Chapter 20: Maintenance Entry

After a bit of discussion, Lindsi and I had made up our minds to go to the lowest floors of Engineering and try to drop down into Cargo from above. There was no way we were going to be able to get into the lift shafts themselves: even during shift hours, when fewer people would be walking around, there’s more than enough traffic going back and forth throughout the Ship — even now, with the Habitat Domes’ doors closed outside of work hours. We needed a quiet place with a maintenance shaft running past it, and after that, we’d probably have to find our own way. Lindsi’s map, which she still seemed able to call up before her eyes, invisibly to anyone but herself, showed nothing but a “Restricted Area” warning, and my only memory of Cargo was wandering through one of the lesser-used halls, staring around at the immensity of it. They’re not anything like as big as the Habitat Domes, of course, but for enclosed rooms, they’re pretty enormous. And, other than the section still open for long-term storage, almost completely inaccessible, now.

We stopped off in one of the many, many minor medical stations in the lower levels of Engineering. There’s a lot that could go wrong on the Ship, a lot of different ways to get hurt, particularly if the rules about worker safety have been relaxed, which I’m pretty sure they have. There are too many advanced-looking biosuits around for them not to have: the Ship designs those according to the types of danger it expects the wearer to encounter. Biosuit synthesis is really complicated, so I guessed that had still been left to the Ship. It’s programmed to keep us alive: it couldn’t sabotage a biosuit even if it wanted to, and it’s about as likely to want to as it is to want to self-destruct.

This particular medical station was unmanned and empty, which was why we’d picked it: basically not much more than a place to rush someone to for emergency treatment. As long as there wasn’t an emergency nearby, we were about as safe as we were going to get. Lindsi closed the door behind us and looked around, frowning a little.

“There should be a hatch in here somewhere…”

Even as she said it, she was wandering over to one of the walls, pushing a cabinet aside. It was on wheels, and moved easily, and behind it was a maintenance hatch. I remembered how easily she’d found the other hatches before, in the junkyard, under the soil. She knelt to brush the touchplate, and it opened for her obediently. Sitting back on her heels, she looked at me.

“I guess this is it. No turning back…” For a moment, she seemed older, sadder. Like she knew something bad was coming, even if she couldn’t say what.

Yeah, I agreed. This is it. We looked at each other for a moment longer, and then she turned and scrambled into the maintenance passage. I ducked around, blurring through to get ahead of her as the hatch closed behind us.

Like most maintenance crawlways, it was kind of cramped. There was enough room to crawl in reasonably comfortably, with a toolbox, but not enough to stand up or anything. They run inside the thicker walls, the ones that contain machinery or computing equipment. Here, we were surrounded by wiring, indicator lights, and little labelled access ports that could be flipped open to attach diagnostic machinery. It ran along to the back of the room, where it met other passages in a six-way intersection: forward and back, left and right, up and down. It was down we wanted.

A light came on behind me, illuminating the passage ahead, and I looked back to see Lindsi’s grey eyes reflecting the light from what appeared to be a tiny but bright torch built into the wrist of her fused biosuit.

“What do you see?” she whispered to me. I looked ahead. Everything was lit up by her light, and something seemed strange about that, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

A six-way intersection. There’s a way straight down right here, but I’d have to get closer to see how far down it goes. I started crawling forwards even as I spoke, instinctively ducking in low places even if I could just have passed right through anything I’d be hitting my head on. I got to the edge and leant over, looking down at the abbreviatedly-illuminated far wall. The shadow of the floor stopped me from seeing much further down.

A bit of a chill ran through me as I realised what I couldn’t see. I probably hadn’t been able to see it before, I just hadn’t noticed, but now, with a strong, mono-directional light source right behind me, it was painfully obvious. I didn’t actually cast a shadow at all. It made sense in a way — no-one but Lindsi could see me, so however she was doing it, light clearly wasn’t hitting me and bouncing off like normal, real, alive people — but it was still creepy to notice.

“What is it?”

I just realised I don’t have a shadow. I shrugged my shoulders a bit embarrassedly. I should have thought of that before, I guess.

“Yeah, well, you look pretty solid to me. I can’t see… past…” Her voice trailed off, and I twisted around to look over my shoulder at her. She was frowning, squinting slightly and almost seeming to look right through me.

What is it? I didn’t even realise I was echoing her.

“I can see past you,” Lindsi said slowly. “If I try. I know you’re there, and I can see you’re there, but you go transparent like a reflection in a window. If I look at the reflection, I see that; if I look through the window, I see that instead. It’s… sort of creepy.”

You’re telling me… I didn’t like this new development at all. I was unreal enough as it was without even Lindsi being able to see right through me.

“At least it means I can see ahead, I guess?” She wasn’t doing a great job of sounding cheerful about it. I don’t think she liked being reminded how unreal I was, either. Right now I was the only person who even understood what we were doing, and if I didn’t exist…

I turned ahead again and slipped off the edge, catching the rungs embedded in the wall. I knew I could pass through them if I decided to, but automatically I didn’t, and it felt like I was holding something, even though I knew I couldn’t possibly be touching anything I could literally coexist with. Matter just doesn’t work that way. But there it was, and there I was, climbing downwards into the dark.

< Chapter 19 | The Fused | Chapter 21 >

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The Fused by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.