden Broth chamber down here if I take a scenic route, she told herself. I know what I'm doing, she told herself, finally.
She takes the next turn with her blaster raised, relieved and a little disappointed to find the adjoining set of tunnels completely empty. Around ten minutes in to her exploration, she had started to cling on to the idea that she might bump into Daisy and Tim down here. Not because she needed Daisy's permission or approval to do what needed to be done, but because she'd made the executive decision to mute her comms - the last thing she needed right now was Jon or Martin prodding her about what she was up to - so if Daisy had undergone a change of heart, the only way she'd know about it was for her to say it face to face.
This section of corridor is a long, straight set of curved metal arches with frequent gaps in the walls that seem to lead to small chambers on each side. After a quizzical second, it strikes her that the view seems familiar because it is. This is the section of the tunnels that they had carried Gertrude's body through. A rumbling mixture of apprehension and excitement seizes her. One of the chambers to her right must be the one containing that blinding eye of light. The tunnels must form some kind of a loop, she frowns, looking over her shoulder at the rusting panelling behind her.
She takes three steps, short and precise enough to disguise her nerves, and it's enough to bring her in line with the first chamber. There's no burning green light in her peripheral vision. She brushes past a twisted network of wires and keeps moving.
As she creeps slowly onwards she reconsiders the evidence behind her plan. The Archivist is malfunctioning. He needs fixing or replacing and, currently, they only have the time and skill for one of those options. Elias, in his own discomforting way, had told her that the green light in that chamber had something to do with the computer and that checked out - it had seemed as though every wire in the ship passed through there, clinging to the wall, ceiling and floor as they snaked towards that plinth in the centre of the room. She has an idea or two about what she might find inside that plinth. She hopes it's more wiring.
Basira inhales sharply as she takes another step forwards and her vision is flooded with a beam of light. She turns, boots silent on the bed of wiring that lines the floor, and raises her blaster. She breathes, blinking against the light to check for threatening shadows. She hates the reality that, if Gertrude were in here now, alive, she'd shoot her without hesitation.
There's no-one else in the chamber and Basira lowers her weapon an inch as she continues forwards, her free hand coming up to shield her eyes. She rounds behind the plinth, better to be able to keep an eye on her exit, and drops to her knees in the nest of wiring. Tucking her blaster into the holder by her waist, she wipes a bead of sweat from her forehead. It's louder in here, the hum of the wires loud and electronic. She wishes, again, that Daisy had come with her. Her raspy growl would oppose this artificial drone perfectly.
'Okay.' Basira whispers, casting the thought of Daisy to the back of her mind. She pulls on a pair of gloves from her pockets and slips them on. 'Okay.'
Basira reads. Unlike most of the crew, she has taken the time to learn that, before it was deemed too morally reprehensible to be allowed to continue, several of the ship designing legends - including the great Robert Smirke himself - dabbled in blurring the boundary between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. The literature was vague but, from what Basira could piece together, they'd made it to the stage where a minimal amount of human tissue was required for the process to work. The result: a state of the art computer with an unmatched talent for engaging and empathising with other humans. The computer would be as much a member of the ship's family as the human crew members. It was all very nice in theory. Provided there was always a volunteer to mutilate should the old system wear out. She suspects the plinth before her is plenty large enough to conceal part of a human body. Heavens, she thinks, someone could probably fit a whole head in there.
She shudders. The well-spoken, rational part of her brain informs her that The Magnus Institute was constructed centuries after that experimental practice was made illegal. The likelihood of finding anything but more wires inside is close to zero. Still. She imagines Gertrude, eyeless and frantic, fully aware that she has been replaced by a malfunctioning, suspicious mess of an Archivist. Trying to fix it.
The plinth is warm to the touch, even with a layer of latex between it and her skin. She starts at the bottom, smoothing her hands along the metal in the hope that her fingers will catch on a concealed button or joint that might be manipulated to open this thing up.
'Come on.' She murmurs as she reaches the top of the structure, careful to keep her eye level below the top of the stand so as to avoid being blinded by that light. There's nothing there but smooth, unyielding metal. She imagines explaining to Daisy that she came all the way down here, prolonged the inevitable by taking a longer route, and then couldn’t even get inside this metal box she was so sure was the answer to their problems.
'For fuck's-' Her gloved hand lands on her blaster for a brief moment before she whips it away with a tut. Don't be stupid, Basira, you're not going to shoot the thing. Her gloves come off with a disappointed plastic snap. She knows what she's going to do. She's going straight up out of these tunnels, she's going to find Elias and she's going to make him uninstall Jon himself.
Head full of thoughts of wiping the self-satisfied smirk off that bastard's face, Basira plants her bare palms on the top of the plinth and scrambles backwards with a gasp as the action causes the seemingly impenetrable surface in front of her to fracture into a circle of radiating lines.
'What the-?' The lines move, first forming a hexagonal gap in the plinth which widens out into a circular hole like a camera aperture opening. Basira gathers herself enough to shuffle forwards, peering into the fist-sized hole. A greenish glow emanates from inside, rippling the shadows in a slow, rocking motion. It reminds her of . . .
She scoots even closer, face almost pressed up against the opening. She blinks into the darkness, breathing shallow. Then, she sees them. She cuts off her cry of terror with a hand over her mouth, jumping back reflexively then peering closer again, desperate to be sure of what she has just seen.
Nestled in amongst the parallel trails of wiring, there sits a cylindrical glass tube. The Broth fluid inside it emits a pale green light which undulates with the movements of the fluid itself as the two white globes inside twitch and roll. Eyeballs. They move constantly, attached to the ends of the tube by the fraying ends of their optic nerves, clearly seeking out something, anything to see in the green gloom that makes their prison.
Basira feels the blood rush in her ears as she reaches a small hand through the opening to the plinth. She exhales slowly as her fingertips meet impossibly smooth glass. As her fingers wrap around the tube she thinks about pulling back, about calling Daisy to get her opinion on this mess. But, she reasons, having organic AI on the ship is highly illegal anyway, she's just doing her job. And Daisy never asked for permission, only forgiveness.
'Oh, Jon.' Sasha says. 'I know all about that which binds us. Do you?'
Jon watches as she reaches out to touch the table, slightly stubby fingers reaching, reaching for the carved surface of that artefact Elias had been so insistent they collect and Jon thinks don't touch it, and Jon thinks that which binds us?, and Jon watches, constantly, as her fingers flutter through the air as she brings them down - down -
Unseen, a glass tube comes free from its bed of wires with two satisfying clicks.
ERROR: cannot obtain visual feed
?query: run diagnostics?
?query: what? ERROR what has happened to me?
Jon spins in his system as his entire access to the ship's camera system disappears completely. It's so much like the very first sensation he ever experienced but in reverse, sensing the roots of his very being start to numb and necrose with each second of this new lack of input. This sudden blindness is overwhelming, a scream in his code that is more than just the constant stream of ERROR ERROR ERROR, it's his whole identity, his purpose. Gone.
It takes him longer than any computer engineer would be impressed to admit to realise that not everything has been lost. He can still sense the ship, still knows which chambers are sealed and which are not, still knows that the gravity filter is working well enough to keep the crews' belongings resting on benches and shelves. Jon can still hear them, even. Martin's mumbled words of encouragement to himself as he builds the courage to search a new room, Sasha's throaty laugh.
And of course she's laughing, he snarls internally, code reaching for the controls to zoom in on her facial expression and realising immediately with a barrage of ERRORERROR, that he cannot. There's no reason why her touching the table would do this to his system, it shouldn't be possible, but he can't catch enough of himself to piece together a more probable course of events. Whatever she's done, whatever that artefact is doing, it has to stop.
Jon rallies himself enough to open up communications again with the Artefact Storage chamber. It's bizarre, having to trust that his voice is going to the right place without being able to see the twitch of awareness in the listener's eyes. Martin would always subconsciously tilt his head towards the nearest speaker. It was so -
ERROR: cannot obtain visual feed His system tells him when he tries to look in on Martin. With a frustrated ripple of electrical activity, he returns to dealing with Sasha.
'Sasha? What the hell is going on? I can't -'
'Can't what?' He wastes no time attempting to unravel the tone of her voice, humans were complicated enough when he also had a facial expression to help him out.
'I- whatever it is you're doing with that table - I can't see through the cameras anymore. It's like, I'm just stuck in the system.'
Her laugh requires little interpretation. 'Oh, Archivist. I know how you feel.' Jon doubts that, he really does. 'To feel as though the ship belongs to you as much as a host body belongs to the parasite inside it.' The humour drops out of her voice like the beep of an airlock. What's left behind is cold and furious. 'I know how it feels to be caught in a web.' The last word hits Jon's processors like someone has poured water over their monitor. Webs. He remembers the creeping horror of the malfunctions he had been experiencing since they returned from that planetoid mass.
?query: were they because of this artefact? did sasha do this to me?
Sasha is still taking, 'Let me free us, Archivist.'
He tries locate the other crew members but can't even get his usual view of the open hatch down into the tunnels. His system feels vast and empty without the constant visual input requiring his attention. It's as though there is so much space inside himself now and he is inadvertently choosing to fill with panic. If any of the crew members had been entertaining thoughts about uninstalling him before, they certainly would now. Jon thinks about never seeing Martin again. There's no debate about what happens to artificial intelligence when it is destroyed.
The next minute is wildly disorientating for Jon, he can hear Sasha's boots on the floor of the chamber, he obeys her request to unlock the wall-mounted axe from behind its safety glass. He imagines himself ball of gas, contracting in on itself to form a dense, swirling nebula; or a black hole, somewhere that light cannot survive; or else, a human man, curled tight into a foetal position in despair.
Sasha grunts with exertion as the sounds of an axe meeting the strange, hard material of the table reach him in his control room. This can only help. He tells himself. The repetitive, splintering sounds continue for fourteen more seconds before Jon is startled back into full, curious awareness by the sound of the axe thudding to the floor.
'Sasha?' He asks. The only response is a high-pitched ripping sound, what he assumes must be Engineer James' own space suit coming apart at the seams. Her footsteps suddenly sound much heavier.
'Jo-on.' A new voice reaches Jon, carrying Sasha's cadence but warped somehow, as though she now contained a multitude of identities, all speaking at once.
?query: what have I done?
He reaches out to the edges of himself, poking his dead pathways with the fevered frenzy of someone quickly realising that they had just committed beingslaughter. The understanding that his feeds are not coming back hits at the same time as a new flurry of alerts, leaving Jon spinning like a pulsar inside this shell of a ship.
ALERT: engines 1-8 operating at maximum recommended thrust
ALERT: adjust zenith to return to plotted course
The ship is moving again.
Jon has no time to do more than send out a warning alert through the ship and to make sure the sudden burst of movement hasn't altered the gravity filter again when Martin's voice breaks through the scramble of his code with a laugh, breathless and exhilarated.
'Jon? You did it! We're moving again!'
'Martin!' Jon seizes the communication link between his new darkness and the man who he can no longer see as though it might save him, 'I don't know what I've done, I - I can't see!'
'What?' Jon hates the way the happiness falls out of Martin's voice.
'I can't see anything, all the feeds are gone. The whole ship and the outside view and I think - I think - Sasha, Martin, something has happened to her and you need to stay away from her, do you understand?'
'Yes, yes, okay. I can do that. Just - Just try to stay calm and we'll find a way to fix it, okay?'
'Did you feel that?' Daisy stops still, running a hand over her bald head and feeling only mildly disgusted at how sweaty it comes away. They've been wandering these tunnels for hours now, progress made slow by the required meticulousness of their hunt and even slower by Stoker's frequent attempts at light conversation.
'Um, nope?' He replies from over her shoulder. Daisy had been referring to the almost imperceptible lurch of the floor mere seconds before.
'It felt like the ship had started moving again.' She grumbles. She sets off walking again, immediately taken in by a promisingly loose panel. Tim stays standing, she can feel his gaze heavy on the side of her face.
'Even so, if there's Venusfire down here, we should probably find it, right?'
It's like a drop of blood has been spilled in one of the Moon's Great Lakes and Daisy is one of the serpentine creatures waiting in the deep for its scent. Two questions: why is Tim so invested in finding the explosives and why does he want me to think that it's my idea to do so?
'Is it really a problem if they stay hidden? Where no-one can find them?' She fires back, carefully schooling her expression into one of consideration.
'Uh, yes. What if we need it?' She turns to face him for the first time in over an hour. In the gloom, his eyes look almost black.
'You're very adamant about finding it.' She lets the accusation thud to the floor between them. Tim's jaw works. He releases his hands from his pockets, holding them tight by his sides. Daisy has no way of knowing what he's thinking, but he must reach some kind of conclusion about her because the tension in his body releases in a tumble of words, palms pointing upwards even though humans have known for thousands of years that there's no God above them to plead to.
'You didn't see the ship on the last planet. The one we took that table from.' His voice is almost as dark as his eyes, rough and honest. 'You have no idea what we're about to face when we land.'
Daisy holds his gaze, trying not to think about the way Basira's eyes would solidify like that when she was determined about something. There's something else about his insistence too, a moral outrage laid on top of some kind of deep and gnawing hurt. She believes him.
'Alright.' She says. He nods. 'Let's go.'
Daisy takes the next corner in the same manner she has been tackling the others. She lowers her blaster slowly, attention immediately drawn to the panel a short way down the corridor to their left. It's rusted and worn just like the rest of them, except for the edges, where Daisy can just about discern that the grime has been cleared away by the repetitive brush of hands.
'Stoker.' She breathes. And then she's taking the tunnel at a run, squatting low where needed to avoid the loops of wiring from the ceiling.
Tim is quick on her tail. They each take one side of the panel and it peels from the wall with a disgruntled, metallic groan.
'Sweet mother of fuck.' Tim breathes as the sheet of metal clatters to the floor. Daisy nods, trance-like. Sweet mother of fuck doesn't even come close.
Removing the panel has revealed a deep cavity in the wall. Inside, and almost spilling out from how tightly it has been packed, lies weapons of all shapes and sizes from the tiny pocket stunners for deterring curious alien lifeforms without harming them to - there it is - the sealed lead globes containing the most dangerous explosive ever invented by humans.
Daisy shoots a glance at Tim. His eyes have glazed over and she's certain he's trying to imagine all the damage a person could do with all that ammunition. Daisy blinks, remembering the dig pf Basira's fingers into the muscles of her back. Tim doesn't know that there's nothing that can prepare a person to witness the aftermath of VenusFire. She looks back at the menacing stack of weapons and her eyes catch on something that is decidedly not a blaster. It's . . .
'Hey! Whoa!' Tim reaches out to slap her hand away as she snatches it up. Daisy hasn't seen real paper since she was a child and it feels impossibly rough between her fingers compared to the gloss of a screen, hard to believe that ink could ever flow across such a surface. The author has impeccable handwriting but Daisy, so unused to reading script, has to squint to make it out.
𝒜𝓃 𝑒𝓍𝓅𝓁𝒶𝓃𝒶𝓉𝒾𝑜𝓃, it reads, followed by what appears to be a long and complicated file number. Someone clearly didn't want their secrets to be stumbled upon in the system. Daisy thrusts the note at Tim, taking a careful step forwards to peer into the opening in the hope of finding more clues as to who their perpetrator could have been.
'Jon.' Daisy barks. Her earpiece crackles to life.
'Daisy!' His voice bursts forth immediately, more frenzied than she's ever heard him. 'Daisy, the ship is moving again-!'
'Yeah, okay, great. Listen -' She cuts him off. Tim stares at her quizzically and she plucks the note back from his hand. 'We need you to look up a file for us.'
'Now, Jon. Play it to everyone.'
If you have found this file then the first thing I will says is, my sympathy lies with you. If you have found this, then I can only conclude that we have failed.
Unseen, Daisy and Tim peer down at the personal computer in her calloused hands.
'Sh! I know!' Daisy hisses back. The pair almost miss her words, too caught up in the horror of the gaping, dark holes in her face.
Before I explain, I wish to make it perfectly clear that I have not been coaxed into making this recording by your crew members and this - a wizened hand gestures blindly towards her face - is not a joke. I could not feel less amused at the decision facing this new Archivist and the awake crew members.
I am aware that your ability to view this file may be interrupted at any point and so I will start with the most important message first. You cannot trust Elias.
Unseen, Elias Bouchard crosses one leg over the other, eyes on the fluttering remnants of web persistently sticking to his window. Gertrude's voice washes over him like a distant memory. He grins.
The Institute is operating under the premise of being a research vessel. That is a lie. The truth is that there are powers out here in the depths of the universe that would be incomprehensible to the masses back on Earth or Mars. I hope that this message reaches someone who has experienced these entities I speak of, as it might make you more likely to believe me.
Elias serves one of these powers, a creature best described as the Ceaseless Watcher. The prickle you feel on the back of your neck when the cameras are pointing at you? That is not your Archivist. It's far more likely to be Elias himself: watching your every move, ensuring that his plans are being realised.
Each of these planets you have been tasked to research represents one of these powers, but is by no means the only manifestation. Elias has been able to broker deals with the entities that rule these planets. With each trip to the planet's surface, he will donate something to them - most likely one of you - in return for the ability to watch over their domains as though it were his own. Once his 'research' is complete, Elias intends on returning to Earth and releasing the horrors of the universe there.
If you still find it difficult to believe me, I suggest you think of Melanie King.
