Emptying the Bunkhouse

For me, the worst part was always the exit from the boat. Which doesn’t make sense, because no one ever got attacked just as they entered the mist. It was still scary, though. You slid down the egress tube a few seconds, the hatch above you closed, the hull door opened, and then you were outside. A gust of compressed air pushed against your suit, but that wasn’t meant to help you reach the safety of the cavern floor — it was to blow you clear of the Bunkhouse.

The boat’s name wasn’t actually Bunkhouse. It didn’t have a name, so Mersa suggested Bunkhouse because we were already referring to ourselves as hired hands. And we called ourselves hired hands because it was nicer than convicts-offered-a-deal.

The weak gravity in the cave system started pulling you down right away, but sometimes you were a couple hundred feet off the rocky floor. That terrified me, because the cavern’s atmosphere was foggy and it was impossible to tell what might be rushing up to bite or slice or grab you. The suit’s face shield only goes back to the ears, and if you panic you’ll start spinning around as you sink. Which doesn’t make sense either, because motion attracts the predators.

You can see through the mist most days, and there’s a phosphorescent glow to the rocks that helps as well. It could have been beautiful, the towering stone columns and the bizarre vegetation and the sheer cathedral magnitude of it all, except for the creatures that prowled the caverns and the knowledge that The Company basically owned us.

Falling slowly, watching the sword-like Bunkhouse disappear, and sometimes seeing the next hired hand drop out not too far away. Those were good days, knowing there was another human close enough to chat with as you worked. Other times the boat lumbered off with no more exits, and you were alone until the end of the shift. Pushing those thoughts away as the craggy floor resolved below, eyes straining for a safe place to land. The cavern complex was eons-ancient, with broken rock everywhere, but there were also spaces that were flat and covered with gray silt.

Those spots were potential death traps. The beasts we had dubbed Lurkers made their dens there, camouflaged hatches that would erupt in a seething storm of swirling dust and flailing tendrils ten feet long. Whatever they grabbed disappeared into the den, the door would drop back into place, and seconds later there was no sign it had ever been there. I almost got grabbed one time early on, and for an instant saw a pair of glowing blue eyes four feet apart, each the size of a human head, staring at me with a hungry intelligence from the darkness.

I have nightmares of landing on a Lurker den, and whenever I’m sinking toward a flat space, even one with the swaying fronds that suggest it’s safe, I use up a good bit of my thruster gas to get over to a pile of fallen scree. And even though motion attracts other predators, I usually do it turned upside down and swinging both arms as if swimming.

I’m beginning this story in the second week of our voyage, because we lost half our number in the first week. And there won’t be a third.

• • •

It’s a toss-up, whether to stand or go flat once you reach the bottom. The low gravity lets you move hand-over-hand in a kind of floating crawl, but that leaves no chance to kick away from a Lurker. Standing also lets you see better, but it exposes you to a different kind of danger. Shark-like things cruise the mist, with razor-sharp dorsal fins they swing into their victims when they attack. We call them Razors, and they come out of nowhere.

So I usually travel by crawling just above the rocky parts of the floor, and only stand when I’m harvesting a patch of the all-important spheres. They grow in shallow chasms on the cave’s bottom, orbs the size of grapefruit that The Company ordered us to gather. They’re hard and jet-black, held in place by finger-width vines. No one knows what they’re good for, but collecting them is the only way home.

I shook out the telescoping mesh barrel that rode on the back of my suit, while my eyes scanned the drifting fog and the waving ferns. Hand-sized Puffers twirled by, their spines making them look like miniature tumbleweeds, and tiny eels shimmied across the bottom near my boots. Seeing nothing dangerous, I started snapping the spheres loose and putting them into the barrel. The sensor in its hard rim would summon a mechanical mule when it was full. As soon as its signal bulb lit, I found some relative cover and waited.

You’d see the mules gliding back and forth throughout a work shift, white cylinders twice the size of a full barrel. When working alone, I found them a comforting reassurance that the boat hadn’t sailed off never to return. When your only sanctuary is piloted by a computer, you worry about things like that. One of the mules soon materialized out of the cloud and settled down on top of my barrel. It ascended moments later, leaving the empty container and heading off with the spheres.

The cave’s predators never went after anything mechanical, but motion is motion, and so I always waited until a mule carrying my harvest was well away. I always use that time to check my suit’s status and make sure my locator’s still attached. It’s a fist-sized transmitter that you clip onto your harness at the start of each shift, and you can’t get back inside the Bunkhouse without it. Seeing my name, BEAL, written on it was a double-edged reminder of who I am and who I let down to get sent here.

