The Habitat Domes are pretty huge, and so is the amount of water they get through in a day, what with the rain — and I wondered if even the rain was a bit orange — the streams, the irrigation systems where they were needed, and of course all the running water for our homes. That meant there were five basically identical sets of water treatment works down here, each with its own set of problems, and that meant we had a lot to do. But at least most of them had a lot in common. As far as I could tell, most of the problems had just been caused by lack of maintenance. When one section failed for some reason, it put even more pressure on the ones next to it and took pressure off the sections immediately downstream, ending up with a cascade of failures from broken parts in the high-pressure areas to clogged systems in the low-pressure ones. So it looked like we’d basically just have to repeat the same handful of jobs a few times, and we’d be set. Easier said than done, though, with a filtration system this size. Lindsi could have walked through any of the pipes with a hand above her head and never once touched the top, and she was taller than me.
Our inspection finally done, we headed back to a storage room we’d spotted earlier. It wasn’t locked, maybe because this section of the Ship was already restricted. Lindsi looked around, frowning. Most things were small enough for one person to carry, if with a bit of effort in some cases, but I wasn’t at all sure she’d be able to hold everything we’d need at once, and she didn’t look like she was either. She unhooked a heavy-duty sterilising laser, buckling its harness on and having to tighten it rather a lot. The last person to use that had been noticeably bigger than her!
“Do you think you can grab the residue dissolver over there?”
I shook my head. No… I can’t. I wasn’t looking at her. That’s…
“…Is it too heavy?”
No. It didn’t look too heavy, anyway. I think if I could have touched anything, I’d probably have been able to carry it around just fine. It’s just…
She’d been right, earlier. I had to tell her.
…I… the Ship brought me here. I don’t really know how. I mean, I do live here, but… not now. At least I didn’t use to. I glanced at Lindsi. She mostly just looked confused.
I’m not really… real. The Ship said I’m some kind of projection. I can’t touch anything. You’re the only person who can hear me.
Lindsi blinked. She looked pretty disbelieving. I would too, in her place.
See? I waved my hand through some of the equipment on its racks. I was getting used to the faint tingly, blurring sensation it caused after all the walking through things I’d been doing today. I can’t touch anything. The Ship told me it needed me to help stop its mission from failing. I don’t really know anything else.
There was a long, awkward silence. Lindsi stared at me. In the end it was her who broke it.
She shrugged, looking a bit awkward. It wasn’t really an easy conversation to be having. “Well, either whatever happened to me sent me so completely mad I’m hallucinating you, or you really are here, and either way, you can’t touch anything. If you’re really here, we still need to work together, and if I am just crazy… well, you’ve been one helpful hallucination so far.” She forced a lopsided smile, but I could tell this was a lot harder on her than she was trying to show. She wasn’t that good at hiding it. “I said I’d trust you.”
And neither of us had a choice if we wanted to save the Ship. Lindsi held out her hand, and I put mine alongside it for a moment. We couldn’t exactly shake hands, after all.
She smiled a little again, then turned back to the equipment. “…Looks like I’ll just have to do this one job at a time. Guess it might as well be the worst bit first. Come on — let’s clean up around here.”
The door automatically shut behind us as we left, heading for one of the various sludge-filled tanks. We’d already set them draining, very slowly so that as little of the sludge as possible would escape into the water supply. Lindsi climbed up on top of one of them to the access hatch, unbolted it, and peered inside.
“Ugh… it’s as empty as it’s going to get, I think.” She reached in and pressed a button on the thick metal frame, and a formerly neatly rolled ladder uncoiled at surprising speed into the dimness below. “I’ll go first.”
She scrambled over the edge and began to climb down, apparently not bothered by how precarious it looked. The ladder was one of the sort that locked into place once it was fully extended, so it was quite solid, as far as I could tell. Lindsi disappeared into the dark, and I followed her down. I stepped off on top of the muck… but she landed up to her knees in it.
“I’m going to need so many decontamination cycles…”
I grinned, and she raised her eyebrows at me.