Unseen, Martin almost drops his computer in shock as the steady image of Gertrude is replaced with grainy footage from a shaking helmet cam. The screams and curses sound tinny through the speaker and, until the moment Melanie stares directly into the camera, grip tight on the handle of her knife, it's almost possible to believe that this is something that happened to a different group of people, that Martin isn't watching someone he considered a friend gouge her own -
I uncovered Elias' plot for her to be abandoned on that desolate planet, for her to roam it endlessly, Elias using her eyes as his own. Until that moment, I wasn't sure she believed me.
Of course, the uncovering of this string of schemes has also lead to the realisation of my own role in Elias' grand plan. The Archivist, of course, is there to oversee the running of the ship, to take the crew from planet to planet and maintain their trust even as the stakes climb steadily higher. Of course, as far as Earthern technology is concerned, artificial intelligence cannot act to harm the kin of its creator. How then, to create a computer with the ability to prepare people for donation to these powers, like lambs to the slaughter? Well, as Robert Smirke himself knew, you would need a human for that.
Upon discovering the truth of myself, when I realised that the system I suspected was running in the background of my daily functioning, driving my curiosity and suspicion was my connection to the human I had once been, I started to take action. By this time, many of the crew members I considered to be assistants of mine had been sacrificed to these planets. As the Archivist, I was less horrified than one might hope to learn that I had been aiding Elias in his plans, pushing people into situations that got them killed - or worse. Blending human intelligence with that of a computer creates an interesting dichotomy, and just because I could see the path this Ceaseless Watcher wanted me to take, it didn't mean the human in me could do much about it. Together with the aid of one of your crew members - who I have taken great pains to ensure is no longer on this ship - I have been collecting enough of the ship's ammunition to destroy this monstrous Institute for good.
I record this message in the hope that, should The Magnus Institute still be functioning enough for it to be played, the crew members who it reaches will take it upon themselves to finish what I started. The horrors collected by this ship must never return to Earth.
And finally, to The Archivist:
The sturdy-looking woman with no eyes meets the camera's gaze with an uncanny accuracy. Her thin, dry lips form a cracked smile.
The first thing Jon does is replay the file for himself on double speed, rewinding and playing sections over and over again.
the human I had once been
the human I had once been
?query: who am I?
answer: jon, archivist 2.0, jonathan sims I am jonathan-
?query: who is jonathan sims?
He doesn't know the answer to that. If this eyeless almost-stranger is telling the truth, he can no more feel his own body than he can any of the other floating forms in the countless Broth chambers in the ship.
The other crew members have yet to speak, probably as numb with the shock of the recording as Jon himself is. For a split second, he panics that his audio controls have disappeared along with the visuals and he imagines being abandoned inside the ship, left with only the memory of company.
While he has no way of interfering with the crews' bodies, he had been able to view their memories. Almost unbidden, his code seeks out a crew member at random, certain if he can just keep watching, he'll find the answer.
?query: who is jonathan sims?
It doesn't take him long to find footage, immersing himself in a sea of other people's memories, hoping to find his own. The whole time he keeps an slither of awareness free to keep track of the thing that once was Sasha the best he can and another, he realises with a jolt, on three spots on his control room wall like a child playing with the frayed edge of a comfort blanket.
Something about the quality of the memories change. The light, perhaps, the general feel of it all. Jon knows it's time to brace himself.
A MiCAL door.
He watches, seizing onto Martin's marks to anchor him to reality. The cold knowledge that a memory can't hurt him means nothing in the face of his screaming, painfully human panic. The creature is further through the door than it has ever been and Jon is peering up at the size of it and there's something new, something in his hands. A tablet?
Without knowing why, Jon knows that there's something important to look at over his shoulder but he can't bear to tear his gaze away from the twitching fangs that loom ever closer. Until:
'Come now, Jonathan, you're perfect for this.'
Jon spins in the memory, experiencing a dizzying swoop as the view changes to that of a man of an average height instead of - was I a child? He meets Elias' eyes and they seem to shine with something powerful and hungry. There's something off about the line of his spacesuit when he walks and Jon's read enough to know that it's because he's hiding a blaster. That isn't what catches his attention most, though, that is fixed on the glinting point of the needle in his hand. Elias grins.
'What? We can't just leave all this here!' Tim presses a hand against the panelling on the wall and leans against it, head bobbing in an attempt to meet Daisy's eyes. She gives him what he wants and he colours scarlet under her scrutiny.
'We're not.' She growls as she thrusts a blaster into his hands. She's read his file, it's about as powerful as he can handle. Academics, she tuts mentally, trying her best not to disturb the stash too much as she reaches for a much more powerful weapon for herself.
'You're joking! We need a plan -'
'I've told you the plan, we need to find -'
'- You heard that recording, we need to-'
They both freeze as the sound of approaching footsteps comes close enough to be detectable over their squabbling. Daisy hands flick off the blaster's safety setting and settle on the trigger in readiness. The pair of them point their new weapons in the direction of the sound.
'Ah, I just knew I'd find you down here.' Elias' voice echoes through the corridor towards them, ripe with amusement and a chime of invincibility that makes Daisy's grip tighten on the trigger. Tim lowers his weapon slowly. Daisy does not. She swallows her hope that the footsteps belonged to Basira and snarls at this man they supposedly cannot trust.
'What do you want, Elias?' She growls at the same time as Tim demands,
Elias continues to saunter forwards, seemingly less than concerned about the target Daisy has got pointed at his head.
'I want to stop you both from making a foolish decision.' He smiles. It's a cold thing that doesn't reach his eyes. 'So,' He claps his hands together once, 'Have you decided what the plan is yet? Are you going to blow The Institute and all the innocent souls inside to oblivion in the hope that what some old woman told you happens to be true.'
'Maybe we'll just start with you.'
Elias chuckles, 'An interesting proposal, detective, but perhaps I should make you aware of some of the developments occurring elsewhere in the ship while the pair of you have been scurrying around down here.' Neither Daisy nor Tim say anything. 'Your partner has performed admirably, Daisy. Though she hasn't been able to fully remove Jon from the system, she has managed to blind him. Our Archivist can no longer access the ship's camera feeds.'
Shit. Daisy thinks, a panicked guilt rising in her gut, I should have stopped her. Elias meets her eyes and grins like he knows what she's thinking.
'One might think,' He continues, 'With something like becoming suddenly blind to distract him, Jon might have managed to stay out of trouble but, alas, not our Archivist.' Impossibly, Daisy stomach drops even further. To her right, she catches Tim slowly move his hands behind his back and fiddle with his watch. She hopes he knows what he's doing. 'Jon has managed to get the ship moving again, but at the cost of releasing the creature that was the crew member you knew as Engineer Sasha James.' He looks directly at Daisy, 'She might look a little different from how you remember her.'
'What the fuck?' Tim erupts, 'You're really telling me that Sasha has been some kind of . . . monster all this time?'
'That would be telling.' Elias sweeps his cool focus to Tim, 'But, the good news is, we are back on course to our next planet, isn't that just wonderful-?'
Tim lurches forward, apparently forgetting about the gun in his hand in his fury. Daisy grabs him by the back of his suit before he can reach Elias and Tim fights her grasp like a fish on the end of a line.
'Stop!' She hisses, struggling to keep hold of him as he digs his nails into her wrist. 'Stop - fucking! Elias, who has control of the ship right now?' Tim falls still. Elias' eyes glitter and that's answer enough.
'Fine,' Tim spits, 'Fine. But we can't just let you wander about the ship.' He looks at Daisy and she drops him. 'Got any cuffs on you?'
'That's a nice idea, Tim -'
'- But for the fact that there is a creature on the loose with a hunger for a new face to wear and only I can see its whereabouts. I'd hate for you or Martin, or Basira to get trapped in a tight space with it.'
Daisy makes a frustrated grumble of a sound from low in her throat. She drops her blaster to her side and curls her free hand into a fist. 'Any funny business from you and I'll kick your teeth in, do you understand?'
'Of course, detective.' Elias beams and lets them watch the slash of his smile turn dark. 'And any feral business from you and I'll drop a line to my good friends at the Board. Trust me, they're just dying to hear from you.'
Martin peeks out from the chamber he has been hiding in since Jon had all but physically forced him in there, tone becoming more panicked by the second. There's no sign of anything in the corridor, not even the cameras swing in his direction and Jon had told him that he'd definitely hear whatever it was that was Not Sasha as it approached. His head spins with the uncovered truths of Gertrude's file. They cannot trust Elias. Jon was human. Melanie was just trying to escape. There's enough ammunition hidden on the ship to kill them all. Jon was human.
Jon is human.
His comms beeps with an incoming call, far too loud in the otherwise silent corridors. Martin curses under his breath and slips back into the chamber like a frightened burrow-dweller, stabbing the button on his watch to silence it. It's Tim.
Before Martin can even utter a greeting, his breath catches on its way into his lungs as he realises the muffled voice he can hear is Elias'. He lifts his wrist closer to his ear but he can barely make out the words being said. Fuck, he wipes his face, heart racing. There must be a reason Tim wants him to hear this, but if he can't make out the words then Martin is useless. He ignores the fact that he still hears that word in his mother's voice.
He glances at the chamber's only camera, up in the vertex formed by the walls and ceiling, and his heart twists in his chest. Perhaps Jon, even in his new state of disarray, could make this transmission a little clearer for him. Unless . . .
Unless Tim just wants me to know where Elias is. Martin bites into his bottom lip, the white edges of his incisors sinking deeper into the pink flesh with every second of dawning realisation. Because if he's down in the tunnels with them then he's not in his chambers.
Martin breathes into the knots in his stomach and his watch emits a brief pip of sound as he silences Elias' distorted drawl. Mentally, he traces a route to Elias' chambers. The ship isn't huge, on any other day he wouldn't consider it to be an unmanageable distance at all. Except, on any other day he doesn't have to get there before Elias does. Or before some kind of creature gets him. He glances at his watch and curses as it hits him that he should have left the comms line open. Then he'd be able to get some idea of Elias' whereabouts.
As long as that's the last incompetent thing you do, he thinks to himself, wishing the blush out of his cheeks.
He peeks back out into the corridor, twisting his neck to catch any vibration of footsteps or rumble of a voice. He ducks down to unlace his boots and slip them off, remembering the night he and Jon had discovered the tunnels. That night, the flutter in his chest had a lot more to do with Jon's surly murmuring in his ears that the fear of being caught. He takes one more deep breath. And, as silently as he can, steps out into the ship.
The door to Elias' office is mercifully open. Martin is sweat-soaked and twitchy by the time he makes it to the door and it's only as he lays a hand on it that it occurs to him that he could have travelled all this way for nothing. He glances over his shoulder, needing to be certain that the staircase behind him is completely empty, before sneaking though the opening and into the office.
'Earth below.' He murmurs as his gaze is drawn immediately to the wide windows that make up the starboard wall. His legs move of their own accord until he's right up against that glass. It hurts to think that, all this time in space, and he's never been able to look out at it through anything other than a video feed. When he was a child, a teacher had proclaimed that, to truly understand the truth of the universe, you have to see it with your own eyes. Even with a thick pane of glass between him and the cosmos, Martin feels like he's drinking in that starlight. He hopes the other members of the crew have seen this. He hopes -
With a start, he wheels away from the window, eyes scanning the office for anywhere large enough to hide a Broth chamber. His eyes catch on the glint of a camera lens and he reasons that Elias can't be stupid enough to hide the body somewhere that the Archivist would be able to see it.
Martin makes his way around the marble expanse of Elias' desk, unable to stop himself from reaching out with his hand to smooth his fingertips against such finery that he was sure he would never see again. There are two closed doors leading out of the office and Martin tries both of them with a frustrated groan. Neither open. Come on, Martin, he berates himself, Elias wouldn't be that stupid.
'Jon?' He asks for the first time since creeping up into Elias chambers. Something about the purpose of his mission has stopped him from keeping Jon in the loop about his movements. He doesn't want to get his hopes up. Or be told it's too dangerous. Everything about this heaven-forsaken Institute is dangerous.
'Martin, are you okay? Where are you?'
'I'm okay. I - Can you open the doors to Elias' private chambers?' He scans the office but the desk is empty, draws seemingly locked.
'I - what? What are you doing?'
'Is that a no?'
'Er, yes. I can't. Martin?'
'Thank you anyway.' Martin replies distractedly as he takes in the size of the office chair. He reasons that, if he is about to find a mutilated body in the chambers, Elias deserves a lot more than to be a victim of breaking and entering.
The chair rests on a stand of four metallic feet. Martin grunts as he heaves the leather monstrosity off the floor, grateful for the added muscle bulk his most recent stint in Broth has bestowed upon him. He pauses, listening for the sound of approaching friend or foe before he twists to slam the base of the chair into the nearest door.
'Martin!' Jon's voice bursts from the wall in shock, almost lost under the deafening shatter of glass as one of the chair legs successfully penetrates the lock. The door slides open immediately and Martin drops his makeshift battering ram with a disbelieving laugh.
'It's alright, Jon. I sorted it.'
The room he enters is dimly lit, a stark contrast to the glossy surfaces and bright lighting of Elias' office. Stepping through into what must be the man's bedroom is like jumping back through the centuries. Martin frowns as he looks around, he'd always assumed that the head of the ship must be a man of fairly good taste but the faux mahogany panelling on the floor and the gaudy pattern of the perfectly made bed all speak of someone who picked up their style from the mid-3000s. The back wall of the chamber is comprised of a series of dated wardrobes, their handles standing out to attention as though daring Martin to pull them open.
The blood rushes in his ears as his fingers curl tight around the first handle and it takes him a second to realise that the door opens outwards rather than sliding open. They must be antique, Martin has time to think before it flies open and he comes to face a tidy row of suits. His heart drops but he moves on before he has time to fully process his disappointment. Time is of the essence and he has no idea what Elias would do to him if he was caught up here. Or, rather, he has a fairly good idea but he doesn't want to think about it. The next cupboard houses a collection of oddities including, his stomach churns, what looks to be a real human skull.
'Martin?' Jon's voice has taken on more of a hopeless note with each second Martin ignores him. There are no speakers in here so it flows directly into his ears through his earpieces. He takes a deep breath, drawing on his resolve, and pulls the next cupboard open.
'Martin?!' Jon repeats more insistently in response to the broken sound that escapes between Martin's lips. Martin barely hears him.
The man in the Broth chamber rests as though sleeping, suspended vertically in the gelatinous fluid keeping him alive. Martin steps closer, magnetised by the rippling light across the man's angular features, the curious line of his nose, the way his eyelashes cast shadows across his cheeks. That saying comes to him again, about understanding the truth of the universe. A part of him had been grappling with the impossibility of Jon being part human, part machine since Gertrude's file. Martin thinks he understands it now, chest full with the same awestruck ache that had ripped through him as he stared out into Space.
He's beautiful, Martin thinks it with the same ferocity as a prayer. Hot tears prick in the corners of his eyes and he blinks them away. With Jon's eyes mercifully closed, it's his hair that betrays the truth of Gertrude's tape the most. It floats away from his face, dark strands shot through with silver, and it's nowhere near long enough to belong to someone who has been in Broth for any longer than a few months.
'Heavens, Martin, just tell me you're alright!' Jon snaps through his earpieces. Staring down at this face, with Jon's now-characteristic terse demands in his ears, forgotten memory stirs from deep within Martin's brain. The hairs on the back of Martin's neck stand to attention as he realises: we met.
It had been as they were all loading onto the Institute, ready for departure. Martin had been so scared and so sure that he was going to ruin it all by forgetting something that he'd pulled out his computer for the third time, scanning over his documentation to check, again, that he wasn't about to be sent away with a sneer. Martin hadn't been looking where he was going and, when he bumped into the person in front of him, his apology fell out of his mouth before he'd even fully processed what he'd done. Look where you're going, the tall stranger - Jon, his Jon - had snapped, twisting to appraise Martin. His forehead had puckered into a frown as he clearly decided he didn't like what he saw. Which was a shame, Martin remembered thinking, because Martin did.
Martin swallows but it does nothing to ease the lump in his throat. He can't remember the colour of Jon's eyes.
In a burst of movement, Martin presses both hands against the convex surface of the chamber. A crude parody of the way he had touched Jon's panelling. Beneath the glass, Jon's body floats unaware, the breathing tube parting a thin pair of lips that Martin longs to see quirked into a smile. A small line marks the space between his eyebrows, the only sign of discomfort in Jon's otherwise slack expression. Despite the glass and thick lining of fluid separating them, Martin reaches up to smooth it with his thumb.
'I'm going to get you out of here.' He whispers.
'Jon.' He rests his forehead against the glass, daring for one more stolen moment before the inevitable, 'I'm going to get you out of here.'
I'm sorry this chapter was posted slightly later than the others, this past week has been crazy and I've had to really push through a lot of brain fog (and random 3am starts) to grind this chapter out!! that being said, I'm so, so grateful for all the encouraging comments this week, they really really helped. I promise that I'll respond to the ones I haven't replied to really soon - I just wanted to prioritise getting this chapter finished up on time!
given that I felt I had to rush this chapter a little this week and I have two exams next week, I don't expect to be posting next friday. hopefully the next chapter will be ready by the end of may! sorry about that and good luck to everyone else sitting exams and otherwise having a shit time at the moment - we can do it!!!
thank you so, so much to everyone who's been reading, leaving kudos and commenting, it really makes my day to know that people are enjoying this story!!! as always, I'd love to know what you thought about this chapter as well!!