I was about to stand up and look for another possible sphere site when a slow-moving shadow darkened part of the mist. Freezing, I lifted my head just enough to catch a new sight, yet another monster populating this labyrinth.

It resembled a crab, but a crab that was thirty feet across and had no legs. Its body was orange, and its mouth was formed by two fat lips fifteen feet wide. My breaths started coming in short, heavy gasps, threatening to fog my face shield. Sticking out of the revolting mouth was a pair of boots, absolutely motionless.

“Twenty baskets to a load.” I started the mantra that usually got me through moments like this. “Twenty baskets to a load. One hundred loads to home.”

• • •

“This doesn’t make any sense.” Tindall’s fork tapped the table in a jittery tattoo. His eyes were open even wider than usual, making him look like a thin, blond goldfish. “Who’s gonna do the harvesting if we’re all dead?”

“This is just a rough patch of the cavern.” D’ambic offered, doubt in his voice. “First three days we didn’t lose a single hand. We’ll pass through this, and it won’t be so bad.”

“We’re down to nine hands from twenty.” Tindall pointed at the illuminated board that showed how many loads each of us had collected. The row with your ID number and tally disappeared when you died, and the gaps were unsettling. “Eleven gone in a week. I don’t think anyone’s gonna be left when we get out of this ‘rough patch’ of yours.”

“So, what are you suggesting?” As usual, Mersa was calm and curious. I couldn’t decide if she’d been born that way or got it from her job back on Earth quantifying non-standard data. No matter how smart the machines get, they still need humans to figure out the things that don’t fall into one category or another. Sometimes I think the data analysts, the engineers, and the robot repair specialists are the only reasons the machines haven’t rid themselves of humanity.

“Something’s wrong. It makes no sense to bring us all out here just to die in a few weeks. How could The Company make any money doing that?”

“How could they make money bringing us out here at all?” Mersa responded. “Think of the expense. Space travel to wherever this is, shuttling us down to the Bunkhouse, feeding us, maintaining the suits, and all for what? A job that could be done by robots.”

“What are you saying?” Hart asked. She had a gold circuit board tattoo on her left cheek and didn’t talk a lot.

“That we’re asking the wrong questions.”

“Giving wrong answers is more like it.” A scholarly voice came from the corner of the galley. I knew it was Kenner without looking. The thin, balding man had been aboard the Bunkhouse when we arrived. He claimed he’d collected his one hundred loads with the previous work gang, but a computer glitch had wiped the tally clean and he’d been left behind.

“Who’s asking you, spy?” Strom was the biggest of us, and he’d tagged Kenner as a Company plant the very first day.

“I go out with you every shift. How else could I prove I’m not an informer?”

“Not coming back would be a start.”

Kenner switched to Mersa. “The problem is wrong answers. You all probably got the same offer I did. Commuted sentence, clean record, all for doing dangerous work.”

“I couldn’t stay locked up.” D’ambic muttered. “I thought anything would be better.”

“So you said yes. We all did.” Kenner raised an open hand. “Everything else stems from that one wrong answer.”

“So that’s it?” Hart asked. “I decided to take a chance, and now I have to die for it?”

“Not what I’m saying. Anybody ever look at the boat as it’s going by? It’s not hard to estimate its dimensions.”

“Uh oh. More engineer wisdom.” Strom rolled his eyes. He tolerated Mersa’s background but held a special resentment for the humans who dreamt up new versions of the robots.

“I designed a lot of different machines over the years. And I was alone on this boat for a week before you all got here. I took a few measurements.”

“You did some guessing. We only have access to what? One third of the Bunkhouse?”

“Approximately. Now add in the space required for the engines, the propulsion and life support systems, the food and water storage, and the bay where the mules go.”

“Sorry, I didn’t get that far in school.”

“Let him finish.” Mersa put a hand on Strom’s arm.

“Somebody’s waking up.” Kenner glanced at me. “Now compute the space to store one hundred sphere loads, multiplied by twenty hands.”

“There aren’t twenty of us.”

“But there were. There should be room to store two thousand loads.” Kenner cocked his head. “There isn’t. Not even half that.”

“Maybe they get processed somehow.” Tindall stammered. “Rendered down.”

“That would require complex machinery, and there’s no room for that either. The spheres are hard as rocks — in fact, I’ve beaten on one with a rock, and it only made a few marks.”