“Looks like you can just stand on top of it. Lucky for some!”
She was joking around, and I just kept grinning. Unclipping the long, narrow emitter from the harness, Lindsi frowned into the dimness. “…Well, here goes nothing! Stay well behind me.” She pushed the switch on the side, turning her back on me as she did. There was a faint hum as power surged through the old maintenance equipment, and then, ahead of us, a rectangular section of slime steamed, smoked, burst into flame for a moment, and disintegrated into a thin cloud of ash. Even from behind, Lindsi looked surprised! Her finger lifted off the switch, and the laser shut down again.
“That was pretty impressive! I guess that’s a good reason to restrict this area.”
It was open to everyone when I knew it.
She fired the laser again, keeping it on this time, sweeping the beam slowly across the far wall. At first, we could only tell where it was pointing by which section was disintegrating, but the clouds of smoke, steam, and ash quickly got thick enough to start letting us see it. It didn’t look all that impressive, really, just a dull red rectangular beam. I figured most of the power must have been in the infrared, or it’d look a lot brighter.
Lindsi cleared the whole wall in huge, slow sweeps, starting from the top and working downwards after her first few attempts. It looked pretty weird being perfectly clean while the rest of the tank was still dirty. Once she’d got the hang of it, it didn’t seem to take too long to do the rest of the walls, or the floor. The air got so full of smoke I started to wonder if it wouldn’t have been a better idea to bring breathing gear down here, but she seemed all right. Eventually, everything was done, and the worst of the muck had fallen off her and been disintegrated, too. Apart from all that ash, which took up a whole lot less space than the gunk, the tank was clean.
“All right, I think that’s that.” She pulled a face. “Next…”
We had several more of these to clean, and then a lot of other things to take care of as well. While we didn’t have to fix everything, just enough to spread the load around a bit, there was still a lot to do. It was going to take hours…
It did take hours. Just blasting out all the gunk took several, and then there were the deposits, limescale and so on, that needed clearing out of other ones, and even the odd large object that had made its way down here, got stuck at the first grate, and never been removed, leaving a lot of other things stuck around it as well. But eventually, we were done, and we put the last of the gear away before retreating to the nearest diagnostic console. The readouts looked a bit better, or some of them did. With everything cleaned up and the access hatches all locked, the system had flashed up a message asking us if it was okay to redistribute the water in the filtration system. Naturally, Lindsi hit ‘yes’.
We both watched as the displays showed us what was going on, tank after tank filling up, a couple of the others that had been under so much strain earlier shutting down. This section of the system, at least, was back on track. We grinned at each other.
“Looks like we did it!”
Yeah, we did. Let’s go check on the others.
She nodded. “And then we can get out of here.”
Yeah. I had to admit, I was looking forward to that. I’d done enough running about down here to last me a lifetime! Lindsi turned away, walking pretty fast despite how tired she had to be after all that, and I followed her.
Each of the five systems was pretty much the same. We got to the nearest panel, gave the system the all-clear to redistribute the water, and watched as the tanks filled up, dark blue, brown, and orange becoming light blue, red becoming dark red as they shut down. We were at the last one before Lindsi thought to say something about it.
“You know, I want to take a look at one of those dark red ones. Just to see what kind of a state it’s in. It’ll only take a minute, right?”
Yeah, I guess so. It wasn’t as if there was much I could do on the surface, I guess, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t prefer it to being down here. What do you think you’ll find?
Lindsi shrugged. “A mess, probably. I just want to know how bad it’s been. We’re going to have to get all of it properly fixed later, you know.”
I groaned, and she grinned at me again. “Not now, of course. We’ve done what really needed doing, right? But if things start failing again, eventually there won’t be any tanks left to put the water through if we don’t manage to do a proper repair job at some point.”
I had to admit, she was right. I guess not. I paused. It must have taken a pretty long time to get like this, though. It’s not like it needed maintaining every day or anything. I think mostly, people just checked on it now and again. There were never that many people down here. I frowned, and she looked at me quizzically. How long has this place been sealed off?