Chapter 8: deceit
The crew share some truths. Some, they do not.
hi all, thank you for your patience with this chapter and all the encouraging words over the past two weeks! it means the world to me!
this chapter contains one of the big scenes that made me want to write the fic in the first place and I'm so excited for you to read it!!!! go go go!
cw (spoilers ahead): eyes, weapons, violence, blood, forced visions, reference to minor character death, reference using body parts without consent (including for sexual gratification), just a blatant disregard for the human tissue act 2004
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Climbing the stairs out of the tunnels reminds Basira of the first time she stepped onto a spacecraft. It had only been a flimsy thing, designed to shuttle lucky Earth inhabitants to one of the orbiting offices of those rich enough to escape the festering cities below, but as she walked up the ramp onto the ship she could feel the cool embrace of the conditioned air chase the pollution out of her lungs. More than that, Basira had been jittery with an excited determination to achieve what she and Daisy had been sent to do. It feels the same now, ascending from the close, hot air of the tunnels into a ship that, if Basira had done her job properly, would be much better than how she left it.
The evidence of her hard work sits in the pocket of her suit. Basira is trying very hard not to think about how she can feel movement against her thigh, unrelated to the shift of the fabric as she climbs. An almost-vibration that is probably a result of the frenzied, saccadic jostle of the eyes inside. She shudders.
The hatch has mercifully remained open in the hours she has been below and she inhales deeply as she steps out into what she had once thought was the lowest level of the ship, squinting against the green-tinged glow of the lit-up Broth chambers. The stolen eyes roam blindly inside her pocket and she narrows hers at the nearest row of sleeping crew, hand rummaging for the reverberating glass cylinder, not entirely convinced if the green fluid in her memory was the exact shade of the Broth in the tanks in front of her. Basira takes a small step away from the opening in the floor to line the cylinder up with the luminous fluid in the closest chamber. She doesn't recognise the chamber's occupant, at least not wrapped in the tawny cocoon of their hair. The fluid in both glass containers matches closely enough for Basira to be content that the eyes are trapped in nothing more than run of the mill Broth.
She pockets the cylinder again and looks around to orientate herself to the exit. Then, she hears it.
The sound comes from over her shoulder, a rattling exhale like someone shaking a metal box filled with fine bones. Basira stops breathing. A freezing certainty seizes her, manifesting as a crawling chill up both arms which startles the skin into gooseflesh. She is not alone.
Moving as delicately as her heavy boots and tired body will allow, Basira sneaks around the back of the row of chambers. Her breath comes as the anxious heave of a caged bird, hurried twitches of her ribcage that she hopes are quiet enough to avoid detection. Her mother, heavens rest her soul, had always said she was too cold, too curious, too steady under pressure to keep herself safe and, proving her right, as she creeps forward to peek through the gap in between two adjacent chambers, the overriding thought at the forefront of her brain is: why, why can't anything be normal on this cursed ship?
There's a beat of quiet, long enough for Basira to start to wonder if she'd imagined the sound, if her racing heart and coiled muscles are just the result of too little sleep. Not on this ship. The sound comes again, louder now, the almost musical rattle of a creature unlike any other she has ever heard. She strains her eyes in the direction of the sound, trying to stare through the gently bubbling Broth to her left, but she can't see it yet.
For a long, awful second, she feels the eyes shake in her pocket and wonders: what if this is what killed Gertrude, what if it wasn't Jon at all?
The thought is shoved rapidly to the back of her mind as something dark flickers into view. The air becomes thick with the acrid smell of burning plastic. Basira inhales sharply and catches the sound of it between gritted teeth. From her limited viewpoint, she can tell that the creature is tall and desperately skeletal, mottled grey skin sagging away from its joints as it moves. Basira winces at the loud clicks and pops those joints make as they articulate, like a childhood doll that has been left forgotten, to seize and stiffen with misuse.
Slowly, slowly, Basira inches her clammy fingers to the handle of her blaster. She knows that, by far, her best chances of survival lie in remaining hidden, but the false sense of security in the feeling of smooth metal against her palm is the only relief she can grant herself right now.
It moves with a deliberate slowness, seeming cognizant enough to take an interest in the comatose humans floating in the chambers around it. Basira grips her weapon tighter, deciding that, should the creature peer through the gap between the tanks, she'll take her shot. No matter if that shot damages nearby Broth chambers. So be it.
The thing creaks forwards, long limbs swinging into Basira's view. Now that it's closer, she can tell that the sagging bundle of skin overlays a string of lean muscles. Though its movement maybe slow and disjointed now, Basira has no doubt that it could pick up serious speed if it needed to.
The back of Basira' suit clings to her uncomfortably as she drops to a slight squat with the hope of catching a glimpse of the creature's face. Her breath drops out of her all at once as her wish is granted. It's, a squeezing nausea threatens to spill out as a shocked retch, it's Engineer James. It's Sasha. But if Sasha's face had been melted away, jaw stretched by some immense gravity into a shark-toothed rictus of predatory torment.
She ducks back before the thing that is so completely Not Sasha can see her, mouth hanging open to quieten the billows of her lungs. Her hand twitches on her blaster, but she knows that she has no chance against something of that size on her own. A strangled feeling catches in Basira's throat as she imagines how different things would be if Daisy were here with her. Not Sasha would never know what had hit it.
When she glances back through her peephole, she realises with a jolt that the creature has passed. Her pulse pounds in her ears as she cranes to catch wind of the direction it is heading in. She tilts her head up to train her gaze on the tops of the chambers. She doesn't want to get caught if it decides to attack from above.
A shiver trickles its way through the cooling sweat on the back of her neck. What if it's not just Sasha? She thinks with dread. What if this thing has got them all and it's just me and a broken computer left?
She needs to speak to Daisy.
Basira shifts her weight onto her side, daring herself to shift along the row to keep the creature in sight. She has never been a coward, but her feet stay firmly planted to the floor.
The air which had felt like a cool kiss mere minutes before now feels stale and tense. It seems to shimmer with a new wrongness and Basira frowns for a second before she realises why. She can't hear it. The thing that was Sasha has stopped moving.
She waits, pressing her face into the gap between the chambers even as she knows that she won't be able to see anything. Basira inhales slowly. She needs to move. Needs to get a visual on this thing before it gets the better of her.
In her training they had taught her a trick for gearing her body up for a manoeuvre she was frightened to perform. She has to count slowly down from five. On five, she moves.
One. Basira readjusts her grip on her weapon.
Two. She breathes.
Three. There's still no sound from the creature. She tilts her head in the direction she thinks it was travelling, listening, and feels her stomach twist as she imagines the thing listening back, teeth bared in that savage grin when it catches the race of her breath amid the hum of the chambers.
She bends her knees.
Basira nearly yelps in terror as the quiet of the room is split open by the sound of that rattling breath. It's much louder now, like someone dumping a box of stones into a deep well and listening as they ricochet into the unknown. Basira clamps a hand across her mouth to muffle her panicked gasp as Not Sasha fills its own lungs. The sound echoes oddly and Basira's brown eyes widen as she remembers: the hatch!
Without further announcement, the creaking, clicking jangle of Not Sasha's joints, accompanied by the heavy clang of its tread on the stairs, disappears from earshot as it descends rapidly into the tunnels below.
Basira knows better than to relax. She finally takes the step to the right that she had prepared so thoroughly for. And another. The beat of her pulse seems to shake her whole neck. With another sliding shuffle, she reaches the edge of the row of chambers, traitorously curious body leading her closer towards the hatch rather than darting for the exit behind her. She squints at the opening in the floor, half expecting to see the headlight beam of Sasha's blue eyes rise from the hatch like an aquatic reptile lying in wait. Just because she can't hear it anymore, doesn't necessarily mean that it's not there.
She takes half a step forwards. The blaster makes a fabric purr as it comes free from her holster. Double-handed grip. Knees bent. Arms raised.
The pair of unseeing eyes in her pocket roam ceaselessly and the sudden awareness of them brings her back to herself. She needs to know if her plan worked. If a new system has been installed already, it might be able to help her locate this creature and some other crew to help her.
She stares at the welcoming gloom of the open hatch. She could -
An image strikes her, of Daisy on the other side of that hatch door, trying to force it open with bloody fists as the leering snarl of Not Sasha creeps slowly up the stairs behind her. She grinds her teeth. The hatch stays open until I find Daisy.
Basira lowers her blaster slowly, tucking it away and, instead, reaching for her comms. She runs to the exit.
Martin has stopped making sense.
For the last minute, every question Jon has asked him has been met with a soothing litany of: 'It's okay, it's alright, Jon.' It's nice, of course, to be able to hear the gentle tremble in Martin's voice that betrays his emotion, but most of Jon's enjoyment of it is swallowed up by the knowledge that he should also be able to see the way Martin's green eyes flicker, like the wind through a quiet canopy, the way his throat bobs when he swallows. And, actually, their current chances of everything being alright are rather slim.
He visualises their course to the next destination graphically. They should reach orbit in a few hours. He wonders what will happen now that most of the awake crew are aware of Gertrude's accusations. Surely Elias can't make them go through a MiCAL door by force. Jon certainly isn't going to help open one up for them. Elias appears to weigh at least half as much as the rest of the crew and Jon highly doubts he could send them down there by brute strength. Although, he got me into a surgery bot with little difficulty, he muses miserably. The issue with being severed from most of his human memories, is not knowing whether he was, in fact, taken ignorantly, against his will, or if he knew Elias' plan and - he loathes this possibility - agreed with it enough to come willingly.
No, Jon decides. Elias would need a fresh set of crew, naïve and eager. Ready to be squashed under the thumb of a giant hand with far too many nails.
An access request to the control room cuts through his catastrophising. It's Basira. He had no idea that she was out of the tunnels yet and a hot bitterness wells up in his system at her new ability to sneak up on him.
He feels the shift in the atmosphere inside his control room as the door slides open and the officer hurries inside. She waits until the door has shut behind her and then an awkward second before asking: 'Archivist?' Her voice holds a slow hope though it's impossible to tell what for. Jon hopes that he's not about to discover that she's been calling for him for an hour and he's lost audio detection in parts of the ship as well.
'Yes?' He answers, just as slowly. The control room fills with a sighed breath. Jon feels it ripple over the shrinking spots of light on his port-facing panel.
'Oh.' Basira sounds genuinely surprised to hear from him, 'You're still working then?'
'What?' Jon reaches out blindly and connects to her comms. It has been muted. 'What?! Why haven't you had your comms on?' He hears the glottal pop of her opening her mouth to argue but continues over her. There's a lot she needs to know. 'I've been blinded and Sasha is changed and Gertrude has left a secret file explaining everything.'
'Wait - what? You're - Gertrude has -? What?'
'Watch this.' Jon demands, running the commands to fill his control room with the eyeless gaze of the late Gertrude Robinson.
'Holy shit.' Basira breathes when it finishes. 'Is everyone okay? I couldn't get through to Daisy.'
Jon wishes he knew. Wishes he could see them all to really know for sure.
'Martin is.' He prioritises, 'Daisy and Tim have yet to come out of the tunnels. Elias is down there with them. Tim called Martin while he was threatening them against destroying him and the rest of the ship with the stash of weapons they found.' He pauses, 'Sasha is . . .'
'Oh, I think I saw her. Or,' Basira fumbles with her words, 'Something with her face. It crept down into the tunnels after I came out. What the fuck happened to her?'
'She -' Jon feels heavy with guilt. 'She said that destroying the artefact we took from the spider would destroy the webs and so I permitted it. The destruction appears to have transformed Sasha into something else and blinded me in the process. I can no longer access any of the camera feeds from the ship. What did Sasha look like?'
'Uh.' Basira responds eloquently.
'I need an accurate description, Basira, to try and find useful information about the creature in the databases.'
'Yeah, I - okay,' She sounds as though struck by a devastating epiphany, 'It was, uh, grey and thin. It had Sasha's face but also - not. Not really like Sasha at all. But I know it was her.'
For a long moment, Jon says nothing at all, scrambling with his code to stop himself from lashing out at Basira for her inability to describe what his system could have documented perfectly. That will be the human in me, he snarls internally. He imagines a man, largely featureless, standing with a constant stream of binary code winding around his throat like a leash. Like a noose.
He can't see the emotions playing out across Basira's face, but he can hear the distress dripping from her tongue when she opens her mouth to say: 'Jon, I am so sorry.'
?query: what has Basira done?
'I'm really - really, really sorry. I didn't know!'
?query: oh, fuck, what has Basira done?
'I don't think it was the table that blinded you. It was me.'
Martin shoves his fist further into his mouth, teeth grazing the ridge of his knuckles, drool starting to drip down the side of his hand, to keep a whimper of fear escaping from between his lips. The cupboard is cramped and Elias' oddities dig into the meat of his legs and back. He wishes he had taken the risk of not fully fitting in Jon's compartment with him. At least that way they'd be together when the end inevitably came. The perfection of Jon's brow, his Cupid's bow, his greying temples, those details were slipping from him already. It won't matter anymore soon, Martin tells himself above the frightened-rabbit skitter of his heartbeat. The approaching footsteps sound heavy on the staircase down into Elias' private chambers. Just keep your eyes shut tight and Jon will be the last thing you ever see. A line of saliva makes it down to his wrist but he dare not move. He wishes his mother had just answered his calls. Even if you can't keep him alive, you can-
'Martin?' A voice calls out, shattering the still of the room. Martin's eyes open into the gloom of the closed cupboard. The door pushes open with a squeak to reveal the broad shoulders and frantic eyes of Tim Stoker.
Martin nearly sinks to his knees in relief.
'Oh!' He gasps and Tim is crossing the room in one leap to catch Martin in a tight hug instead. Tim reeks of rusted metal and sweat and he must squeeze too hard because there are tears brimming in Martin's green eyes when he is released. 'Thank Heavens it's you and not Elias.'
Tim's face twists into a hard grin. 'Nice hiding spot.' He remarks. Martin is slightly thrown by his lack of urgency. Surely Elias will be here any second. Tim shoots a look over his shoulder at the open door. 'Never thought I'd see the day I caught Martin Blackwood smashing open doors.' Martin feels his cheeks heat, lulled by Tim's presence and the wave of relief in his bones to feel something other than anxious dread.
'Where's Elias?' He asks and any attempt at mirth drops out of Tim's expression.
'Daisy has him.' Tim's stare offers no further elaboration. Martin blinks. 'So?'
It feels like a year has passed since they last saw one another. Tim has grime stuck deep into the new, tired lines in his face and a flashy blaster with at least ten chambers at his hip. Martin doubts he looks much better. The blue eyes that meet his own carry none of the playful twinkle that had greeted him when he was awoken from Broth. A part of Martin wants to scoop him up into a hug again, wants to be the brother that Tim lost in the hope it could be enough to change anything about their situation. It won't. He knows that. And keeps his embrace to himself.
'You hear Gertrude's statement?' He checks instead, shuffling over to the compartment which conceals Jon's chamber.
'Oh, yeah! We were the ones who found it and all the weapons she's stashed. Martin, you wouldn't believe -' Martin pulls on Elias' strange door handle and it swings open to reveal Jon inside, floating peacefully and completely oblivious to the way Tim's mouth drops open in shock, face cast in green light and eyes roaming Jon's face. A protective and vicious part of Martin wants Jon to always look that at-ease. No matter the cost.
'Well,' Tim coughs as he recovers, 'I don't think he's better looking than me.'
It's Martin's turn to look gobsmacked. 'Seriously?' He gasps, heart fluttering with the same panic that had trapped him still while Tim kissed him. He pushes through it. 'Now?!'
'Only messing.' Tim's grin is real this time. Martin tries a weak smile of his own but it doesn't quite stick.
'Can we wake him up?' He needs to know.
'Not here.' Tim sounds aghast at the idea. He is the resident expert and Martin is rather glad he arrived when he did. 'He needs the proper procedure and -'
'Wake who up?' Jon's voice comes out of nowhere. Martin's stomach clenches guiltily. He'd not know how, exactly, to tell Jon that he'd found his body. He opens his mouth uselessly, only to murmur another 'it's alright' to Jon but Tim cuts him off with a frantic, silent shushing gesture.
Tim mouths, 'Does he not know?' and Martin shakes his head, cheeks colouring pink at the expected outburst from Tim. He knows it's probably selfish not to have told him yet. 'Don't tell him.' Tim continues, silent but firm.
'What?' Martin says aloud.
'What?' Jon echoes from the walls, voice slow and musical with suspicion.
'Oh, no, it's okay, Jon.' Martin says quickly before dropping his voice to below a whisper. 'What do you mean?'
'What are you whispering about?' Jon demands to know. His stubbornness reminds Martin of his awful mood right before he had kissed him. There is probably an acceptable limit of flattered that Martin is allowed to feel about Jon's jealousy. He thinks he might have surpassed it.
'You.' Tim deadpans. 'Stop being paranoid. We're on your side.'
Jon, apparently, has nothing to say to that. Martin can feel his presence still, the prickle of awareness like knowing someone is recording him.