“Stop playing around. What’s your point?” Mersa kept her brown hair cut almost bald, and her scalp had gone taut.

“You almost asked the right question a moment ago. This is a job robots could do — so why have humans here at all?” Kenner grinned. “Anybody else notice the scary monsters out there never attack a mule? Never even go near them?”

“Stop it, Kenner.” I didn’t know I was going to speak, and the smile turned my way.

“What’s wrong, Beal? Am I agitating you?”

Tindall’s fork was tapping like a woodpecker. He gave off a low moan as both Mersa and D’ambic placed comforting hands on his shoulders. Too late.

“Calm. Calm. Calm.” A robot voice, meant to sound feminine, came through the wall speakers. It was the computer that controlled the Bunkhouse, an entity we called Skipper. Skipper only monitored one thing among the hands, and that was agitation. She could deliver electric shocks all through our part of the boat if anyone got too excited.

“Everybody relax!” Mersa called out, her fingers rubbing Tindall’s neck while D’ambic stroked his arm. I went into a meditation drill we’d been taught by a now-deceased hand, right after we’d all gotten our first taste of Skipper’s wrath. Muscles loose, eyes closed, trying to concentrate on long, steady breaths.

It didn’t always work, because it’s hard not to think about a fire-ant surge of electricity driving straight to your very core when it may be only a second away. Tindall moaned once more, and I counted off the inhalations and exhalations until Skipper relented.

“Calm is important.” She intoned, and then switched to the standard time hack. “For optimum work performance, you should all be in your bunks in one half-hour.”

• • •

My nightmares are quite vivid, so despite Skipper’s advice I spent much of my off-duty time walking. The human spaces in the Bunkhouse weren’t much more than a sleeping bay, a communal washroom, the galley, a medical booth, and the compartment where we donned and doffed our suits. Connecting passages thrummed with hidden machinery, and the sounds soothed my insomniac sojourns. Memories of work on Earth.

That night I turned the corner into a corridor that dead-ended in the airlock that had served as our entrance to the Bunkhouse. It was usually a welcome sight, as I hoped one day to use it to board a shuttle with my sentence completed. So I was startled to come face to face with Kenner instead.

He seemed more surprised than I was, but only for a moment. “Hey there, Beal. Looking for a spot to hang some plants?”

The question wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. I don’t know what things are like in your neighborhood, but in mine the black market is the only source of luxuries. The machines might provide us with housing, transportation, and jobs, but the food’s barely edible. Hoping to earn a little extra money for my family, I’d signed onto a scam involving hydroponic gardening that ended in a jail cell.

I’d compounded my error by telling the other hands why I’d been locked up. Apparently, hydroponics is one of the oldest cons in the book, and they’d mocked me as a rube ever since.

“Just felt like walking. What are you doing here?”

“See that?” Kenner pointed at the plating above the airlock hatch, where someone had spent a long time scratching the words YOU WILL MAKE IT.

“Yes.”

“I etched that while waiting for you and the others, after I got left behind. I used to just stand here all alone, staring at it. Now I come to visit, as a reminder.”

“But you don’t believe it anymore.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Your little speech at dinner.”

“Oh, that was just to pass the time. Tindall’s fun to rattle.” He started to walk past me.

“But I got to thinking about it. You said there’s not enough room for even half the loads a work gang would collect.”

“Give or take.”

“But your original gang only lost three hands. If sixteen of them were sent home, what happened to all their loads?”

Kenner’s mouth opened slightly, and he looked me up and down. “My goodness. Somebody’s finally paying attention.”

• • •

“What you got there?” I was just in radio range of Mersa, who was a blurry image on the other side of the cavern. The fog was thin that day, and because we’d lost so many hands Mersa and I exited the Bunkhouse next to each other. The workday was almost over, and I’d found nothing.

“I made a wand.” Mersa was moving in a crouch, searching a shallow depression that would have been a perfect spot for a Lurker. I could just make out the long, twisted probe she was swinging in front of her. “If you break off a few sections of the red-colored ferns, you can twist them together.”

“That never occurred to me.” Reminding myself of the dangers all around, I turned in place. This segment of the cave complex was just big enough for the Bunkhouse to sail through, but its walls were lined with tall, thin columns that looked like melted gray candles. Debris floated between the shafts, suggesting smaller chambers beyond them, but I was in no hurry to go looking. “Seen any spheres?”

“None. You?”

“No. Looks like Skipper’s as ignorant as we are.”