“I have no idea. As long as I can remember, that’s for sure. Why?”
Well… the only way it could have got this bad is if nobody’s come down here for years. But why? There was something on the edge of my mind, a niggling little thought I couldn’t quite grasp. I knew I almost had it, but it wouldn’t take shape. I guess it being sealed off would maybe explain that… but why was it sealed off in the first place?
She shrugged again. “Don’t look at me. I have no idea. Maybe someone fell in one of the tanks and got swept away, so they decided it was too dangerous?”
Yeah, maybe. I pushed it to the back of my mind for the moment. Maybe it would make more sense later if I just let it be for a while. So do you want to check out that tank?
“Yeah. I just think we should see what’s happened.”
We took another quick glance at the schematic to get a rough idea of where we were going, and Lindsi led the way, around and up to the access hatch. It was on top, like all the others, and like the rest of them, held by a heavy manual lock. She spun the wheel and forced it open, and we both peered in.
The mess in there was unbelievable. I didn’t know how fast the water would have had to be flowing to do that much damage. Just about everything had broken, metal filters bent out of true and pointing uselessly downstream, only the columns they’d been anchored to still intact. This tank wasn’t really more than a large pipe any more. I looked up at Lindsi, shaking my head slowly in disbelief. No wonder the water quality had been terrible.
At least we probably cleaned enough up that this won’t happen again for a while.
She smiled. “Yeah, but sooner or later someone’s going to have to fix this. I’d rather it wasn’t me, though.”
I had to agree with that! I didn’t want to put that back together either. I wouldn’t even know where to start.
“Still, if what you said about it not needing that much maintenance is right, it isn’t exactly urgent. Someone else can deal with it… or we can, when we’re not on a time limit.” She closed the hatch. “Let’s get out of here.”
I nodded, and followed her to the edge of the tank, where she jumped down, landing lightly despite the height of it. I blinked at her, then shrugged and stepped off. It wasn’t like I could get hurt.
Actually, it wasn’t like I could even fall. I stood there in mid-air for a moment before I realised, and stared at and past my feet in shock. Lindsi looked up at me, and her eyes widened.
“…Er… can you come down here?”
Yeah. I’d been able to climb up hills and down ladders, but I’d also walked over the top of the gunk in those tanks when Lindsi sank in it, and now here I was standing on thin air. I wondered what the difference was. Maybe something to do with where I wanted to stand? I tried thinking about it, and after a moment, sort of drifted down to the floor, like in those areas of the Ship where the gravity’s really low. Except that you feel different in low gravity, and I felt perfectly normal, or as normal as I could get. Sorry. I… didn’t know I could do that.
“What, just walk across the air? Yeah, I can see why you wouldn’t.” She started towards the catwalk we’d originally come down from, and I kept by her side. “So what else can you do?”
I shrugged. I don’t know. I’m still getting used to this. Apparently I can float and walk through walls, but since I can’t touch anything, that’s not a lot of use.
“Sure it is!” Her face lit up. “Nobody else can see you, either, right? So what you’re saying is that anywhere we need to go, you can go ahead and find out exactly what it’s like in there! You already know a lot about hidden access hatches and all that — I bet there isn’t anywhere on the whole Ship we can’t get to!”
I grinned. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I guess you’re right! We reached the bottom of the catwalk ladder, and I climbed up behind her, still talking. I can actually get into these restricted areas ahead of you, and even if I don’t know a way in I should be able to find one. All right! Maybe we really will be able to do this!
“In twenty days? Yeah. I’d have a hard time of it without you, but it shouldn’t be a problem if we stick together!”
She scrambled over the top of the ladder and turned to me as I pulled myself up behind her.
“So how do you do that? You really look like you’re holding that ladder.”
I just look like that. I moved one of my hands without opening it, feeling that faint tingle in my fingers as they passed through the metal bar. I’m trying not to look too weird.