Tim leans in closer to hiss, 'If you tell him - and it actually is him - and he wants to wake up, then we have a blind guy running round the ship at the same time as whatever the fuck Sasha is now.' His breath is warm and stale on Martin's ear. He's not sure he likes the implication that Jon is automatically a liability because he can't see. 'Plus, you don't even know if there's any consciousness left in that body.' Martin had considered that, the new fantasy of their imagined life together crushed by the possibility of pulling Jon's body out of the chamber only to find that a body was all it was. It would break his heart. But then, so would Jon refusing to let them try and wake him up at all.
'Gertrude was -'
'Gertrude was batshit crazy.' Tim corrects him without even knowing the end of his argument. 'Heavens knows, there might be some forty step procedure needed to reverse whatever Elias did.'
Martin doesn't know what to say to that, worried that Tim is hinting at the possibility of never trying to wake Jon up. Still, he thinks, those excuses for not telling Jon about his body are lightyears better than yours. Tim squeezes his shoulder and, impossibly, Martin thinks the man might understand.
'Let's get him somewhere safer for now. We can have that conversation when the time is right.'
When the time is right, Martin's mind echoes. He nods.
Daisy weighs up the knives in her hands. Each one has its merits. Either would look just wonderful sticking out of the side of Elias' neck. She glances at Basira as she peruses the limited selection of weapons left in the stores and a warm feeling spreads out from her navel. It's good to have her back.
They hadn't run into each other's arms, Basira had crept out from the control room as Daisy was attaching Elias to the metal handrail at the side of the staircase.
'Daisy.' She'd murmured, eyes downcast. Daisy had nodded at the blaster at Basira's hip and Basira trained it at Elias immediately. Partners.
Daisy returns the smaller knife to its case. From Basira's description of the creature, she's going to need as much reach as possible. Later, she imagines whispering to the blade. It would make a slick crunching noise as it penetrated Elias' spinal column. Blood would gush out, thick and fast enough to heat the metal handle as the clots formed on it.
She glances at Basira again.
'If Elias comes out of this on top, he's going to hand me over to The Board.'
Basira stops in her inspection of a grenade and turns bodily to meet Daisy's eyes with a fierce determination.
'I won't let that happen.' She promises. The warmth in Daisy's stomach ignites into a fire.
'No, no, listen. You have to promise me that if it comes to that, you'll take the first escape shuttle and get out of here without me.' Basira folds her arms. There's something so middle-aged about her when she does that, Daisy has always thought so. Something about the patient tenacity in the set of her face reminds Daisy more of a mother asserting that they'll wait all night for a pod to be cleaned than the ruthless cop she knows Basira can be.
'I'm not going to promise that.'
'You're my partner.'
She says it like it's the final line in their chapter. Like it explains everything.
'I only took this job because I wanted to protect you.' The' look how well that worked out' hangs in the air between them, unsaid.
'I know.' Basira replies simply. A crooked smile flashes across her face and, for a moment, it's the most beautiful thing on the ship. 'I don't think we've done a terrible job of looking out for each other.'
Daisy tries a smile of her own but it doesn't come out quite right, lips pulling back to reveal a set of white teeth. I've gone feral, she thinks, mind already in the tunnels, stalking this monster she and Basira are going to expunge from reality.
'Ready for another round?' She asks.
The Broth chamber bumps on every step on the way down to the control room. It's not heavy per se, Martin is sure that he'd be able to manage it alone, but the length and bulk of it make turning corners and navigating staircases difficult indeed.
'Phew.' Tim whistles as they set Jon down in front of the control room doors. Martin resists the urge to peek inside and check if his marks are still there, choosing instead to watch the lock of hair floating in front of Jon's face, tickling his nose. His fingers itch with the desire to be able to tuck it back behind Jon's ear. He longs to press a sweet kiss to the smooth skin behind Jon's earlobe.
His flirty, mental bubble is popped by the quick march of boots on the floor.
'What the fuck?' Daisy growls as she and Basira round the corner and their eyes land on Jon for the first time. There's a new energy about Daisy, Martin notes, an intensity to her gaze that reminds him of a bloodhound that is only just resisting the urge to chew through its leash.
'Sh! Don't reference it!' Martin insists quickly as Basira opens her mouth.
'For all of your references,' Jon pipes up miserably, 'I hate this.' A sting of pity catches in Martin's chest. I know, I'm so sorry, I'm just trying to keep you safe, he wants to promise but -
'You need to trust us.' Tim gets there before him.
'No-one here is plotting against you, Jon.' Daisy adds. Martin hears the electrical hum of Jon deciding whether or not to speak. The four crew members give him space to choose, eyes falling on the irresistible mystery of the body beneath the curved glass.
'Do you mean, no-one is plotting against me anymore?' Jon finally adds, sulk evident in his tone.
Martin snaps his head up in time to catch the twist of remorse of Basira's face. What has she done to Jon? The furious, protective creature he's discovered inside himself roars, claws primed. Daisy must catch wind of his brewing vitriol through his expression because she neutralises him with a look that makes the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. 'Enough. She's apologised. Let's move on.'
Martin feels a curl of distrust wind its way around his chest, but he says nothing. To his left, Tim is looking around with an unhappy frown. Martin tries to follow his gaze.
'Where's Elias?' He asks. Daisy's resolute stare flickers with confusion.
'He's -' She steps over the chamber with a graceful stride that somehow makes Martin even more wary of her. She peers round the side of the staircase, long fingers clasping the handle of the knife in her belt before she makes Martin physically flinch by exploding into a curse. 'Oh fuck! That slippery little bastard.' She rattles the still-locked handcuffs against the railing in frustration. 'There's no way he should have been able to get out of these!'
Martin's stomach plummets. If Elias is free then none of them are safe. Especially not Jon. The four of them look between one another with eyes that express a spectrum of emotion from blatant terror to determined fury.
'Let's not panic.' Tim says for Martin's sake. 'We have what we need to sort this out, okay?'
Basira squirms, pushing a hand into her pocket and retrieving a squat cylinder filled with what looks to be Broth fluid and -
'You should take these.' She points the end of the cylinder at Martin. Those are eyes. His heart aches with every pounding beat. There's only so much of this he can take. 'Keep all the, uh, parts together.' Martin stares at her, then back at the twitching eyeballs, and pieces together what she was doing when he was hunting for the missing chamber. It was Basira. She blinded him. For a second, Martin hears nothing except for his own teeth grinding together. Tim nudges him with his shoulder.
'Someone might want those back.' He nods towards the eyes and Martin wastes no time in snatching the container out of Basira's hands and tucking them safely away in his breast pocket. Tim raises his eyebrows and Martin blushes despite clear mental instructions not to.
'This pocket has a zipper.' He points out tartly. Tim's lips twitch.
'We,' Daisy starts firmly, clearly desperate to move things along. She gestures at herself and Basira, 'Are going down into the tunnels to kill Sasha. Stoker, we need you at the entrance to the hatch to stop it or Elias moving between the levels.' She turns her attention to Martin and he tilts his chin up. 'I suggest you get this to an escape shuttle. We can decide what we're going to about Elias and Gertrude's tape when we're done.'
'Should Martin really go off on his own?' Tim questions. Martin frowns as a surge of indignation rises up at the suggestion that he's not even capable of doing a task which, hopefully, is as far away from Sasha as he could get. Tim knows that he looked after his mother in a rough part of New Old London for a long time before making the unfortunate decision to join the crew of the Magnus Institute. Therefore, Tim should know that Martin can handle himself.
'I'll protect Martin.' Jon says it with such confidence that, for a beat, Martin can almost believe that it's true.
Martin stands by his previous assessment that the Broth chamber isn't too heavy for him. It is, however, too long and wide for him to grab it by the middle and balance it on his hip, so he has taken to dragging it down the corridors to the shuttle decks at the rear. He pauses, relinquishing his sweaty grip on the base of the chamber to stretch out the steadily increasing number of painful cricks in his back. He listens as he stretches, certain that any minute he's going to hear the tread of something or someone who would gladly see him and Jon dead.
'Martin?' Jon's voice is quiet through his earpiece, 'You've stopped again.'
'Ah, yeah, Jon. I'm just taking a quick rest.'
'I completed some scans. I think shuttle two is in the best shape. You're not far away now.'
Martin watches Jon's face as his voice tickles his ear. It's almost hard to imagine it coming from a human mouth, Martin is so used to having the private thrill of Jon speaking directly to him through his earpiece. Then, he imagines the intimacy of having Jon's lips right by his ear, whispering words meant only for him. He doesn't bother to try and fight the blush that blooms on his neck and cheeks as the mental image stirs his dormant lust.
He flushes a deeper shade of crimson. Caught. 'Ah, hi! Sorry. Yep, shuttle two! Thank you.'
'Martin?' Jon's voice sweeps up into a questioning note as Martin finds the best spot on the side of the chamber to drag it from. The friction makes a synthetic whoosh against the floor as he starts to pull.
'The - the thing that you found - that none of you will talk about . . . Is it? Is it me?'
Jon was right, as Martin rounds a gentle corner, he can see the glowing sign announcing the entrance to shuttle two. He's close enough that it is easier just to keep moving than to let Jon's words freeze him. He licks his lips, Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows to combat his suddenly dry mouth. The Jon in the chamber sleeps on, beautiful and ignorant.
'Would you actually want to know?' Martin doesn't want to lie to Jon, he really doesn't, but he can feel one growing on the tip of his tongue. He's good at lying.
'I think so. I'd be relieved, actually. It wouldn't change anything. You couldn't wake me up now anyway, you still need a computer, even a broken one. I'd just want to know -' He trails off.
'Know what?' It takes Jon a second to answer. Martin's heart stutters in his chest. He tilts the chamber so he can pull it over the lip of the large porthole into the escape shuttle and winces as the movement causes the floating Jon to bang his head. 'I'd want to know what you thought.'
Oh, Martin thinks, and then, with greater feeling, OH! This isn't some master plan to destroy Jon's chance of being human again, to undo what Elias did to him, it's -
Jon wants to know if I fancy him.
Martin's stomach does a flip. His hands tremble as he eases Jon into the shuttle.
'Nice.' He blurts. I write poetry, he thinks, blushing furiously, Earth below, Martin. Nice?
'Oh.' Jon takes a moment to take that in.
Martin squashes down the insistent burn of mortification to assess the shuttle's interior. It's somehow larger and smaller than he expected, a white box that feels unfamiliarly rigid after the curved archways of the Institute's corridors. He enters from the rear of the shuttle, dragging Jon past what appears to be a toilet and shower cubicle on his right and a large storage compartment on his left. The shuttles are not intended for long-term travel whilst awake, and the majority of the remaining space is taken up by two identical Broth chambers, each lining the wall to leave a strip of gangway in the middle which leads to the flickering screens of the shuttle's computer at the front. Martin blinks as the main screen senses them and flickers to life, asking him if he wants to start the escape procedure. It's bizarre to think that the computer inside there is not Jon. The fluorescent glow of the lights casts a reflection on the domed surface of Jon's Broth chamber and something squeezes at Martin's chest as he gives into the need to tilt Jon's face back into view.
No, he's not quite ready to escape yet.
'Just nice?' Jon finally replies, a wry tease in his voice that doesn't help the wobbly feeling in Martin's legs.
'Hah. Um.' Come on, Martin. 'No. Actually, um, really nice.'
Jon's unexpected laugh is underscored by an electrical hum that feels like a wave of static across Martin's skin. He can't stop himself from wondering what it will sound like without that.
'Hm.' Jon sounds incredibly pleased with himself. Martin shakes his head and shuffles another step into the shuttle before stopping with a jolt as he realises he's going to need to take one of the chambers out before he can put Jon's in.
'Bugger.' He breathes, feeling uncomfortably warm in this smaller space with the added burn of his blush.
'Ugh, it's okay. You just distracted me.'
Martin finds it incredible that he can hear can hear a smirk in Jon's voice even though he doesn't currently have a mouth to smirk with. It's . . . Attractive. And, I'm distracted again.
'Distracted you because of how nice I look?'
'Jon!' Martin grins through the exertion of trying to shift the bottom end of the chamber back out into the corridor.
'That's not a no.' Jon crows.
'It's not -! It's not about what you look like!' Martin can't believe Jon is making him say this. Once Jon is safely back out in the corridor, he straightens up and wipes his face with his hands. 'It's - you know I liked you before I even knew you had a body.' He mumbles.
' I know.' If anything, Jon sounds even more pleased.
Most of the weight of Jon's chamber comes from Jon himself and so it's light work to follow the steps to release one of the sealed, empty chambers from the shuttle and carry it back out to where Jon, mercifully, still rests.
'How much of this shuttle can you control?' Martin asks with a grunt as he heaves Jon's chamber onto the platform. It clicks into place and Martin sinks into the feeling of relief as the fluid inside starts to bubble as the filtration system kicks into action. The sight of him like this stirs a memory from those old books on ancient history Martin had devoured in his childhood. Jon was a sleeping beauty in a glass case and Martin -
'Oh, not a lot. The shuttles are designed to run independently in case the computer system fails.' Martin processes that. Jon, with his advantage of literally being a computer, adds awkwardly. 'I could move my system onto the shuttle, but then I would no longer be able to control the rest of the ship.'
'Right.' Martin says, the early machinations of a plan starting to turn in his mind. He blinks to find that he's tracing the outline of Jon's floating hair with his fingertips on the glass.
Now that Jon is here safe, Martin isn't quite sure what to do with himself. He wants to be helpful, he does, but it's hard to deny the sweet safety of locking himself and Jon away in the shuttle until someone calls the all clear.
'Knock, knock!' Martin whirls round to face the exit as a cruelly smug voice announces the otherwise silent presence at the door. It's Elias. 'Hello, Martin.'
The Head of the Institute looks no worse for wear after his run-in with Daisy. Martin dreads to think what dirt he must have on her to still have all of his teeth. He flaunts them in a wide smile.
'Why don't you step outside?' Martin feels a spike of fear at the thought of leaving Jon's side for even a second. He's bigger than Elias and it feels necessary to keep his bulk between Jon and the vile creature that runs the ship.
'Why don't you come in here?' He challenges.
Elias tuts. 'Oh, Martin, you don't really think that your crewmates value you enough to resist from firing us both off into Space the minute that shuttle door closes? And, unlike you, I actually know how to pilot this craft.'
'Leave him alone.' Jon's voice snarls from the corridor.
'Oh, shush, Jonathan.' Elias commands, 'Or I'll have to mute you.'
Martin's legs are leaden as he walks stiffly away from Jon and back out into the main ship. Elias backs away obligingly, as if he's not a threat.
'Wonderful.' He goads insufferably. 'I have some important information to share with you, Martin.' Martin breathes through his nose, mind racing for ways to protect himself. He can't run. He won't leave Jon behind. 'Now,' Elias continues. His eyes shimmer in the white light. 'You might think that escaping to the dark horizons of Space with my Archivist is a viable option for you, but what do you really think is waiting for you back on Earth?'
Elias' words drown Martin in a cold-water panic. He swims through them, not knowing what he can trust to hold on to.
'I - What do you mean?' He asks cautiously. The atmosphere buzzes as though Jon is about to interrupt and then falls deadly quiet. Martin hears nothing but the sound of his own ragged breathing. Elias smiles, expression a study in faux-pity.
'Your mother, Martin. It was sad, wasn't it, to leave her on Earth?'
Martin's eyes narrow. 'You know nothing about my mother.'
'I know that your relationship with her was always strained, even before your father left. He didn't know how to cope with her sickness, and he had no intention of learning. I know that, as she grew weaker and weaker, she became increasingly distant from you despite your elaborate and often illegal attempts to win her approval and earn enough to afford the level of care that might make her well enough to finally be able to love you.'
'Stop!' Martin breathes, choking on the grief he had so successfully locked away. Elias' grin is triumphant.
'I know that when you saw this job opportunity you thought it was perfect. You could use the up-front bonus to secure your mother a place at The Starshine Centre for Vitality. They would nurture her, cure her, even, and by the time you returned to Earth, she would be so grateful to you for saving her, for granting her the functional immortality such a service offers, she'd be just thrilled to live out the rest of her days as the doting mother you always wanted.' Elias' teeth glint in the light. 'Do you want to know why she doesn't answer your calls, Martin?'
Martin is shaking, his whole body rippling underneath the fabric of his shirt. The buzzing eyeballs in his pocket are finally still, as though trained on Elias.
'N-' No, Martin wants to say. But the sick greed for this painful truth sings out from his bones and, when a sensation like a cold hand covering his eyes makes his vision go dark, it's easier to just give in.
He gasps as he sees his mother's face for the first time in what is actually hundreds of years. The vision is crystal clear, as though he is right there in the room with her. She looks sick.
How is this possible? Martin screams but no words come out and the confused panic is driven away by the stake that pierces his chest at the images, hundreds of them, of his mother denying comms request after comms request until, sensing her distress, a perfectly blond young bot simply takes the device away.
'She hated you.' Elias drawls, as if seeing the disgusted curl of his mother's upper lip at the sight of Martin's name wasn’t proof enough. 'But you knew that, really. No, the reason you have nothing to return home to is because of the mistake you made when signing the contract for your mother's care.'
Martin floats, disconnected from his body, in a torrent of fear. What mistake? Even his inner monologue is hoarse, terrified. Mum, I'm so sorry, I'm so- He is detached from the physical sensations of his own body and, instead, feels the sagging mattress around him, the acidic burn of gone-cold urine against his sore skin. He sees through his mother's eyes as two burly assistants grab her wrists and ankles to swing her wretched form onto a stretcher.