“You think that might be it?” She stopped moving and gripped a boulder with one glove while reaching out with the wand. “Why they’re using humans for this? Company couldn’t develop a sensor to find these things?”

“You’re too smart to be out here, Mersa.”

“Too smart for my own good, is more like it.” She looked in my direction. “You wanna know what the hardest part of my job was, back home?”

“Putting a number on human behavior.”

“Very good. Most people don’t realize the machines don’t understand us at all.” She resumed her probing, and I started moving toward the closest side chamber while she talked. “Isn’t that strange? They basically run everything, but they still spend lots of time gathering data on us.”

“They don’t run the Delegates. At least not yet.”

“Sure about that? When’s the last time you saw your neighborhood’s Delegate?”

“Can’t remember.”

“Exactly. All the communication’s electronic now. And the voice tech’s gotten so good that it’s almost impossible to know if you’re talking to a human or a robot.”

Reaching the narrow opening, I studied its darkness. It was wide enough for my suit and a hundred feet tall, but entrances like this one were always tricky. I crept off to one side and went flat.

“So, what about your old job?”

“Oh yeah.” Mersa paused, as if deciding whether or not to continue. “Whenever the machines encountered behavior they couldn’t explain, it was sent to my department. One of those times it was a series of arson fires in a neighborhood where there usually wasn’t any trouble. None of the standard dissatisfaction indicators were there, so I started digging.”

After one last look into the cave’s shadows, I grasped the gnarled rock and rolled myself over so I could observe the top of the entrance. Careful not to drag the suit across the jagged bottom, I strained to see through the mist. Vegetation swayed all around, and spiny vines wafted back and forth at the top of the opening. I allowed the gravity’s light touch to deposit me on the floor and watched those vines with fear.

“Turns out that neighborhood’s water ration had been cut in half by mistake. Corrupted headcount data file.” Mersa continued. “Would have been simple to fix, but there’s no way for the people living there to report it.”

“Don’t allow complaints, and there won’t be any.”

“Nah, it’s worse than that. In the early days of the Reorganization, you could message a report straight into the central mainframe. But too many people submitted false ones, and the machines decided the system was to blame.”

“What?”

“Machines don’t understand lying. So they chucked the whole reporting function.”

I made myself concentrate, still observing the vines at the top of the opening. I’d almost decided there was nothing up there when an undulating blanket blocked my view. Brown and orange, it was one of the species that so far hadn’t caused us any trouble. The things propelled themselves with a rolling wave motion that passed all the way over their flat surfaces, looking like a comforter being shaken out by invisible hands. As soon as it passed into the cave, the vines near the ceiling reacted.

It was the same lazy lethality that I’d witnessed from the Spindles before. One of them parted from the others, a long black cord covered with narrow spikes. It straightened, as if stretching its muscles, and then started to roll. Its front end folded downward and the rest of the Spindle curled after it. My features compressed in revulsion, even though I wasn’t its target. The dark rod formed a hoop, and bubbles erupted from its pores. It picked up speed, and by then another had uncurled from their hiding place and then another.

Once I was sure the last of them had swum off in pursuit, I sent a single puff from my thruster to lift me off the rocks. Turning, I saw that the first Spindle had already caught the blanket and the others were closing fast. The comforter was jerking back and forth, desperate to dislodge the spines, but it was no use. The spinning hoops joined the first one, smashing into their victim and wrapping around, thorns sinking into the meat.

The blanket crumpled under the assault and then went limp, either from the punctures or the compression. The hideous ball of spikes bubbled its way up toward the roof, where they’d be feasting for some time. I stared after them, my mind filled with the images of the one time I’d seen the Spindles do that to a human. I was barely moving when I slid back out.

“ — it was a really hot summer, and when you cut the water ration like that, nobody can shower.” Mersa had been talking the whole time. “Then I figured it out. They were starting the fires so that the blimps would fly in and dump water on them. Can you imagine that?”

“So what did you do?” I was trying hard to get the Spindles out of my head.

“I couldn’t get their water rations reset — ever try to explain to a computer why humans need showers? So I created a workaround. The database is loaded with these ghost fields, nothing in them, so I repurposed one. I created a new variable and called it the aroma index.”

“You’re joking.”

“If you can put a number on something new, the machines will accept it. I built an algorithm that showed the connection between air temperature and water usage, and it did the trick. That neighborhood got more water, and the arson stopped.” I could see her clearly now. She stopped between two large rocks, as if pondering something weighty. “Thought I’d done something good. Then one morning my security bead didn’t open the office door, a pair of mechanized marshals landed and they took me away. A voice on a monitor accused me of misappropriating resources, and then convicted me. I lost it all. A real job, a good apartment, a decent lover. That’s why I took the offer to come out here.”