“Fair enough!” she said, smiling. “I don’t think I’d want to, either. Ugh… I’m not looking forward to this climb.”
At least it’ll get us back into the biodome.
“That’s true. Come on, then — let’s go home.”
I followed her along and up the ladder. For all that she’d complained about having to climb it, it didn’t really seem to tire her that much. She only paused once on the whole way up.
Stopping below her at the access hatch, I leaned back slightly to see past her. She reached up to the touchplate and tapped it with her first two fingers. Just like before, the two sides of it dropped slightly, then receded into the wall, leaving us with a clear view up into the darkening forest. Lindsi and I both climbed out, and she knelt to close the hatch behind her. The panel had slid back over the touchplate, but we knew where it was now, so it didn’t exactly take much finding.
“Wow, it’s getting dark already out here. My parents are going to kill me.” She grinned. “Oh well, it was worth it. Just wait ’til I tell them we fixed the water!”
Er… you fixed the water. I scuffed a foot along the ground. They won’t be able to see me, remember? They’ll think you’ve gone mad.
“True.” She bit her bottom lip. “I don’t like the idea of taking all the credit, though. I’ll still tell them a friend helped me.”
All right. I smiled. Let’s head home, then.
We set off through the overgrown park again, Lindsi pushing her way through the undergrowth, me just walking through it. The tracks we’d made getting here weren’t all that clear, but we both knew roughly which way we’d come, and besides, all we really had to do was get to any one of the fences. When we came out only a little way down the path from where we’d got in in the first place, I was more pleasantly surprised than anything else.
We made it!
“Sure did.” Lindsi frowned up at the fence, a couple of metres high, so well over her head, though not entirely out of reach. She’d climbed it before, so it wasn’t like it would be a problem for her, but I couldn’t help but frown quizzically as she took a couple of steps back.
What are you doing?
“Trying something. Don’t laugh!”
I watched as she took a short run-up and launched herself at the top of the fence. Her right hand hit it when it was level with her waist, and she swung herself sideways in the air — and she’d gone right over, dropping down on the other side!
“Whoa… did you see that?” she asked, turning back to face me through the mesh. I nodded.
Yeah, I did. How did you — that looks way too high!
Lindsi shrugged. “I really don’t know. I thought I’d hit lower down and have to scramble, but I just went right over.” She spread her hands in a ‘don’t know’ gesture. “I felt pretty good this morning, even if I am kinda stuck being blue until someone can figure out what happened to me, but I’ve never done that before.” There was a pause as she looked at her deep blue hands, turning them over slowly. “You don’t think this could have had some crazy side-effects, do you?”
It’s just a biosuit, isn’t it? Then again, even mine is a perfectly good spacesuit, and fairly tough. And they’re not exactly supposed to do… whatever it is hers had.
Still, I guess maybe it could…
“Maybe this isn’t so bad after all, huh?”
Maybe not. I walked through the fence. Looks like we both got something useful out of this. Sort of.
“We’d make the craziest team on the whole Ship!” She started walking, and I followed beside her. “Person fused with biosuit meets person from long ago, solves Ship’s problems in twenty days. Yeah, no-one’s going to believe that!” I caught a glimpse of her grin as she glanced at me. “We’ll just have to make ’em believe it, right?”
I smiled. Right.
It didn’t take us long to get back on the main path. There were a few other people there, and I shushed her quickly, before someone noticed.
I’m invisible, remember? They can’t see me. You look like you’re talking to yourself.
“Oh. Right. Er… sorry.”
It looked almost like she was about to say something else, but thought better of it and kept her mouth shut. I wandered a little way off from her, listening to people. I wanted to know if our day underground had had any effect up here yet.
“…then it just sort of stopped, spat black at me, and…”
“…never seen it like this before.”
“…cleared up after a while. Proper clear stuff. I wonder what they did to fix it?”
I couldn’t help smiling at that one. We fixed it, me and Lindsi. We got the water back. Eventually, maybe we’d have the whole Ship back how it should be. Back how it used to be.
The Fused by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.