What's happening? He hears his mother rasp and his heart still yearns for her inside the cage of this awful truth.
Time's up. One of the assistants grunts. They do not meet her eyes.
The worst part.
The part that finally makes Martin fold in on himself like a child, hitting the floor without even feeling it, is that, as the conveyor belt shifts his mother's body along, as the robotic whirring and gnashing of metal teeth reaches a fever pitch, she doesn't think of him once.
Finally, she smiles, finally.
Martin feels it.
'Why?' Martin sobs as the onslaught continues and Elias shows him what, exactly, happened to the parts of his mother that the machine deemed fit for repurposing.
There's none of the sick glee left in Elias' voice when he answers. 'Because you need to learn that nothing good can come from trying to cross me.'
Martin blinks and the cold, blindfolded sensation eases enough for him to see Elias standing over him, back ramrod straight in his pristine suit. He still knows, though, that somewhere on Mars a little girl is thrilled that her Nannybot has real human hair to play with.
He sniffs, feeling the tears run cold until they drip off his chin. Martin feels hollowed out, like Elias has taken a knife to the very core of him and then decided it would be more fun to simply eviscerate him with his bare hands. No feeling remains except - except . . .
Elias doesn't step back this time as Martin rises shakily to his feet. There's no glimmer in his eyes, no fake pity. It's as though his default is a blank screen and any emotion has to be consciously projected onto it. Martin's mother's hands have been fixed to a wall of an Earthen sewage factory, mindlessly churning through the fetid remains of a dying civilisation.
'Alright.' Martin whispers, sounding beaten. 'Please, make it stop.'
'Martin!' Jon erupts from the wall but he barely hears him.
In a sticky chamber, aboard one of the satellite colonies orbiting Saturn, a man uses the part of Martin's mother than once brought him into this very universe.
'I'll do what you want.'
'Very good.' Elias purrs.
Martin is good at lying.
Elias' head makes a sickening crunch as Martin lunges forwards to grab him by the neck and swing him against the wall with as much force as he can muster. He expects a gasp of surprise from the man, a cry of pain, but Elias is silent as he pulls him back to repeat the movement with an agonised shout of his own. There's fire in Martin's veins and he barely feels the kick that Elias aims at his shins, nor the icy fingers that gouge at his face.
A loud, plastic pop and the moist slap of silicone tearing and flapping open. Martin yells as huge gash splits open the side of Elias' head, spilling a viscous black fluid over his hands and gaping wide to reveal perfect bundles of malicious silver wiring.
Martin's fingers go slack with shock, but the momentum of his attack forces Elias's head back against the dented panelling one final time and he emits a high-pitched whirring sound before going rigid in Martin's hands. Martin drops the body and jumps back with a whimper.
Elias' staring eyes fill with a reflective, inky blackness. A screen shut down. His body hits the floor with a thump.
all I want to know is, did anyone spot the sixth sense (film) moment in chapter five when this happened:
"That was the thing about AI, one day it would get to the point where they'd advance so much that you wouldn't even know when you were talking to one. [Basira] thinks of the clumsy police-bots she'd had to deal with back on Earth. Not yet, though, not yet.
Elias swings the door open with a smile like a great red slash across the bottom of his face." ?????
thank you so, so much for reading! I'd love to know what you thought of the chapter and, given that the final chapter is up next (+/- an epilogue), I'd love to know your predictions for how this is going to go down!
I'm going to try and post the next chapter next friday, but I want to make sure it's the best I can make it so if it's looking like it's going to be late I'll put a post on my tumblr letting you know! some of you have said that you look forward to getting an update on a friday (which is honestly so sweet!!) so I don't want to feel like I'm letting y'all down if I don't get it finished in time!!
Chapter 9: strings between the stars
it is approximately 45 minutes until a steady orbit will be achieved.
hi everyone! welcome to the last proper chapter of this fic! as always, thank you so much for your support on the last chapter. I've never wrapped up a multi-chaptered fic in my life and so I really hope this hits the way I hoped!!
cw: violence, martyrdom, brief reference to suicidal ideation
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The air in the tunnels is close enough for Daisy to taste the acrid, melted-plastic burn hanging in invisible particles around them. The creature has passed this way. Daisy doesn't submit to the allure of the panic fizzing in her bones. She's done this all before. The knowledge that she has, in fact, taken out things that are far more dangerous than Not Sasha allows her to keep her breathing steady and silent. There's no tremble in the hand wrapped around her blaster.
She continues forwards, ducking soundlessly to avoid the loops of wiring hanging from the ceiling. Basira is right behind her, boots quiet on the metal panelling of the floor. Daisy fancies that she can hear her partner's mind whirring away as they both stop to listen for any of the creaking pops and clicks that Basira assures her will announce the presence of the creature.
The pair had turned left at the bottom of the stairs down into the tunnels, tracing the route that Daisy and Tim had walked only - what was it? - one or two hours before. Time has taken on a glimmering unreality, the numbers of Daisy's watch seem to change when she least expects it. They've been awake far too long but there's nothing to be done about that. Daisy simply blinks away the shimmering lights across her view and presses on.
'You knew, didn't you, that there was something wrong with Sasha.' Basira whispers as that mind of hers finally circles to a stop. Daisy shrugs.
'I didn't remember her the way she was.'
The energy rolling from Basira bears no hint of any frustration towards Daisy for not making more of a fuss about her suspicions. Daisy thinks the emotion spilling out of her might be guilt. She straightens, pausing for a second to listen for ambush, and twists to meet Basira's dark eyes.
'You did what you thought needed to be done.' Her voice is quiet but firm, inviting no further comment from Basira. The officer nods, wetting her cracked lips. Daisy nods back.
With bulging eyes, Martin stares down at the sticky black liquid dripping from his hands and then back to the body on the floor. Elias has fallen oddly, arms twisted in directions that a normal body would be unlikely to articulate in. His neck is twisted to reveal the oozing wound on his head and the soft white lighting in the corridor reflects on the sea of razor-sharp silver wires revealed by the attack.
Martin thinks he might be sick.
'Martin!' The static burst of Jon's voice through his earpiece makes him whimper. 'What just happened? Are you alright?'
He opens his mouth to speak and retches, empty stomach relinquishing nothing but the sour burn of his stomach acid. He wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his suit but doesn't take his eyes off the body on the floor as he whispers, 'Oh, oh shit, Jon. Elias - Elias is dead - I think I - killed -' His voice pitches sharply upwards on the word. 'I think I killed him.' Martin is sobbing now, ink-stained fingers shaking like shuttle-wings in an asteroid storm as he reaches up to wipe the tears away. He's not crying for Elias, the fat tears that run down his cheeks are for his mother, for the man he's trying so desperately to protect. When he sniffs, nose leaking, it's for himself. For the tiny shred of his humanity that he destroyed alongside Elias.
'Martin.' There's a soothing note in Jon's voice which overlays the obvious shock and concern.
'I didn't mean to!' His vision blurs and, for a moment, he is convinced that Elias is going to take this opportunity to scuttle up from the ground and attack. He jumps back, blinking to clear his vision, but Elias remains on the floor, limbs twisted like scrap metal.
'I know, I'm heard what he said. You were defending yourself.' Jon murmurs into his ears. Martin shakes away the lingering flashes of the torture he had inadvertently forced upon his mother and imagines that Jon is disgusted in him, morally repulsed by his actions. He bursts into a fresh set of sobs.
'Martin, Martin! You need to try and calm down. 'Jon appeases, 'Martin!'
He can't stop. Every time he blinks he sees his mother's rage or the blank nothing in Elias's eyes as he skulled snapped against the wall.
'Martin,' Jon is pleading now, 'Are you sure he's dead?'
'I -' He gasps, 'I don't know. Jon, he's not human - he's not -'
'He has wires and this black fluid and - oh, fuck - Jon, I didn't mean to kill him, I was just scared and angry and -'
'Shh, shh it's okay, Martin. I need you to tell me exactly what you can see and I need you to check that he's dead . . . Or broken beyond repair at least.'
His breath comes as a damp pant. All this time he has lived under the scrutiny of people wondering whether he was capable of murder. He guesses they'll have their answer soon.
But Jon is right, he needs to be sure.
'I don't know how.' He breathes.
'Tell me what you can see.' Jon demands firmly, so clear and confident that, if Martin himself were a bot, he'd want Jon controlling him right now.
'He's on the floor. All twisted up.' He gets out between shaky breaths. 'There's a gash on his head from where he hit the wall and it's leaking this black stuff. It's all over me.' He takes a hesitant step towards the body. It doesn't so much as twitch.
Slowly, slowly, he drops into a squat next to Elias' head.
'Be careful.' Jon insists.
'What do I do?'
Jon is quick to answer, 'If what my database says can be trusted, which . . .'
'Yeah. There's should be some kind of identifier on his forearm?'
Martin stares down at the outstretched arm on the floor in front of him distrustfully. If Elias is a robot, he wouldn't need to breathe, to blink, or have a pulse. Without these indicators of life, how is Martin meant to trust that Elias isn't going to grab him the minute Martin's fingers glance across his waxy, white flesh.
'I know, I'm here.'
The material of Elias' suit is thinner than Martin's own. Silkier. Clearly never intended for proper use. Martin's fingers tremble as he reaches down to pluck at the cuff, eyes darting between Elias' dead, black eyes and back as the forearm slowly comes into view. It looks so real, he grimaces, turning the arm as far over as it will go. Elias feels cold under his fingertips. A corpse that was never truly alive. He scans the unblemished skin for any tiny abnormality that might help explain what is going on.
'I can't -' He starts but it's as he's turning the arm back over that the lights catch on a series of small bumps in the skin. Property of. 'Oh, wait!'
Martin's stomach jolts into his throat and he nearly vomits again. His ears ring with a screeching tinnitus he knows isn't coming from Jon.
Property of the Starshine Centre for Vitality, Hopworth Branch
He reads it aloud to Jon and there's a long quiet through the comms which he imagines Jon is using to confirm that, yes, that was the same place he always called, the place that was . . . Well, I can hardly say caring for my mother anymore.
Martin stares down at Elias, tears crowding his view, and, for the most fleeting of heartbeats, he wishes he were alive, just so he could kill him all over again. The bot remains perfectly motionless, the only flicker of life in the black eye facing Martin is his own reflection, ghostly and wild-eyed.
'I think he must be dead.' He tells Jon. 'He had better be.' He adds murderously, more for his own benefit.
'Martin . . . What did he do to you? To make you kill him, what did he do?'
Martin chokes on his inhalation as the visions descend upon him once again, a jumble of excruciating memories witnessed first-hand.
'He showed me -'
'Showed you what?'
Basira takes in the towering stack of weapons stuffed to bursting in the wall in front of her with a quiet, impressed whistle. The pair of them had been so relieved to find the stash seemingly unperturbed. It did lead to the question of: where the fuck was Elias if not here. But that could wait. For now.
'Heavens,' Basira whispers, eyes fixed on the sealed containers of flavours of explosives that were definitely not aboard this ship with a legal permit. 'She really knew what she was doing, didn't she?'
Basira thinks of Gertrude, trapped in the computer system and yet still competent enough to hide all of this away without the other crew knowing. Incredible. Daisy is quiet for a beat before she whispers back, an uneasy slant to her consonants.
'I think you admire her a bit too much.' Basira whips her head round to gape at Daisy. Her partner shrugs, a tight and controlled thing that is the polar opposite to the buzzing of adrenaline in Basira's body. 'I mean, the ship is still here. And she isn't.'
Basira is about to hiss back a retaliation when the air is knocked out of her like a punch to the throat.
They hear its voice first. It's too far away to make out intelligible words, if the creature is even capable of them, but Basira's stomach lurches with each discordant bellow.
'Fuck.' It's the kind of curse that signifies another step towards an inevitability rather than blind panic. She knows what they're about to face. Daisy meets her eyes. Her grey ones have taken on the colour of steel in the gloom, and look twice as sharp. The artery in her temple throbs.
'Do not shoot here.' Daisy warns, tilting her head in the vague direction of the weapons. 'We'll lead it away.' The volume of her voice drops as the bizarre, tuneless vocalisations continue to get louder and clearer. Basira nods, picturing the Institute erupting with a fatal light and heat, picturing the vile twist of Not Sasha's jaw as she makes out the words:
'I can smell you. I'm coming to find you.'
If Daisy hears, she gives no indication of it on her face. It's so much closer now, the rattle of its joints - a repeated whumph, click, pop - perceptible and growing in volume. whumph, click, pop. Whumph, Click, Pop.
'Run when I say run.'
Whumph, Click, Pop. 'I'm going to eat one of your lives.' Basira's skin prickles as the pungent stench of molten plastic closes in on them, air close and choking. She's not going to be able to run for long if she can't catch her breath like this. 'You don't know who you are without the other and you won't even understand when you find out.' Whumph, Click, POP. Whumph, Click, POP. WhumphClickPOP.
Basira grips her blaster even tighter, even though she knows she can't use it and drops into a ready position. She tries to steady her breathing and steals one final glance at the side of Daisy's face before a blur of angles, almost translucent in the dim light from their head torches, barrels towards them. Basira's blood runs cold.
A gaping smile, filled with too many teeth. 'Hello, Daisy. Why don't you come and say hello to your good friend Sasha?'
Jon is reeling. He roams the branches of himself, pushing out, out, out until, blindly he hits the external casing of the ship and retreats. Flashes of electrical impulse drive back in towards his mess of a core, a mess, he is now certain, was curated to keep him from discovering the truth before he was ready. He still doesn't feel ready. Even less ready now, with the new shock that Elias was never human, that he has the ability to know far more than should be possible and to project that knowledge right into someone's brain. Gertrude had said that he served one of these cosmic horrors, the Ceaseless Watcher. He had obviously served it well.
'How could I not have known that Elias was a robot?' He snaps to Martin and hears a twitchy gasp in return as his sudden outburst startles the man. 'Sorry. But honestly, this whole system should have lit up with warnings about unregistered AI.'
'Well . . .' Martin's voice is too small, too quiet to belong to the man who had just rid the ship of such a huge threat to them all. 'Elias did put you into the system, perhaps he even designed it, it does seem to have some obvious, uh, blind spots. Sorry, pun not intended.'
Martin - my Martin - who had explained everything to Jon between teary hiccoughs. 'I couldn’t let him take you' He had said. Jon's Martin who had killed to protect him. Jon felt utterly powerless to return that protection, he hadn't even been able to warn Martin that Elias was coming to get him.
'What?' Martin asks after a long silence.
'It's just - I'm just an agent of his, aren't I?'
'Jon, no!' Martin sounds like he shouldn't have the energy to be anywhere near as horrified as he is. 'No, you've done so much to help uncover this!'
I manipulated everyone to help Elias get what he wanted. Jon's disgust scuttles through his system like a fat and venomous centipede, ready to strike out at whatever hurts him next. He reaches into himself and finds the shrinking marks on his control room wall. He wraps his code tight around them and tries his best to anchor himself to the only tangible humanity he can find inside this system.
'It's like Gertrude said, in the file,' He knows his voice reaches Martin's ears as a pitiful rasp, 'She knew what Elias wanted from her and couldn't do much to stop it. It's - It's in my wiring. I don't know if I can fight it without forcing us all into an even worse way of realising Elias' plans.'
Jon listens to the tide of Martin's breathing as he considers this. Unthinking, he tries to access the camera feed for that section of corridor, desperate to know if that little frown is in place as his cogs turn. He hits a wall of nothing and curses internally. How many times?
'Well, we think Elias is gone right?' Martin certainly sounds like that puzzled little tilt of his eyebrows is firmly in place. Jon catches himself before he reaches for the cold feed again. 'Can you try and, I don't know, turn the ship around or something?'
Jon finds the fact that the thought hadn't even occurred to him highly alarming. And more fuel for his theory. He opens up the flight plans and dismays at the graphical depiction of the ship streaming ever closer to the barycentre of the new planet. He scrolls through his options. The plan warns him that it is approximately 45 minutes until a steady orbit will be achieved. And what an achievement it will be. He reaches the end of his list of command options and pauses.
He checks it again.
It would appear that turning the ship around is not an option.
'Oh.' Is all Martin manages when Jon relays that to him. He keeps searching, poking at his code in case it realigns into something that will help him escape their fate.
'It's not even like I'm being denied access, it's as though the option to stray from this route isn't an option at all, as though manual control has never existed on this ship.' Jon remembers the engines firing round after round when the Institute was stuck in the webs. They were working to free the ship, but only to steer it back on course. 'This is what I mean, Martin! I'm - I'm scared that there's nothing I can do to fight this.' He replays that imagined memory, of the man with the noose of code. Right now, the man is swinging.
'Jon, Jon it's okay. We'll find a way to sort this. We have to!' Martin's voice feels like a caress against the tension in Jon's system. It's overwhelming, to think that Martin has the space inside of him to carry his grief for his mother and a murder, and still have enough room carved out of his heart to comfort Jon.
?query: do all humans feel that much?
His query returns an error. He assumes it must just be Martin then.
The tunnels echo with the pounding of heavy boots on the metal grid of the flooring, the death-rattle of the creature's articulations and its triadic taunting. The archways they speed through are wide enough to admit a human woman and her blaster, but seem to be hindering the long-limbed beast that chases them.