“You’ll make it back.”

“Not if we have many more days like this one. Not a sphere in sight.”

Squatting, I carefully went down the rocks toward Mersa. She was still a hundred yards away, the wand waving across the flat surface. A mule coasted into place overhead, prompting me to check my timer.

“Almost quitting time.”

“Yeah, I saw the ride.” You weren’t supposed to even approach a mule during a shift, but at the end of the day they lifted us back up to the boat. “Wasted day.”

“So what are you doing there? Dangerous ground you’re on.”

“Can’t help it. It’s how I’m wired. I need to figure out how this place works.”

“By getting eaten?”

“We’re all getting eaten. That’s what I need to figure out.” She was fifty yards away now, almost to the rocky slope. “Doesn’t make sense.”

“Kenner thinks collecting the spheres is just make-work.”

“Kenner’s hiding something.”

“What?”

“I gotta figure that out, too.” She’d almost disappeared behind a low ridge of rock, and I saw one of her gloves grab its top. She kicked off, floating up and over. Gravity was pulling her back down when I saw the faint ripple in the silt, a gasp of evil expectation.

“Hit your thruster! Hit your thruster!” I screamed, forgetting that yelling made the radio stop transmitting. All in the name of calm. “There’s a Lurker there!”

The ground snapped upward, the voracious tentacles reaching, only to find their prey was inches out of range. They retracted in a wriggling mass, preparing to lunge again. Mersa’s gloves fumbled for the thrusters, but too late. Her booted feet were swinging madly, as if seeking purchase in the fog as she sank.

Thankfully, her radio cut off after the first shriek.

• • •

“Outer doors sealed. Three workers failed to return.” Skipper made the announcement in the same tone as any other. The remaining six of us stood or sat in the recovery room in varying stages of undress, already knowing who had perished.

“Three in one shift.” Tindall whispered.

“I saw Mersa go.” I offered, still wearing the bottom half of my suit. “Lurker.”

“D’ambic was in line behind me.” Strom said. “Skipper dropped me and kept on sailing. I didn’t catch sight of him.”

“Olson was last out today.” Hart ran a hand through sweaty hair. “Anybody see him?”

No one moved for some time.

• • •

The boat was quiet when I walked down the short passage to the airlock. Kenner was standing there with his back to me, as if waiting for it to open.

“What’s this about?” I asked, holding out the slip of paper he’d pressed into my hand at the end of a mostly silent dinner. It asked me to come to that spot once everyone was asleep.

“I survived an entire voyage before this one, so I figured I’d just keep doing what I’d been doing, and this time I’d go home. After today, I’m not so sure.”

“All right.”

“So I figure I better show this to somebody. Just in case.”

Kenner stepped past me, to the thick plates that lined the bulkheads in the passageway.

“I had a lot of time, after the others left, just me ‘n Skipper alone out here. So I combed every inch of the spaces allotted to us.”

“Trying to get into the other parts of the boat? No point to that.”

“I know. I’ve designed craft like this one. The rest of it is all wires and machinery — and no life support even if you could fit.”

“So what were you looking for?”

“Robots can only do so much on their own. When they’re stymied, they need to get a human in position to figure things out.” He placed both palms flat against a plate that ran from waist level to just over our heads. “See all these bolts? On a hidden access hatch, they’re fake.”

Kenner leaned on the plate, and then stepped back as it popped open on a hinge. It revealed a darkened crawl space, and he reached inside before handing me a small flashlight on a head strap. “Found this in there, with some repair tools.”

I donned the familiar rig, and climbed in. The duct was large enough for an individual to crawl along comfortably, but two bodies side by side would be tight. Once inside, I saw it wasn’t long. The flashlight’s beam reflected off a monitor at the end, and I shinnied up to it while Kenner closed the hatch.

He squeezed in next to me and tapped at a canted keyboard below the screen. “No security on this thing. Designers never thought we’d find it.”

A menu of commands appeared, and I recognized most of them as diagnostic. “This isn’t a command station.”

“Good eye. I spent hours in here, trying to access the inventory logs. I know everything it can do and can’t do.” When I turned the flashlight on him, Kenner shrugged. “Okay, call me a fool. I just wanted to see what happened to my tally last time out.”

“Did you?”

