The nine-cluster appeared outside our unit’s bunker on the last day of the cycle. That meant only one thing.
They would take someone away.
I peered out the portviewer. All nine stood before the door, tall humanoid shapes composed of white light. They had heads like stars: translucent spheres with colored particles that suggested facial features. (That is how I imagined stars. I’ve never seen them for real.)
They didn’t have names. They didn’t have genders, either. We dubbed them he/she at random, although I never understood why. They weren’t like us.
Two smiled and knocked, as if politeness meant anything. I didn’t open the bunker door.
Bailey took charge, like he always did. “Everyone stay calm.” He glanced at me, and I nodded. “This is just a routine inspection.”
“How do you know?” Kory asked, wide-eyed. “We just got back. They don’t do inspections until the first cycle-day.”
Bailey slapped him on the shoulder. “Your record is spotless. They aren’t here for you.”
“Then who?” Tess demanded.
Everyone had unsuited except me. But Tess didn’t notice. (I often forgot to remove my pressure suit right away.) Tess let me stand by the viewer for hours after a shift and look at the empty road that connected the one-hundred-forty-seven bunkers on this facility.
“No one, Tess,” Bailey said. He could still tell lies. “No one is being taken to the House.”
Tess took a breath and glanced at Dom. “If you say so.”
“Mara,” Bailey said, lifting his chin and facing the door. Only Dom and I saw the tremor in his hands. “Let the overseers in.”
Dom took the scissors off the table and held them tight. They were long-bladed and heavy, used for snipping bone. He had already been to the House.
(But so had I.)
I keyed the pressure lock and opened the door.
Our unit’s bunker was a functional square room. Cots slid into the wall when not in use, and we were allowed a few personal effects. Tess had the geode collection; Kory had a holo-projection of a world he pretended was once ours, full of blues and greens and surrounded by the white of the universe. Bailey had a book—paper and leather—but there was nothing inside it.
I had a thread I’d mined and none of the nine-clusters knew about it.
All nine floated in and planted themselves around our bunker. We all smiled. The cardinal rule: never frown during inspection. Gemma had forgotten.
“Welcome,” Bailey said. He wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t. “Is everything in order?”
Two laughed. Two was always the leader. “A disturbance has been reported in your bunker.”
“What?” Kory said. “That’s impossible.”
“An anomaly.” Five glided around the perimeter. She stopped by Dom. He stared straight ahead, his knuckles bloodless. “Something is in this sector that does not belong,” Five said.
Tess tilted her head towards the floor, inhaling slow and deep. She practiced her breathing every night, because Gemma wasn’t there anymore.
Bailey shrugged easily. “We’re permitted to refine a portion of phosphates for our own use. No one has brought back anything else past quarantine.”
I hadn’t told the rest of the unit. Bailey said not to. “They’ll crack,” he’d said the day before, looking tired and sad. (I wish I’d argued, but I had no protest.) It would be easier if they didn’t know.
The thread squirmed in my gloved hand. I locked my jaw and kept my smile in place. Not yet, not yet, not yet.
We needed the nine-cluster agitated so they would touch us physically. I wouldn’t risk the thread failing to pierce their barriers. It was the only chance we had.
Kory swallowed and folded his arms. He was the youngest in our unit, and he still smiled when he didn’t have to.
“We’re making quotas,” Tess said from clenched teeth. “No one has violated the regulations. I check everyone’s suits upon entry.”
(She never checked mine. Bailey said not to. “Sometimes it’s all that holds her together,” I’d heard him whisper to Tess, when I came back from the House.)
Muscles twitched in Tess’s jaw. “What is this about?”
“Defensive?” Two asked her. “That is a common psychological signal that you are…hiding something.”
“We have nothing to hide,” Bailey said. He chuckled, his mouth stretched until it might break. “We’ve increased production by 127% this cycle.”
“So you did.” Four’s particle-expression swirled and brightened in warning. “And you were down 76% the cycle before, 58% the cycle before that, and 13% before that.”