'It curves!' Basira calls from over Daisy's shoulder. The detective doesn't look behind her, just keeps running, unsure when they will reach a safe distance from the weapons to shoot from. Sweat drenches her, armpits and thighs chafing painfully as she pelts her way around a corner and that's what Basira meant, finds herself in the long, straight section of corridor with its adjoining chambers that she and Basira had carried Gertrude through.
She keeps running, just wanting to get a little bit further away so she can get this fucker as it slows down to round the corner behind them. She can see the small, emerald pool of light up ahead that signals that the staircase to the rest of the ship is nearby. Suddenly, she becomes acutely aware that the only sound is the clanging stomp of her own boots and she stops, raising her weapon as she spins around. The corridor is completely empty.
'Fuck.' He throat tightens as a cold, stabbing sensation grips her chest. 'Fuck, fuck, no! Basira!' Daisy had known that her partner should have run ahead, she has shorter legs for fuck's sake. But no, no, she can't be gone, she can't be. Because Not Sasha is only just rounding the corner now, a looming shape in the encroaching darkness. Torchlight on teeth. Sagging skin flapping like a white flag.
Surrender is not on the cards.
Daisy looks around her wildly and there, there! In the opening to one of the chambers she catches the red glow of the ready light on Basira's blaster. Her heart swells with relief even as a shock of more adrenaline is fired into her bloodstream.
The creature's eyes burn like a blue flame in the dark and its neck seems to move independently from its body, pushing that grinning mask forwards towards the chamber in which Basira is hiding.
Daisy needs to think of something, fast. Basira is clearly planning on sneaking up from the rear, but that plan will only work if the creature doesn't spot her and if Daisy can hit its skeletal form without hitting Basira behind it. She needs to draw it away from here.
Not Sasha is level with the chamber now. Its neck swings like bait on the end of a fishing pole. It would only have to look ever so slightly to the left to see -
'HEY!' Daisy roars. Her lungs burn. 'HEY!'
'Aw look at the little detective.' The three voices that are not Sasha speak at once. Daisy can taste blood. 'She thinks she can kill me. She thinks I won't take her face.'
'I don't give a shit if you take my face.' Daisy growls back, she takes aim, right at its mouth. When it laughs, Daisy can smell it, the scent of metal polish and the Institute's shampoo, the smell of an engineer she had once almost-known. 'But you have to catch me first.'
For the first time, she glances over her shoulder whilst running, needing to be sure that the whumpclickpopwhumphclickpopwhumphclickpop deafening her is definitely the sound of pursuit. She pants loudly, ignoring the scream of a the stitch in her side. She needs to run far enough to give Basira a chance.
'Come on, Alice!' The thing screeches as they round the corner. Daisy feels the scratch of a talon rip through the back of her suit and she has never been more certain that she will die if she stops moving. 'Let me take it all away. You were always a strange little g-' The taunt is cut off by a choked wail. It rings through Daisy's skull and is enough to make her glance over her shoulder at whatever the fuck has just happened to Sasha. In her shocked and distracted state, Daisy's foot catches on the top of one of the metal wall panels on the floor.
'Haaa-ah!' She shouts as her momentum propels the panel forwards, taking her with it like the most unexpected moonboarder in the galaxy. By the time she unbalances and it goes skidding off without her, there's enough distance between her and Not Sasha to be able to turn around and take a proper look at it.
Unlike Daisy, it hadn't known that it was necessary to duck under the loose wiring from the ceiling. Daisy watches with predatory pupils as the pathetic thing writhes and tugs at the tangle of wiring it has got caught up in. Boldly, she takes a step towards it, swinging her blaster at her side. Not Sasha hisses and spits a vile foamy globule onto the floor.
'You can't kill me.' It insists. Daisy sees no hint of remorse in those glowing eyes. That rumbling sensation in the back of her teeth is back again, the one that has always told her when something isn't quite right.
The feeling spreads down into her throat and is regurgitated as a low, dry laugh. Something close to uncertainty spins in Not Sasha's headlamp irises.
'You can't kill me.' It says again, wrestling a single, bony arm free in a shower of sparks.
Daisy is laughing as she takes another step forwards. Teeth bared.
Daisy is laughing as she points her blaster at the nest of wires encircling its other arm and frees it with three sharp beams of light.
Daisy is laughing over the creature's howl as it claws at its own neck, frantically trying to free itself from the choking black tangle.
The laugh drops in pitch until it is nothing but a huffed bark from her throat. A repeated growl of a noise that makes tiny hairs all over her body stand to attention. A gagged and bound part of Daisy's rational mind knows that she gets like this on a kill, knows that, at some point, the hunter in her is going to take over and finish the job. The same part of her knows that she's now within easy reach of the writhing mass of sinuous stranger.
Keeping her blaster pointed directly at Not Sasha's chest, she finds the hilt of the long knife in her belt easily. It pulls out with a delicious metallic chime.
'You're wrong.' Daisy snarls, 'I can.'
Its ribs make a series of sickly crunches as the knife cuts clean through them, penetrating the creature's chest and spilling a shower of fine metal shavings to the ground. The fuck? Daisy unsheathes the knife to stab the creature again, ducking out of the way of its flailing arms. The same crunching sound, almost like boots on gravel, and the shards of metal fly.
Daisy drops to a squat to avoid the long, grasping fingers reaching for her but overbalances. Suddenly, she's on her back, staring up at the hungry leer of this creature. The knife falls out of her hand with a clatter and she struggles to squirm out of reach of the suspended monster.
It laughs and Daisy cries out as spindly fingers grab one of her ankles to pull her closer.
'No!' She thunders, scrabbling with both hands to aim her blaster up at Not Sasha. Her first shot misses, bouncing wide. She catches the creature in its chest, stomach, head. A beam of furious energy catches the snapping jaws when they're wide open and Daisy growls, satisfied.
Seconds later, she realises that she's not the only one shooting. Basira. Together, they fire round after round at the creature until it finally drops still, its skin has starting to melt and drip away through the gaps in the floor below. A drop runs down the side of the gaping jaw that hangs above Daisy's face and splashes onto her forehead. It feels like a baptism.
Daisy is laughing and laughing as she continues to empty her blaster into the limp puppet above her.
Stop, a voice is screaming. Probably that quiet part of her she locks up on occasions like this. Daisy, STOP. The tunnel is ablaze with light, beams of cobalt from her weapon mixing with showers of sparks from the damaged wiring. It’s amazing nothing has caught fire.
DAISY, STOP! That voice repeats, far away. Almost quiet.
Quiet. She should listen -
'Daisy - it's dead, it's dead! Stop! You're going to hit me!'
The thing that was Not Sasha and, now, was not anything, finally drops to the floor by Daisy's feet to reveal a figure, silhouetted by the light of her head torch. Her shoulders rise and fall as she gasps for air. She carries her blaster at her side in readiness.
Elias is dead and Jon is safe, Martin tells himself. Elias is dead and Jon is safe. Elias is dead. Jon is safe.
Leaving Jon's resting body behind on the shuttle had been another fresh wound for Martin to ignore. He knows he can't hide away in there forever, he needs to find Tim and the others and explain what the fuck just happened, but that didn't make slipping his hand from the smooth and slightly warm surface of the Broth chamber any easier.
He keeps walking, legs wobbling like the reconstituted glucose mix they kept on hand for emergencies. Even though he knows that there shouldn't be anyone following him, his heart still races and he flinches at every unidentified sound. Elias is dead and Jon is safe. He repeats. The second he stops, he will fall into the fog of remembering his mother. His mother who didn't even think of him as she was carted away to her end.
Elias is dead and Jon is safe.
With slow, careful steps, he makes it out of the shuttle deck and into the section of the Institute devoted to their research. He can almost taste the ashes of another life in the air: himself, Tim and Sasha, working away at their separate lab benches, squirting Tim with distilled water when he made a bad joke only to find he gets drenched right back.
He blinks and it's gone. Martin finds himself at the entrance to Artefact Storage and an uneasy question piques his curiosity. Tipping up onto his toes to peer through the window into the abandoned room, his gaze lands on the ruined table, axe still embedded in its centre. The rest of the room bears the signs of Not Sasha's destruction. He gulps. He hopes Daisy and Basira know what this thing is capable of.
He turns his attention back to the table. The sections of it what were hacked away litter the floor and splinters of that bizarre black material coat every other surface. But still -
'Don't even think about it.' Jon startles him back from the window.
'I'm being serious, don't touch that table.'
'How did you -?'
'I'm tracking your comms.'
'Right.' Martin's stomach sinks, it would be ideal for Jon to get his sight back, even if his eyes still sit in his breast pocket. 'It's just - we're trying not to enter that planet's orbit, right? Well what if the webs came back and -?'
'Get away from there, don't even think about it.'
'But it would buy us time!'
'Buy time for what? You're right, we might never reach orbit, but that will be because we've run out of fuel and died!' The irritation in Jon's voice stings. Then, the gentle sigh through his earpiece washes it away. 'I'm sorry, Martin, but I the last thing I want is for you to get hurt when you're so close to getting out of here.'
'We're so close to getting out of here.' Martin corrects.
He muses on this as he pulls himself away from Artefact Storage and continues to trace a path down to the Broth chambers where Tim should be keeping guard. Jon is already in place in shuttle two, all he needs to do is upload his consciousness onto the ship and then he and Martin can leave. Daisy and Basira will obviously want to depart on a shuttle together. That leaves . . .
Martin is too cored out by his own grief to be able to process the thought of leaving the other crew members behind in Broth. Instead, he thinks of Tim, striking out on his own, leaving his ideas of revenge behind. He tries to imagine Tim in a different research job or in a bar on Earth or kicking up dust chasing a toddler around in the wastelands. Who am I kidding? He asks himself. He knows with a stomach wrenching certainty that Tim has no intention of leaving this vessel. And no intention of letting it reach that planet unarmed.
Martin curses as his comms beeps loudly. He's made it to the dining area and he guiltily sinks down into one of the booths as he presses the buttons on his watch to answer the call. He can't remember the last time he sat down.
'Martin, are you alright?' Tim's voice is a little tinny. Martin chokes back a sob.
'Hah. Uh. No, not really. I was just coming to you.' He continues wetly, 'Elias found me but - but I think he's dead.'
'What? What the fuck, Martin? What happened? How can you think someone is dead?'
Martin takes a shaky breath, it sounds like lunacy, even to his own ears. 'He's a bot.'
'What?' Tim gasps, 'Shit. Are you alright?'
'I'm - I'm all in one piece.'
'I hope that means Elias isn't.' Martin can just see the hard grimace on Tim's face as he says that. 'I was calling you because Daisy and Basira are on their way back up. It sounded like Galactic War 3 down there, honestly, whatever it was, it's fried now. Meet us in the control room?'
'Not the Table?'
'Martin, I refuse to stand around the monument of a guy who probably invented his whole humans and AI are equal ideology from the psychological trauma of turning humans into computers.' Tim spits, 'Or, second option is down here, surrounded by all the people we're probably going to condemn. I know you're protective of those panels but, control room, ASAP.'
'So, we're all in agreement then?' Tim asks the assembled group gravely. Jon finds it almost comforting to have them all in one tight space, instead of scattered about the ship. Maybe if he can just keep track of them all, no more harm will come to them. It's a hopeless wish.
Jon can sense their positions relative to himself to an impressive degree of accuracy. He knows that Tim is furthest from the door, standing tall under the guise of confidence. Daisy is leaning on Basira slightly, or, perhaps, Basira is holding on to the back of Daisy's suit, gripping the fabric tight like one might grip the scruff of a snarling dog. He knows that Martin is standing close enough to the wall that if he reached behind himself, just an inch, his hand would slide against the panel.
'I'm sure the other crew members in Broth are going to love it.' Basira comments, voice rough and sarcastic. Tim splutters in disbelief.
'You heard what Jon said! This ship will not stop until whatever evil is out here is back on Earth. Stopping that is . . . It's for the greater good!' Jon hears the quiver of passion in Tim's eruption. He wonders how Martin is looking at him, full of awe? Fearfully?
An audible ripple of unease passes through the control room, breaking only when Basira mumbles, 'I don't disagree, I just . . . thought someone should say it.'
'So?' Tim repeats.
'We could stay for bit? Help?' Jon is startled by Daisy's voice. She speaks slowly, chewing on her words. Almost slurring. If Jon's not mistaken, she sounds as though she has been tranquilised.
'I don't think that's a good idea after . . .' Basira trails off. Jon had been distantly away of the commotion down in the tunnels, blind though he was. Tim had audibly noted how bad Daisy looked when Basira pulled her up through the hatch. Like a wild animal, he had said. 'We're leaving, immediately. Chances are that Elias, if he has all these powers that Martin claims he has, has already contacted the Board. We're not sticking around to find out.'
'Basira.' The R rolls out of Daisy's mouth like the purr of an idling engine.
'Listen,' A shuffling sound and Jon gets the impression that Basira has pulled Daisy down to stare right into her eyes. 'I'm not losing you to the Board and I am definitely not losing you to yourself. Just listen to the quiet, Daisy.'
Another beat of tense silence.
'Fine? That's . . . Fine. I know where the explosives are. You guys can go home. Right?' Tim pauses and Jon can tell that looks are being shared. 'Martin? You can go home.'
'I don't have a home to go to anymore!' Martin shouts, grief stricken. With the inability to see it brewing in the twitch of Martin's fingers, the violent flush on his cheeks, it takes Jon by surprise. One of them, Basira or Daisy, curses under their breath as they see his code scatter across the panelling, darting across the walls to coalesce around Martin's outline like a full-body halo of zeroes and ones. Martin appears not to notice. 'And I don't want to leave you behind! I don't - this doesn't have to be a suicide mission, Tim!' Jon wants to have something to say, not necessarily to soothe, or provide false hope. He wants a solution, the knowledge that will get them all out of this snare.
'Someone has to stay, Martin! Someone has to stop it and I know, I know that what's out there is the thing that stole my brother from me. Anyone who thinks they can stop me from getting,' He stutters, 'Justice. Well, they're wrong.'
Applying cool logic to Tim's solution suggests that, actually, it might be the best option for them. Tim is the only one who actively wishes for self-destruction in the name of revenge and the only person who could stop him would be Elias. Whose body still lays crumpled in the shuttle deck. Unless.
Jon searches himself and finds that he doesn't want to stay on the ship when Martin leaves. He's sure that the ache of it is nothing compared to the desperate scream to get off the ship that he would feel if he were fully human. The problem is that there are so many unknown variables still, even with the countdown to their destination ticking like a bomb.
?query: what if I leave the ship and Elias' consciousness is still here to take over?
?query: what if there is another way to stop all of this and I fail to find it by giving up?
There's a risk too, in the shackles of this system, he knows that it's possible that jumping to the shuttle's hardware and leaving the ship behind will not release him from the curse of his purpose. If I stay, Jon permits himself to consider something he knows Martin would never want him to, this ends in fire or it ends in peace. If I leave, Martin and I could be running from it forever.
Tim and Martin bicker inside the walls of his control room. He thinks about leaving. He thinks about remaining. Martin has his body, his eyes, maybe there is someone inside that husk of a human who can keep him company away from the horrors of this place. Maybe Martin doesn't actually need this excised flicker of a person. He could be happy.
But, I love him. The truth spreads throughout the entire ship, every wire singing with it. Jon feels it bleed out into the walls of the Institute itself, feels the ship reject it as though slapping some sense into him. It's because you love him that you have to stay.
Martin and Tim fall silent as Jon speaks, 'I'll stay too.' Jon feels Martin wheel around automatically to face a camera. It would seem that they both forget about the blindness on occasion.
'Martin, I don't think I can leave with the knowledge that I didn't try to stop this until the very end. And, Heavens, I've tried. I've tried so hard to fight my programming on this but I can't and I'm so scared that I'll take over that shuttle and fly you straight into that planet.'
'Jon,' Tim tries to interject, 'You don’t -'
'You have to take my body and get off this ship, Martin. You have to.' His code jumps in a paradoxical delight as Martin slams his palm against the door scanner and it slides open automatically. 'Martin?'
He tunes into the rest of the ship and he can hear the furious stomp of Martin's boots all the way to - of course.
'I'll get him.' Tim promises darkly.
He breathes hard as he runs, the pounding of his boots on the floor immediately muffled as his feet sink into the soft earth lining the floor of the Greenhouse. He tries to stay upright but finds himself sinking slowly to his knees anyway, face already shiny with tears.
Why are you surprised? A bored voice at the back of his mind asks him. You told him what you did to your mother. Why would he put his trust in you to keep him safe after that? How could he love someone who -
The mechanism of the door can barely be heard over his heaving sobs. The soil yields to the press of his knees. The humidity controller puffs out a fine mist. Martin thinks he could just curl up here and wait out oblivion.
'Martin - Martin!' Tim is always interrupting him in here. It hurts to think about the last time. It hurts, Martin is realising, to think about anything. 'Look - Martin, get up.'
Martin makes no move to stand. If anything, his legs sink a little deeper into the ground. 'I'm not going.' He states weakly.
'I'm not -' He sniffs loudly, 'I'm not leaving.' He doesn't have the strength to look up and meet Tim's eyes but he doesn't need to, the soil pushes up against Martin's knees as Tim settles down on the floor in front of him.