“No. But I found something worse.” The monitor flickered and resolved into a split-screen. Kenner widened the focus, showing a two-dimensional map of the caverns. Channels wide enough for the boat flowed all the way through, connecting to smaller passages and myriad caves.

“What’s so bad about Skipper knowing the layout of this place?”

“That’s not it.” Kenner brought up a corner menu and selected a command. Markers popped up all over the chart, most of them connected by twisting, dashed lines.

“What are those?”

Kenner zoomed in on one of the icons, and a nine-digit number appeared next to it. Following the dashed line, I saw the same identifier, but with different date/time stamps.

“They’re tracking movement. But movement of what …” I mused, and then went cold when I saw some of the lines went beneath the cavern floor. “Those are locators! Human locators!”

“I’m afraid so. They were attached to hands who got snatched by the Lurkers.” In the glow of the screen, Kenner’s face looked like a skull. “That’s what I was getting at the other night. The predators won’t attack a machine. But they’ll devour a suited human.”

“So that’s why we’re here.” I thought of Mersa, obsessing over that very question.

“Yep. Our locators aren’t meant to help Skipper keep track of us. They’re meant to be swallowed by the Lurkers, so The Company can study their habits.”

“That means we’re just …”

“Bait.”

• • •

“So what do we do?” I asked after almost a minute.

“I have an idea, but I need your help. I want to ride one of the mules, to see what it does with a load. We assume it goes back to the boat, but I’m betting not. I think the spheres are just an excuse to get us out where the Lurkers can snatch us.”

“But you can’t go near a mule during a shift. Only at the end.”

“That’s true, if you’re wearing a locator. I set mine down one time and rode the next mule a short distance. But for a long trip like this one, I have to be sure I can find it again so I can get back aboard. That’s your job. I’ll be dropped right after you next shift, now that Mersa’s gone. I’ll come to you, give you my locator, and then grab onto the next full mule.”

“That’s a heck of a risk.”

“That’s why I’m talking to you.” He lightly touched my shoulder. “The others are too suspicious or scared. But I’ve been watching you, and I know you’re solid. So how about it? Can I put my life in your hands?”

• • •

The next day, I added a new step to my routine. In addition to checking my own locator, I now made sure Kenner’s also hung on my harness. As he’d suggested, the engineer had been able to grab onto the mule that picked up a load we’d gathered together. He’d been gone for some time and, along with the normal surveys of the surrounding fog, I found myself looking down the channel in the direction Kenner had gone.

That was why I didn’t see the Razor until it was almost on me. The eddying cloud contracted on the edge of my vision, the beast’s waving tail churning the mist as it charged in. I was repositioning my basket when it materialized, jet black eyes turning away in a swirl of bubbles to sweep the towering blade into me.

Reacting without thinking, I swung the basket around just as my eyes made out the striations on the slicing dorsal fin. One instant I was holding the basket, and the next it was gone. Spheres spewed from the ruined cage in an arc, and a cloudy wave knocked me off my feet when the Razor raced away. It vanished into the swirling silt but would return in moments. I jerked my helmet left and right, looking for a crevice or an outcropping, but there was nothing. My mind screamed at me to move, to jump up and flee even though there was no such thing as running in the caverns. My boots reached for the rock just the same, my body sinking into a crouch.

I hopped in half-turns, hyperventilating the whole time, as if seeing the thing would make a difference. A whimper rose in my throat as I continued to gasp, my field of vision shrinking with condensation. There was nothing I could do to stop it, but it was blinding me and finally I just went flat. That was no defense at all, because the Razor would just do a flip and chop me in half, so I contracted into a sniveling ball and shut my eyes.

I lay there moaning, waiting for the scythe to swing down and burst my suit, until the ache in my arms and legs became unbearable. Not believing the Razor had simply swum off, I made my eyes open. More time had passed than seemed possible. My face shield was completely clear, and the silt had settled back down. I still don’t know why, but the beast had left me.

I was laughing with shocked relief when my eyes spotted the locator on the rocky floor nearby. It had come off in the tumult, and my gloved hand snatched it up. I lifted the device, expecting to read my name or Kenner’s, and then stopped breathing. A name I didn’t recognize hung in front of my face shield, and when the glove of my other hand probed my chest I found both of the other devices.

• • •

“Why did you move?” Kenner called as he crossed the rocks, having dropped from the returning mule.

“Stop right there.” I ordered. “Who’s Babcock?”

“Babcock? What are you saying?”