No one looked at me. I had taken Bailey and Dom on the downward spiral. (Only I could see darkness, but they believed what I told them.)
Our unit mined minerals and ore on the debris rings of 6-X76. We averaged a 97% productivity level per work segment, and had for the last ten cycles. That was when Gemma went away, and Dom came back from the House.
“Fine. It’s my fault,” Tess said, pulling her shoulders back. “I didn’t keep the unit on track. You took Gemma.” Her hands fisted and she took a steady breath. “But I accept full responsibility for the unit’s decreases previously.”
Kory winced. I shook my head minutely. Don’t do this, Tess. It’s not your fault. They weren’t suspicious yet. (I couldn’t watch them take Tess away.)
Eight laughed, a faint hissing sound characteristic of all Eights. “Your statement is contradictory. You were the hardest worker in the unit during the previous three cycles.”
“It’s in here,” Five said. “It does not belong.”
“Disassemble,” Two told Five. “Find it.”
It was too soon. I shot Bailey a flat look. He sat on a plain metal stool and shut his eyes. “Dom,” he said, very quietly.
Dom tensed, ready to do anything Bailey asked. He always did.
Bailey’s smile weakened, and he tilted his head a fraction at Two. Dom’s muscles bunched. He might not harm Two—we didn’t know how to hurt the nine-clusters ourselves—but he would distract Two anyway.
Kory’s face beaded with sweat. “They found something,” he blurted. “I saw Mara put it—”
Dom jabbed his thumb into Kory’s eye. The eyeball popped. Kory screamed, clutching his face.
Tess snarled and raised a fist at Dom, but Bailey snapped, “Don’t.”
Two clapped his hands. “Oh, well played. You are hiding something.”
I didn’t know Kory saw me take the sock or put it back. Everyone had been eating when I did. (I didn’t eat much anymore.)
Five began expanding, translucent arms budding from her torso. She threw the holo-projector to the floor, scattered the geodes, pulled apart Bailey’s book. The cots were empty.
The thread was heavy, pressing into my skin through the glove. It had taken all my enhanced strength to lift it from the mines. I couldn’t hold it much longer.
Bailey’s breath came faster. They might question him—Dom could resist, but Bailey couldn’t. He had never been to the House.
I kicked the cabinet where we kept our pressure suits, jostling loose the plastic door and the lopsided drawer.
Three swiveled her head. She spied the single bit of fabric—a sock—peeking from the drawer. It was black. I’d rubbed the thread all over it to change it. (I was the only one who saw why it was different.)
Five hissed. “This house is touched by the dark.”
The nine-cluster’s heads began to pulsate in alarm.
“Anomaly found,” Two said.
Kory let out a strangled moan. Bailey sat rigid, his face ashen, and folded his hands on his lap. Tess inhaled shakily. She put her arm on Dom’s shoulder, but Dom stared into the distance as if he wasn’t here anymore.
Nine looked at me, her eyes expanding until they encompassed her forehead. “Mara, you don’t seem surprised.”
I kept my arms around my knees, the thread in my hand. “Space is dark.”
They didn’t like that.
Our eye-filters were programed for light. We looked at the space between mining sites and planets and we saw the brilliant white of the universe. I shouldn’t have known what dark was.
But I had been to the House, where they pluck out your eyes and you bones and your skin and your neural pathways and remake you. And in between being remade (again and again and again), I saw beyond the light. I saw infinite blackness.
It was beautiful.
Nine strolled towards me. “This unit is no longer operational.”
We were all going to the House.
Another unit would replace ours. There was always another.
Dom lunged. He still held the scissors, the keepsake he brought back from the House. He aimed for Bailey. The scissors sunk through the back of Bailey’s spine at the base of his skull. Bloodied metal tips poked from his windpipe. Bailey’s muscles twitched and he slid to the floor.
Dom always loved Bailey the most.