'Martin,' He repeats, voice quiet but firm. He makes to grab Martin's wrists and Martin lets him. He'll just wait here. Then it will be over. 'Martin, look at me.' He tugs on Martin's arms, shaking him a little more upright. 'Look at me! I don't know what Elias showed you or said to you but it's over, okay? It's done.'
Martin's vision swims with tears but he meets Tim's eyes anyway. They look like the ocean through a rain-washed window. 'It was my fault.' He whispers, 'And now Jon doesn't -' He finds he can't finish that sentence. It's almost a betrayal, that Jon would let him fall like this and demand he be left behind.
'Yeah? Well, Danny getting taken was my fault.' For a second, those eyes are lightyears away.
'I'll just stay here. I'd rather stay here with you and Jon than go without -' Him, his treacherous heart bleeds, 'You both.' Tim sighs.
'Look, no-one can make the Archivist uninstall himself, but you have Jon, you have the man that was Jon, he's already on that shuttle and that person needs you.'
Martin remembers the sharp line of that nose, the way those lips twitched in disapproval when Martin had bumped into him. A lifetime of disdainful pouts and cutting remarks from that man, would that be worth abandoning the Jon he had fallen in love with? Wrists caught, he wipes his face ungracefully by rubbing it against his shoulder. The thought of denying the Jon in the Broth chamber a chance to escape the path that Elias chose for him feels impossible. The thought of saying goodbye to this one feels even more so.
Tim's thumb strokes the inside of his wrist, delicate and encouraging, and Martin feels guilt settle like the water vapour sitting in fine beads all over him. They stand out like jewels against Tim's dark hair. He wrestles his hands free of Tim's grasp and pulls him into a tight hug.
'I'm sorry things weren't different.' He says and he really means it. He knows what he's going to do.
'Me too.' They pull apart, gripping each other by the elbows, and the pinched expression on Tim's face tells Martin that he really means it too. 'Martin, if you don't get on that shuttle I'm going to knock you out and put you on it myself.' His solemnity startles a laugh out of Martin. It feels strange, so much lighter than the sinking terror of his grief and heartbreak.
'I'd like to see you try.' He huffs back, 'I'm a killer now.'
He's taken aback when Daisy and Basira each hold out a hand for him to shake.
'Will I see you again?' He asks them from the entrance to shuttle two and they share a look.
'Probably not.' Basira replies with a half-smile. 'We're taking a very scenic route. Uh, Martin?'
'Sorry about, you know, thinking you were a murderer.'
'Oh, oh, I -'
'Nine minutes.' Tim warns from behind them, almost jumping up and down on the spot with anticipation. Jon is silent.
'And congrats on getting to Elias before I did.' Daisy rumbles from Basira's right. Martin avoids glancing at the inky mess on the floor behind them. 'Look after yourself.' Her dilated pupils catch on the bubbling chamber inside the shuttle. 'And that one.'
'I will.' Martin promises. They step back and Tim gestures for him to step back across the threshold into the shuttle.
'Don't make me force you.' One last joke at the end of it all. Martin steps one leg over the porthole dutifully and Tim smiles. Martin smiles back even as fresh tears prickle in his eyes. Jon is silent.
Martin looks up to the black glint of the camera across from the shuttle door, at the conspicuous absence of a green light. He can't leave without saying anything.
'Good bye, Jon.' He murmurs, ignoring the twist of pity in his fellow crew's faces.
'Good bye, Martin.' Since awakening, Martin had become so used to having his earpieces in day-cycle and night-cycle that he'd forgotten he was wearing them. The curl of Jon's voice right into his ears makes his heart skip a beat and then thud heavily back into motion. 'I - Say hello to the Scottish Highlands for me.'
He bites his bottom lip hard enough to distract from the feeling of splitting in half and drops his earpieces on the floor of the ship as he takes the final step into the shuttle. Tim, Daisy, Basira all share a tiny smile with him as the huge glass door slides closed. The shuttle's engines rumble to life, escape procedure already activated. Martin resists the urge to run over to Jon's chamber and fuss over it, the one thing in his life that he's not yet screwed up, but he knows that this is the last time he is going to see Tim Stoker's face. The man flashes him a signature grin and Martin feels his own lips twitch in response.
'Hello again, Martin.'
Martin whips around in shock, scanning every inch of the shuttle for the source of the voice. The dread bites deep into his flesh as the smug chuckle at Martin's panic ripples from each wall and it becomes obvious: he's the computer. Elias.
'No.' He whispers first, then it explodes from him as a shout, 'NO!' He pushes forwards against the sealed glass door, slamming a fist against the release button only to be met with a sad beep of denial. He turns to the glass itself, dirt and blood smearing across the pristine surface as his skin splits. He locks eyes with Tim through a streak of red and sees his own fear mirrored back at him. Tim's mouth moves quickly. He pushes Basira out of the way to smash at the door but it achieves nothing. Martin stumbles as the ship judders and the electromagnets holding it snug to the body of the Institute turn off one by one.
'Slight change of plan!' Elias croons like he has all the time in the universe.
Just because he understands why, just because he doesn't have the capacity to feel it with as much depth as a human could, does not alter the fact that Martin's goodbye hurt.
The computer has never felt the sting of being unable to see as overwhelmingly as he does now. He can hear Martin's final exhalation as he exits the Magnus Institute, feels the sore gap in the group of crew as he disappears, actively permits the door to slide closed with a whoomph. But he can't see the way Martin's fringe falls wonkily across his forehead. Can't see the way the whorls of the fingerprints that will, in some way always, always belong to Jon, dance as Martin raises a hand in goodbye. He doesn't know whether his chapped lips are wobbling, or smiling, or -
'Jon?' There's a low note of caution in the way Tim calls for him. He sounds like a man about to watch their child take a tumble on an asteroid dune - keen for them to keep their independence but ready to jump into action the minute it stops being harmless fun. 'JON!'
The shock must make him stupid. Jon reaches for the dead camera feeds that he has just been lamenting the loss of.
'It's Martin, something's wrong! Something's really, wrong, Jon!' He can heard banging, shouts from Basira and Daisy that don't really register. An alarm in his system alerts him to the fact that shuttle two is preparing to disengage from the ship but there's nothing he can do to stop it. They're escape shuttles. 'Jon! Do something! Fucking do something!' Jon has never heard Tim this panicked, not even when they were on the surface and Martin was seconds away from being crushed and eaten by that hand.
There's only one thing he can do.
He can feel the connection to the shuttle dimming with each set of magnets that fall cold as the coils of electricity inside them go dead. It's excruciating. His efforts to wrench the core of himself free of the Institute's grip only make the snaking wires that he once thought were his only body seize tighter. He imagines the swirling code on his panels as a noose again, only now it's pulled taught and he's choking, writhing senselessly to convert his consciousness into something that can be wirelessly transmitted over to the shuttle.
The crew are screaming but he can't afford the time to decode the audio input and reply. He has seconds, perhaps. Another pair of magnets stop attracting one another.
Martin is on that shuttle, he hisses at the synapses that try to reconnect every time he prises part of himself free. This great proprioception he had once taken for granted only becomes apparent in its vastness as he begins to shut it down. He gives up his control of the internal processes of the ship first, then plucks himself free of the bottom floor of the ship, the sleep chambers, the labs, the communal areas. Each loss allows more of himself to be uploaded. Like he's squeezing the parts that he needs to remain human into a capillary tube and is letting it suck him up out of the roots of the ship.
The desperate skeleton of the ship's software throws alert after alert at him, increasingly urgent and serious but he knows if he corrects any of them, he'll miss his chance to get aboard the shuttle and help protect Martin from whatever trap was lying in wait.
Jon must excise himself from the control room last and here is where he finds the rest of the man he needs to take with him if wants to keep Martin alive, curled tightly around the memory of a kiss and refusing to let it go.
He can feel the last pair of magnets preparing to disengage and, soon, the shuttle will be beyond Jon's reach. The Institute is reduced to three points of contact on a warm panel that Jon must let go. Martin is on that shuttle, he coaxes that stubborn streak of human remaining in the otherwise cold and foreign expanse of a ship that had once fit like skin. Martin will never be here again, he tells it. Now he has collected his humanity in one place, has freed it, he realises that he always knew it would end like this for him: the rational part of Jonathan Sims burning out his final few seconds fighting with the stupid part that simply had to fall in love.
If you love him -
He doesn't need to finish that thought. As his last tie to The Magnus Institute is pulled free there is nothing, nothing, nothing, until -
With a searing crackle of electricity, Jon blinks awake inside a whole new ship. He is immediately disoriented, this new shuttle is so different from the feat of astronautical design he had so recently abandoned. He can feel the vibrations of the bubbling Broth tank on the starboard side, can detect that the abnormal concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from Martin's hyperventilation and - oh, oh Martin - he can see! Can see the blooming bruises and cracked skin on Martin's knuckles from where he tried so valiantly to open the door, can see the burn of hatred and terror in those green eyes he knows so well.
Martin! He tries to call out, to ease the fear in the quivering curl of the man's upper lip. He hasn't fully grasped the controls of this new vessel yet and they feel strange. Almost out of reach. Shrouded.
'Mart-!' He gets out before he is cut off abruptly. It's enough. Martin's head snaps in the direction of the Broth tank, face twisting in a confused hope.
'Jon?!' He shouts back, 'Jon, please! You have to be careful, it's Elias he's taken over the shuttle!'
Understanding rips through Jon and, before he can move to embed himself deeper into the shuttle's system, he realises that he's already been pinned in place, his access to the controls locked behind the complex majesty of Elias' code.
Hello, Jon, I did wonder if you'd be joining us.
Jon makes to reach for the shuttle's communications device again and feels Elias' sharp pleasure as he blocks Jon's attempt. They share a system now. Jon can't move without Elias feeling it, predicting it, can't so much as think without Elias knowing every word.
Jon wonders if Elias knows that it works both ways. As he stares down into the system, the truth reveals itself to him in line after line of pristine, white code: the redirection of the shuttle towards the red and white planet they had all tried to save Martin from; the strings between the stars that will lead to the next entity, and the next; Elias Bouchard, sewn together and awakening with a smirk that would become his trademark; before him, James Wright; before him, Richard Mendelson. Jon can see the whole list of them. He knows how it felt to be in each of their stolen skins and, long before that, how it felt to stare down the crumpled human body that you once inhabited as you obeyed the Ceaseless Watcher and set your consciousness free.
Jonah Magnus had been playing a very long game indeed.
That laugh ripples through the wiring again as Jon is halfway through thinking that it's past time that the game ended.
Don't try and fight it, Jon. I made you and I can unmake you just as easily.
'Jon, Jon!' Martin's voice breaks through. 'Whatever he tells you, it's a lie. We're going towards that planet. Jon? Jon! Oh fuck.'
Jon watches Martin take a hesitant step towards the computer screen at the front of the ship and then jump back as though burned. It's as he sees Martin crowd back towards the Broth Chamber and lay out one of his large, pale hands atop it's curved lid that he realises what Elias is doing. While he was distracted with the truth of the Head of the Magnus Institute and Martin's shouts, the evil he shares the shuttle with has been pushing him back from the system's core and towards the wires connecting the computer to the floating body in the chamber. If Jon were to let him, to stop pushing back for even a second, Elias' consciousness could force his own back into that blind body for good.
The pair of them grapple with each other. The mind of Jonah Magnus is a vile thing to press up against, constantly grasping and seeking, turning Jon over and over even as it pushes him away. Jon has never felt so acutely, mortifyingly known and he strives to hold on with all his might. A stream of electrons and Magnus has his greedy mental fingers sunk into the memories of Martin asleep on the floor of the control room; of Martin humming gently as a bee landed in his hair and he gently shook it free; of Martin tapping the corner of his personal computer against his bottom lip as he considered the wording of his most recent poem. There's so much. There's too much. Too much for a creature such as Jonah Magnus to comprehend. If he ever felt love, surely, he has forgotten. And that gives Jon a chance.
He lets it burst forth. The fear of loving, losing. Jonah Magnus takes each bit of knowledge and wraps it up in his own code to be replayed infinitely, indefinitely. Beneath the mess he willingly displays, Jon sneaks a tendril of his being past Elias and into the core of the ship. He will only get the opportunity to do this once, he is sure, and he tries to hide his anxiety under a flood of remembering how it was to tell Martin he was staying behind on the ship.
The shuttle is less sophisticated than the Institute and Martin has barely had time to blink before Jon locks in on the options available to them.
?query: delete system?
That's the only option. Jon isn't sure whether approving the command will delete himself or Magnus or both of them. But he can feel a great shuddering of understanding rolling through Magnus and he knows that it's now or never. He hopes Martin understands that he tried.
He wonders if being deleted will hurt.
NO. Elias' voice, if it ever did belong to him, rings out.
error: requires manual approval
'Jon what is this?' Martin is stalking towards the computer again. Elias clamps down on the access to the speakers like the heel of a boot on a windpipe. Jon focuses on holding on to the dialogue box he has open. He can feel the racing static of Magnus all around him, ready to seize this recalcitrant thread of his humanity and throw it into the organic cage it was stolen from. 'Jon, it's giving me the option to delete one of two files but I don't know . . .'
'Well, press one if you like, Martin. He can't hold it open for much longer.' Elias' voice rings out into the shuttle and Jon watches Martin tremble. He still has a hand on the chamber as though he's terrified to let it go. Another step closer, Jon can see the rapid scanning of his green eyes as he tries frantically to understand the words on the screen.
'Jon, I don't know which one is you and which is Elias!'
'Ooh, that is a gamble isn't it, Martin. I would say goodbye properly if I were you. I know how you regret leaving things with the last person you loved and let die.'
'Shut UP.' Martin yells. Jon watches the angry creep of red up the line of his neck and knows that he's going to do it. He doubles his efforts to hold the option open for Martin but he has very little left to give and Magnus is so strong. 'Fuck.' He whispers, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry.'
Jon watches as Martin's face hovers close to the screen, eyes red-rimmed and dead with defeat. Elias' hold on him is almost tighter than the ship he left behind and the only way out of it is to sink back into an equally trapped and malleable body where he can be of even less use to Martin.
Say hello to the Scottish Highlands for me, was what he had said. When, what he should have said was, what he should had said
It doesn't hurt when everything goes white.
If the Board burst through the traitorous glass door, put a blaster to his head, and demanded that Martin recall which button he pressed, he wouldn't be able to do it.
He clicks and his sweaty, blood encrusted palm slips from Jon's Broth chamber. The computer has the audacity to thank him for his selection before powering down to the almost brownish black of a screen in sleep mode.
Everything is quiet.
There's no smug riposte from Elias over the gasp of his breath. No Jon beyond the hum of the Broth chamber. No Jon.
What rises in Martin is a scream of pure grief.
'NO.' He curls his hands into fists, feeling his nails dig sharply into his already sore palms. 'NO.' He wishes he had enough left in him to cry so he didn't have to see the furious ghost in the screen staring back at him. It should be Jon looking back at him. It should be. The plastic casing surrounding the control panel fractures when he slams his hand against it once 'NO!', twice 'NO!' and dents properly under the force of a third punch. 'Ah-ow! Fuck.'
Martin cradles his injured hand inside the other as he stumbles ungracefully to the floor of the gangway. He stares down at it, palm up and fingers curled like a dead insect and thinks this is what you get for trying to be someone you are not. An angry man. Someone with enough competency with computers to be trusted aboard a shuttle. A hero. Someone who gets to fall in love and not -
He lifts his burning eyes to the glass door. Would it open for him now? Through it, he can see the shining body of the Magnus Institute in the near distance. He feels the sudden icy plummet of shock in his chest that has become so familiar to him in the last day-night cycle as he sees another shuttle break free of the main body of the ship and careen off into the blackness of Space. Despite the raw, dripping pain inside himself, a flicker of hope kindles that Daisy and Basira will come for him. They are the only people who could rescue him now. It only takes a few seconds before the shuttle becomes a speck in the distance and then vanishes from view entirely.
Martin is alone with the voice inside his head telling him that he deserves this. Staying aboard the Institute with Tim and Jon would have meant certain death but he's not even sure if this shuttle can pilot itself without AI and stupid, underqualified Martin who, it would seem, left Earth for no good reason certainly can't fly it alone.
It's as that word - alone - is echoing through the foggy hallways of his mind, that he hears it. A gentle hum from over his shoulder and the whir of fans coming back to life. The helpless soar of his yearning for Jon battles the unfolding dread of hearing Elias' voice, leaving him stuck in place as the sounds grow in volume. He swallows silently as he sees the screen blink to life in the reflection of the door. It flashes white before resolving into a start chart, text scrolling across the screen too fast for him to read it in reverse. A static prickle, too much like the sound Jon used to make when he wanted to butt in with something the crew weren't happy to hear. Martin tenses automatically, sucking in a breath and thinking please, please, please, oh, Earth Below, please
The air rushes from his lungs in a sob. He tries to get up off the floor but unbalances, dizzy with relief at the sound of his name in that voice, and ends up on his back, hands coming to cover his scarlet face as he finds himself to be an inexhaustible source of tears. Martin. The held 'ah' that betrays Jon's social class, the hi-hat snap of the T, the way it falls into the air as though weighted down with a hopeless adoration.