“I said stop!” I extended my arm, showing the third locator. “There’s a fissure here, and I’m gonna drop this thing in it if you take another step!”

“Okay! Okay!” His hands came up, and Kenner took a step back.

“Who’s Babcock, and why did you hang his locator on me?”

“Listen, we can’t be standing here exposed like this. Let’s — ”

I thrust my hand inside the crevice, and Kenner started to hiss.

“Don’t! Don’t! I’m Babcock!”

“You better talk fast.”

“Kenner was with the last crew. I saw him get snatched by a Lurker, but his locator came off. I picked it up, because … because I need to know how things work.”

“So?”

“Skipper got confused when I carried both locators back aboard. Blind, stupid robot! It couldn’t process the idea of two devices in the access tube, so it zeroed one of them out.”

“Yours.”

“Right. My number disappeared from the board, but Kenner’s didn’t. Nobody noticed, so I just kept using his.” His voice trembled. “Made my quota, got on the shuttle with the others, thought I was going home. But the shuttle’s system is more sophisticated than Skipper. It scanned me, figured out I wasn’t Kenner, and wouldn’t leave until I got off.”

“So what were you trying to do here? Trick me into going back aboard wearing my locator and your old one?”

“I’ve tried everything else! Carried them both out and back in, but it won’t reactivate mine! Idiot machine logic — it knows Kenner didn’t leave on the shuttle, so that’s the only device it recognizes.”

“So I’m your fool. This was all a setup.” Remembered shame from the hydroponics scam flowed back through me. “You hoped Skipper would get confused again, reactivate your old locator, and zero mine out.”

“It’s not like that. If it worked, I was going to explain it to you. You wouldn’t have been stuck out here forever.”

“Just for a whole other voyage. And if I survived, I’d still have to trick somebody else.” More memories. The smirking con man telling me I could avoid jail if I signed up a few more patsies for the same scheme that had ensnared me. My wife’s horrified face when I told her I’d refused. Shouting, demanding to know if I understood just what was going to happen when she and our daughter were reassigned to the neighborhoods reserved for the families of convicts. “Thanks a lot. Babcock.”

“You think that’s our biggest problem?” He took a step forward. “Guess what I saw on my little trip? That mule took those spheres and dumped them! Dumped them! Back where we were working yesterday!”

In the mist above and behind Babcock, I saw a black dot emerge. It disappeared inside the cloud a moment later, descending toward us.

“Don’t come any closer.”

“You’re not going to ditch my locator, Beal. I can’t get back aboard without it, and you need me.” Confidence returned to his voice. “You don’t know the first thing about that boat, but I do. We need to find a way to trick it into taking us back, some kind of mechanical emergency. I’m the only one who can make that happen.”

The dot elongated into a dark hoop, rolling toward Babcock. Other dots appeared behind it, following. Spindles.

“You’re wrong about that.”

“Who else could do it? That meathead Strom?” The first Spindle was only seconds away.

“Instead of trying to play me, maybe you should have asked what I did back on Earth. I was robot repair.”

“You? No way.”

“I could have helped you. But you decided to use me instead. Just like those bastards who got me sent away.” The final memory. Standing outside our building, staring at the smashed bodies of my wife and daughter on the sidewalk. Telling myself the con man’s muscle had thrown them from the roof in retribution. “You’re just as bad as they are.”

I released the locator, letting it slide into the crevice. Babcock screamed in rage, and his radio cut out just before the first Spindle grabbed him. Spinning, he started flailing madly as the others swam in and wrapped around.

Turning away, I dropped Kenner’s locator in the hole as well.

• • •

I made up a story about what happened but didn’t have to use it because Strom was the only one who came back with me. We sat there for a long time after the final announcement, too defeated to finish removing our suits.

“I’m sorry, Beal.” Strom finally muttered, shaking me from thoughts of my dead family.

“For what?”

“Making fun of how you got locked up.” He turned moist eyes in my direction. “You know why I’m here?”

“You said it was gang activity.”

“Nah. That was just a story to scare people.”

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“Why not? We’re all that’s left. I got caught taking a leak against a wall after drinking too much one night. Sentence was to do trash collection in my neighborhood for a month.”

“Then how’d you end up in jail?”

“They put this bracelet on me. Every time a surveillance cam or a Mech-marshal patrol spotted a piece of paper blowing around, the thing beeped. The beep got faster as I got closer to where the trash was. It also got louder, no matter where I was, and it wouldn’t stop until I’d picked up the garbage.”

“We had the same punishment where I’m from. Drove some people nuts.”