Two sighed and pressed a radiant palm over Dom’s face, picked him up, and carried him out the door. Two left Bailey’s body where it lay. The machines to revive the body were all in the House.
Blood was darker than I remembered.
I held on tight to the thread.
Kory screamed and threw himself at Two. “Don’t take him!”
Eight batted him aside, and he hit the wall hard enough to break his ribs. (I didn’t flinch. I don’t think I can, anymore.)
Tess grabbed the scissors. She stopped smiling as she ran towards Kory.
One moved for the first time. He expanded a stasis field around Tess, rendering her immobile. She dropped the scissors. They bounced across the floor and skittered to my feet.
“Mara,” Kory gasped as Eight carried him towards the door. “Help me…”
I couldn’t. (I’m sorry, Kory.) If I moved, if I dropped the thread, we were lost. (I’m sorry, Tess.)
I smiled up at Nine. I didn’t look at Bailey.
“Space is dark,” I said again. “I’ve seen it.”
“We will fix that.” Nine’s face erased any particle expression. “The House will welcome you back.”
I snatched her wrist as if I wanted to push her away. I couldn’t. No one was that strong.
The tiny black thread wormed into Nine’s translucent arm. She didn’t notice. Her body was too full of light.
She pressed her palm over my face and the House came back in my mind, every imprinted memory.
In the House, you are unmade.
(—it hurts it hurts it hurts—)
The nine-clusters have no identical analogues for physical bodies, no way to feel pleasure or pain the way we do, but such things fascinate them.
They can record it in a million ways inside the House and translate it into data they can experience.
An Eight told me that when he extracted my nerves one at a time with his minute tools.
And in the House, even if you stab yourself in the brain with scissors, they can fix you and make you remember.
(Dom tried. He tried so many times, and so hard, but they remade his body every time.)
No one comes back from the House whole.
When I found the darkness, it was buried deep beneath rock and iron. A single thread, barely three centimeters long.
I told Dom. He stared at me, empty-eyed like he often was.
“I don’t know what dark is,” Dom said.
I grasped his gloves. “It can eat away the nine-clusters. All of them.”
This was my theory. If they had made the universe light, they must fear the opposite. They could not live in blackness.
Once a ten-cycle, all the nine-clusters gathered and merged their heads into a great sphere of light. They shared everything, knowledge and particles and experience and delights they’d witnessed in the House.
One drop of darkness would infect them all.
“I can get it,” I told Dom. “I just need your help.”
He shut his eyes. It was light out even when you didn’t look. “They’ll take us back.”
“I know,” I said. (I didn’t remember how to lie when I came back from the House.)
Bailey was deeper in the tunnel, his comm synched with ours. Dom could cover my workload while on shift, and Bailey could make sure no one else in the unit found out what I was doing.
“They’ll take Bailey.” Dom’s voice cracked. “They’ll take all of us.”
“I know,” I said. “But we’ll blot them out and no one will ever be taken again.”
We were made in darkness, before the nine-clusters came. We could live in it again. And we know how to make our own light.
Dom leaned his head against the wall, his helmet clicking against rock. All I heard was his breath over the comm.
“Dom?” I asked, when he didn’t move.
“Bailey,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t,” Bailey said. “I’ll help, Mara. Sometimes I think I dream of the dark.”
Dom fisted his hands.
“I can show you what the dark is like for real,” I said. “The light will end.”
It was what we all needed, even if we could never admit that.
Finally, Dom nodded.
We began to dig.
I look out one of the House’s many windows, at the nine-clusters watching. Specks of blackness float in their star-like heads.
The darkness is growing in the Five that leads Dom away again.
“It will be dark soon,” I promise Dom, but his blank stare never changes.
The nine-clusters glow brighter, as if to hide it, but I know what darkness looks like.
(I will never forget.)
Soon, the darkness will expand and the stars will collapse. Nine by nine, they will become vacuums and take away all the light in the universe.
It will be beautiful.
first published in Ideomancer, Decmber 2013
(c) 2013 by Merc Rustad