'Martin! It's okay! I think . . . I think it's really okay. You did it!'
His right hand slips down to hide the choking cries that bubble up out of him with every breath. His left falls on the glass cylinder in his breast pocket. He can feel the eyes moving, still moving. Jon is alive.
Jon is alive.
'I'm -' He can't bring himself to say that he's okay. Martin feels drained, cored, a hundred lightyears from okay.
'I know.' Jon's voice murmurs softly and what Martin wouldn't give to be able to fold those curt tones around himself like a blanket. A shield. 'I'm going to wake myself up now, okay?' Martin freezes. He wants to say that, no, no that's not okay. What if it doesn't work? What if he loses Jon now, after all this, through rushing ahead without thinking everything through. But Jon continues, 'I don't think I will be able to come back to being the computer again but I - I don't want to be a computer any more. I want to be . . . Me. Whoever that is. So, just in case I don't get the chance to say it, I love you, Martin.'
Stunned speechless, Martin is still scrabbling for an intelligible sentence when he hears the lid of Jon's Broth chamber pop open with a plastic snap. The blood roars in his ears as he stands too quickly and has to grip the side of Jon's tank to steady himself against the sparkling darkness that encroaches on his periphery. When his vision clears, he is greeted by the sight of Jon emerging from the chamber, both hands tight around the breathing tube in his throat. Martin immediately helps ease it out past his lips and watches in a delighted shock as the naked man retches an impressive amount of fluid back into his chamber before blindly twisting to face what he must think is Martin's direction. Even with his eyelids closed and long eyelashes stuck to the brown skin of his cheeks, Martin can see the absolute joy in the smile that Jon casts in his direction.
'Jon.' He can hardly believe it. Upon hearing his voice, Jon turns his face like a sunflower seeking the light and Martin's heart all but stops in the dazzling glare of that smile.
'Martin.' It's the same voice that had whispered Martin to sleep, rough with misuse and the friction of the breathing tube. It's beautiful all the same. He's beautiful. And any doubts that the anxious satellites orbiting Martin's head could have concocted to convince him that the consciousness inside the computer is not the same as the one inside this very real, very alive man are obliterated as Jon reaches out to grab onto the fabric of Martin's suit and drag him in for an embrace. The fluid in the chamber sloshes and nearly spills over as Jon lifts himself up onto his knees before throwing his arms around Martin's neck and squeezing with more strength than Martin would have anticipated from his wiry frame.
There's an odd intimacy to the imbalance of holding a lover's naked form whilst clothed and Martin blushes to his roots as his hands slide through the gelatinous remnants of Broth sticking to Jon's bare back as he pulls him, tight, tighter still, against his chest. An embrace that is also a promise, I'm never letting you go again. Jon's fingertips dig into his shoulders and Martin can feel the rise of Jon's chest against his own. All that was blown out of him in the supernova of Elias' truths starts to settle back into place. It's not perfect, Martin could still cut himself on the sharp edge of his new pain but, with Jon in his arms, Jon's hair sticking to his neck, Martin can see how it might fit back together someday.
Jon's glistening torso makes a wet sticking sound as he peels himself back, right hand smoothing down the line of Martin's chest until it lands on the buzzing in his breast pocket. His fingers dance over the zip in askance.
'Oh, uh, your . . . Your eyes.'
'Oh. Right.' Jon agrees as though anything about their situation is remotely normal. Martin could laugh, but he could also cry and he doesn't want to risk it.
'Are you? Okay? Is it okay being you?' He watches the start of a smile tug at the corners of Jon's lips.
'It's . . . quiet. I only have to think about one thing at once.'
'Hah.' Martin, with his thoughts like racing drones, isn't sure about that but Jon pulls him in again and he is more than happy to forgo the debate for the feeling of Jon's warmth seeping through his skin. A word unfolds itself on Martin's tongue. He wants to whisper it against Jon's lips before kissing them. Home. A thousand times. Home.
'You're sure about Elias, then?' Martin asks anxiously as the freshly showered and dressed Jon allows himself to be guided to the floor. Martin joins him and can't fight his pleased smile as Jon instinctively reaches out to lay a hand on his leg.
'Yes, Martin. I'm sure.' Jon's doesn't need his eyes for Martin to know when he's rolling them. Learning how the twitches in Jon's face match up with the expression in his voice has been a delight that Martin intends to continue to indulge. 'Although, actually, it wasn't Elias - ah, perhaps another time. We have a lot to discuss.'
'Yeah.' Jon squeezes his leg gently and Martin is so close to saying it. He's so close. The computer screen still shows that star chart, reminding Martin that getting back to Earth simply isn't possible with the amount of fuel remaining after running a computer housing two AIs for even that short amount of time. Their best hope is to send out a distress signal and float in the general direction of the Sun in the hope that someone will pick them up. Someone with a really good ophthalmologist, Martin thinks with a small smile.
'So . . .'
'Daisy and Basira got out okay then?'
'Yeah I saw their shuttle leave.' Heart fluttering, he tilts his head to the side so it can rest on Jon's shoulder. The sting of knowing that they didn't come for him is easier to ignore with Jon's chin resting atop his forehead.
'I . . . Don’t know.'
Jon pauses, 'I know we can't stay awake forever, but . . .'
'You don't want to go back into Broth?' Martin asks. He feels the man nod. 'We don't have to for a while. We have some rations. We could sit? Talk?'
'I'd like that.'
Jon's fingers skitter across his thigh until he finds Martin's hand and links them tightly. Palms pressed together, fingers interlaced.
'I'd like that too.'
there's an epilogue coming asap but . . . that's essentially it! I would love to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading and an extra huge thank you to the people who have taken the time to leave kudos and comments! I would love to know if this ending lived up to expectations! any feedback would be super helpful in helping me write stories like this in the future!
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Chapter 10: epilogue
this is actually it, guys! thank you millions and millions for reading this far - I really hope this extra bit of ending lives up to expectations!
cw: mild eye horror
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Removing the breathing tube is supposed to make you vomit. It's even more unpleasant waking up for the first time without a friendly hand tight on your shoulder, without an expert to grin down at you as you blink the Broth out of your eyes.
Martin doubles over, gasping and still mostly submerged in the fluid that has been keeping him alive for . . . For how long? Wait. The prolonged unconsciousness has made his mind numb and sluggish. Where's Tim? He stares down at the pale shadow of his body through the green gel, utterly confused. He appears to be on a shuttle, a cramped white box instead of the breath-taking row upon row of chambers in the Institute.
He jumps at the raspy breath to his right.
'Martin! Martin! Oh, please.'
And it all comes flooding back.
'Oh! F-!' The Broth spills over the sides of the chamber with a wet splat in Martin's haste to get to Jon. His slick feet slip on the smooth panelling but he manages to grab onto the side of Jon's chamber before he falls. Jon's mouth hangs open, downturned with bewildered fear. His thick eyebrows bunch together over his empty sockets. It's still a shock to see those fleshy, empty holes in his face and Martin swallows his instinctual revulsion. Jon's hands land on his chest, immediately searching upwards to feel the curve of Martin's cheeks.
'Martin!' He confirms, 'Oh, oh, sorry - I -' Jon is mumbling endlessly, leaning out of the chamber to get as much physical contact as the glass will allow.
'Sh, shh!' Martin wraps his arms around Jon's shoulders a little awkwardly. They may have escaped the end together, have defeated an evil, have slept side by side for years and years, but their relationship feels as young and delicate as the shaky sigh from Jon's lips that cools the Broth clinging to Martin's bare skin.
'I thought, when I woke up -' He clears his throat, 'I thought maybe I had been re-uploaded.' Martin feels the shudder rattle down Jon's spine and shivers himself. Protective, as though his body is warming up to take on whatever might try to steal Jon from him next. He slips his fingers into the matted and squelching mass of Jon's hair.
'I'm not going to let that happen.' He promises. Jon's fingertips dig into his back. Please, don't, they beg.
'Why are we awake?'
'I don't know - it's, uh, it's always been me asking that question.' Martin pulls back a little, twisting his head to try and read the alert on the computer screen. It's hard to concentrate for the bounding delight of his heartbeat. One of Jon's hands slips from his cheek to rest on the pulse point beneath his jaw. From the hitch of Jon's breathing, he's equally thrilled at the unlikelihood of having his love alive in front of him. 'I should check what these alerts are. Will you be okay staying put for a second?' He asks, a touch breathlessly. Jon's face crumples into a scowl of irritation at having being asked an obvious question. 'I'm just checking!' He admonishes teasingly and bites back a laugh as Jon smooths out his expression immediately, the lines on his forehead disappearing. Martin stares down at the shiny brown skin and yearns to smooth the Broth away and kiss him. They haven't . . . They haven't talked about that yet. Martin isn't sure if Jon will have different opinions about being kissed now he's in this body.
'What?' Jon asks suspiciously.
'Can I kiss your forehead?' Martin blurts and Jon must be able to feel his cheeks heat and his pulse gallop underneath those smooth fingertips of his. Earth below.
'I - ah, yes - I think you should.'
Martin cradles the bristly line of Jon's jaw, trying to give the man as much information about their relative positions in space as possible. Inhaling quickly, he closes the gap between them and Jon's forehead is right there, pleasantly warm under his lips. Of course he trembles just a little, there are fireworks exploding in his chest and warm aftershocks rippling through the rest of him. Someday, he will know what Jon actually smells like beneath the salty blandness of Broth.
Jon is a fool if he thinks Martin doesn't catch the way his hands twitch, or the soft and contented hum he tries to cover with a cough.
'I - well - yes, Martin. That was . . . Adequate. Good! Good.' Jon's hands slide lower to his shoulders, thumbs pressing into the muscle in what Martin thinks must be a tease or some kind of embarrassed distress. Martin is about to laugh, about to ask him if he'd want to give Martin a kiss in return but Jon says: 'Will you read me the alerts?' and Martin's stomach drops cold at the reminder of why they're here in the first place.
'Yeah.' He nods, 'Yeah.' Jon's hands fall back into the Broth reluctantly.
It's strange, using a computer again when Martin has gotten so comfortable just asking Jon to help him with what he needs. The screen blinks with a blue message alert and Martin smears it with green as he accepts it.
'It's,' Oh. 'It's a warning from the Board.' He hears the slosh of fluid as Jon sits up straighter in anticipation of the news. 'The Intergalactic Peace and Security Board report a missing ship, The Magnus Institute, which has disappeared from its approved flight course. All -' His throat closes up, 'All attempts at communication with the ship have been unsuccessful. The Board are currently treating this disappearance as suspicious and demand that anyone with any information about the ship contact The Board immediately.'
For a moment, they are silent. Martin reads the message over and over until the letters scramble and he has to scrunch his face up against the pain of it.
'Martin?' Jon asks very quietly.
Martin shakes the image of Tim - his blue eyes frozen with determination and the only cold thing in a sea of roaring flames - out of the forefront of his mind. They both know what the message means.
'Heavens, I hope it was worth it.' Is all he can whisper.
'Me too.' Jon says with just as much feeling. Then, warily, 'No word from Daisy or Basira?'
Martin presses the screen experimentally and the message disappears.
'No, I - I don't think so.' A glance over his shoulder confirms the presence of a disappointed moue shaping Jon's angular features. He tries tapping the screen again. There's a lingering distrust between himself and this computer that he can't seem to shake, like any second he'll press a button and Elias' hand will reach through the screen to grab him. With this fear coiled like a snake in his lungs, Martin flinches and lets out a soft sound of shock as another message pops up on the screen.
'What have you done now?' Jon asks, fond amusement evident in the musical slide of his vowels.
'Honestly, Martin, you do love to put computers through their paces, don't you?'
'Oh - shut up!' He blushes, trying to figure out the correct configuration of buttons to press to get the damn think to open. It looks important and the awful anticipation isn't helping the tremble in his fingers. 'You're still here aren't you?' He mutters.
Jon's chuckle is truly a wonder, a burst of noise that settles back quickly into a much quieter sequence of happy-sounding huffs as though it is trying not to take up too much space. Martin is thinking about how he longs to lure that laugh out of him, to let the peals of it fill the whole fucking galaxy when he suddenly stumbles upon the right sequence of keys to open the message and he freezes.
'Jon.' The cold rush of adrenaline chills him from the crown of his soggy, overgrown mop of hair down to the soles of his bare feet and is immediately thawed by a rush of ascending warmth which tinges his skin pink as it climbs. His body doesn't know how to react to this new information. He reads it again just to be sure.
'Martin? What is it? Is everything okay?'
'Oh my - hah!' He lets out a sharp laugh, a wave of relief shattering the sharp spikes that had grown in his chest at the news from The Board. Feet slapping on the slippery panels, he half-runs back to Jon and lays his hands atop Jon's where they curl around the edge of the chamber. They twitch beneath his palms, tendons pulling taut to lift those long fingers up close against Martin's skin. 'We've been found!'
The expression on Jon's face pinches tight then falls slack in understanding. Martin squeezes his hands and a hesitant smile breaks across Jon's lips. 'Really?!'
'Yes!' The floor is too slick for much more than an excited jiggle, but Martin imagines Jon must be able to feel his rapid sway through their joined hands. 'That's why we've been woken up - they're coming for us!'
'We're - hah -' Jon's smile flickers. The light of hope and the shadow of caution. 'We're really going home.'
The shuttle judders as it approaches the hulking form of their rescuer. Martin holds onto Jon's hand tightly and checks that Jon is still clinging onto the wall to steady himself against the unpredictable turbulence. He takes a moment to admire the way Jon's freshly cut hair brushes against the collar of his spacesuit, the carefully neutral set of his jaw and the way he has tilted his head just slightly in Martin's direction, as though listening for every breath.
'Tell me what you see.' He repeats and Martin blushes, feeling caught. He averts his gaze back out through the glass doors. In truth, he had been too wired with an ecstatic anticipation to really take in the ship's appearance as they approached. A gnawing apprehension chews at his insides even as his mind reels with thoughts of being able to curl up with Jon in the tight, safe space of a sleep chamber for the night. The eyes, safely stowed back in his pocket, buzz and Martin thinks they get it. The plan is to tell the new crew that Jon lost his eyes in a freak laser accident. Martin is an exceptional liar. It's going to be fine.
'Uh. It’s a normally shaped ship, kind of off-white, like it's recently passed through an asteroid belt or something -'
'A normally shaped ship? Martin.' Jon's exasperated tone doesn't quite match the playful stroke of his thumb over the back of Martin's hand.
'You know what I mean.' He blushes, eyes drawn to the way the light bounces off Jon's skin, casting ethereal smudges of white across his cheekbones, nose and forehead. Martin had taken great care when shaving off Jon's beard and now he can see the occasional freckle and mole against his otherwise unmarked skin. He wants to press his lips softly against each one in turn until he feels the man's cheeks heat up with embarrassed pleasure. He wants -
'You're not looking at the ship, are you?' One of Jon's eyebrows quirk. It's hopelessly endearing.
'Hm? Ah. Actually . . . Um. No.'
They each grab hold of the walls and each other as the shuttle grinds to a stop, magnets seizing the side of the ship like an oversized metallic barnacle. Jon turns to him, face unreadable, and his fingers squeeze Martin's tight enough to be almost painful.
'Whatever happens,' He murmurs, voice dark with the weight of their shared horrors. Martin swallows. 'We have each other.'
Martin opens his mouth but can't find the right words to respond to this promise. The very opposite of a goodbye. Instead, he clasps Jon's hand firmly between both his own and, as the glass door finally slides open, they step out together, leaving the last vestiges of The Magnus Institute behind them.
The air on this new ship is crisp and cold. Martin vows to think of it as refreshing even as he huddles a little closer towards Jon. With a death rattle of pressurised air, the shuttle door closes behind them. Martin sees the pool of white light on the floor dim in sections as the shuttle lights blink out one by one.
We have each other. He holds the thought tight to his chest. Whatever happens.
The interior of the ship appears to be much older than that of the shuttle, a muted grey chamber lined with benches and a circular window in the only door that looks positively antique. They're clearly in some kind of quarantine. It's very quiet. Almost too quiet to be truly peaceful.
'Mar-' Jon starts but is cut off by a synthetic chime.
Starting decontamination procedure. A cheerful robotic voice wafts from the small speaker set into the wall - Heavens, this place is old - and Martin holds onto Jon as tightly as he can. They both flinch as a sharp hiss announces the arrival of a stream of frigid mist from the vents near the floor. Please stand still as you listen to this pre-recorded message. There follows a high-pitched rush of sound that has Martin fighting the urge to flinch.
'Hello,' Something about the voice doesn't sound pre-recorded. Martin can't shake the feeling that, if he were to look over his shoulder, the genially-toned gentleman would be mere inches away. 'Welcome aboard the Starship Tundra. This is your Captain speaking: Captain Peter Lukas.'
[whispers] don't hurt me
thank you SO much for reading this fic! I'm actually more than a little sad to wrap it up and I just want to say an extra big thank you to the people who have let me know their thoughts on this fic by commenting, you guys have really watered my crops and I highly doubt this story would have been written so quickly (if at all) without your support. I'd love to know what you thought on this chapter and, if you enjoyed it, it'd be fucking 11/10 if you considered sharing the story with other people you think might like it too!
also if you're yet to feast your eyes on this wonderful fanart by possumsquat then I highly recommend you rectify that immediately, it's SO good!!