“I came close. But late one night the thing was beeping nonstop while I searched this one spot in the middle of the street. That was the signal that I was right on top of whatever I was supposed to pick up. But there was nothing there.” He looked at the ceiling, as if appealing to someone I couldn’t see. “I kept looking and looking, and it just went on beeping and beeping, and then this one guy in pajamas ran up and tried to hit me. He was screaming and swinging, and a second later he was just lying there, not moving.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” I wasn’t sure I believed me, because I was talking to both of us.

“Mech-marshals flew in, took me away. I spent the rest of that night in a cell, got sentenced by a robo-judge the next morning, and that’s when they took the bracelet off.” He rubbed his empty wrist. “Thing had been beeping for hours. But I hadn’t heard it at all.”

• • •

Strom didn’t join me in the galley for dinner. He was hanging from a pipe in the washroom when I found him, looking strangely serene. Skipper hadn’t detected the least bit of agitation as he was doing it. I’m sorry to say she didn’t sense any from me either, even when I took him down and put him in the medical booth. The monitor declared him dead, and he disappeared.

In the crawlspace that night, I stared at the dim light of the screen as the Lurkers moved the locators around. Babcock might have known a lot about robot design, but that crawlspace was created for a repair specialist like me. It took some effort, but I finally accessed enough of the command data banks to discover what was going on.

The spheres were just an excuse to get us near the Lurkers. Apparently, the glands of those evil creatures manufacture a key ingredient for an expensive medicine The Company sells on Earth. The tracking algorithms were focused on the Lurkers’ upcoming mating season, when they would travel miles through the tunnels they’d dug through the rock to gather in large numbers. I imagine The Company plans to dispatch an army of hunter-killer robots down those same tunnels to massacre them and harvest their biological gold.

The command system let me widen the view, showing that the Bunkhouse was just one of over a hundred boats working these caverns. There were so many locators being tracked that the complex looked like it had measles.

Skipper reminded me it was past time for bed when I climbed out of the space, confirming that she lost contact with anyone who went in there. Seems the designers really didn’t expect anyone to ever find it. I was fatigued, but still had a lot of work to do. I couldn’t take over the boat’s steering — believe me I tried — but I did access the lockers holding the extra locators. I’m good at my job, and figured them out in no time.

That’s why I wrote you this. Eventually The Company is going to retrieve all the locators scattered across the caverns, because it doesn’t throw away equipment the way it does people. They’ll task some human data expert — you — to review the logs inside each of them for any information the machines missed. I loaded this story into the locators I took from the Bunkhouse’s lockers, and you now know what they did to us. My entire work gang, including someone very much like you, got used as live bait so The Company could make some money. If you’re even half the analyst that Mersa was, I’m betting you can find a way to make this information public.

I’m going out tomorrow with a sack of locators, each containing this story. I’m going to use Mersa’s wand trick to feed them into as many Lurker dens as I can. It’s very likely I’m going to get grabbed, and you have no idea the terror I’m feeling just writing those words.

I walked through the empty boat one last time, feeling like Babcock while he was waiting for us to arrive. I stared at his YOU WILL MAKE IT etching, knowing it didn’t turn out to be true for him. It probably won’t be true for me, either.

But there is a slim chance I’ll live past tomorrow. That I’ll empty that sack and get back aboard alive. That I’ll then take apart one of the sensors from the collection baskets, the ones that tell the mules when a load is ready for pickup. That I’ll reconfigure them so they trick Skipper into believing I’ve collected enough spheres to go home. That Skipper will just accept it, because the tallies have always been fake and the hold of the Bunkhouse has always been empty.

You might be wondering why I don’t just go ahead and do that, instead of playing message-in-a-bottle with the Lurkers. The answer’s simple — even if I do make it, there’s no guarantee The Company will honor our deal. Especially after what happened to my work gang. So I have to get the word out, no matter the risk, before I try to get out myself. I owe it to the others. To Mersa, and Strom, and even Babcock.

Because they brought me back from the dead. I was a walking corpse when I went to jail and said yes to this terrible job in the hope of ending things sooner. Yet every one of the dead hands, some without meaning to, breathed life back into me. They’ll live again, too, if you release this, and that’s why I have to take this chance.


Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Frank Cole mystery series from St. Martin’s Press. In 2017 HarperCollins released the fifth and final novel in his military science fiction Sim War series, written as Henry V. O’Neil. He’s also published short stories in the mystery, science fiction, and horror genres. His website is www.vincenthoneil.com.