BASK IN THE ENDLESS STARRY SKIES
“Where the nightlife never ends!”
That’s what the ad said. Amir saw it while he was mindlessly scrolling through his network feed on one of his mom’s garden liners. He thought it sounded worth a few month’s diversion. A quick beam home to refill his bank account and he had booked himself the Starlight Suite.
Mercury was out of the liner’s way, but the captain worked for his family and was easily convinced to change course. If the other passengers complained, he told the decorated spaceman that they were welcome to file a lawsuit at the Court of Copernicus, and they’d be sure to get a hearing sometime in the next couple decades.
He was disappointed to learn, before he strapped into his personal shuttle, that he wouldn’t be setting foot under those starry skies without a guide, and even then, only for a short while at a time, to avoid accidents. He hoped that the nightlife was all the ad promised, at least. He considered marching up to whoever was in charge and having a chat about misleading advertising.
“Erebus Control to shuttle Dhow.”
“This is the Dhow,” his servitor program, Addison, chirped. Amir sank further back into his crash couch and yawned.
“Welcome, Dhow,” said the person on the other end. “The governor wants to communicate that he greatly anticipates meeting the son of his patron.”
Amir sat up. “We own you?”
“Um… your mother is our colonial proprietor, yes.”
“Then why did I have to pay for a suite?”
“You didn’t,” the controller said. “You were provided the Starlight Suite gratis.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Sir, your account was not charged,” Addison said.
“Oh.” Amir glared at the shuttle around him. “When were you gonna tell me that?”
“I am sorry, sir. You told me you didn’t want me telling you things all the time.”
“Well, this is different.”
“I apologize, sir.”
“It’s fine. I just meant annoying things, like ‘your top button is unbuttoned.’”
“I understand. It will not happen again.”
“Good. Because now I look like an idiot in front of these people.”
“I doubt they think you’re an idiot, sir.”
“I doubt you think.”
“Welcome to Mercury,” the controller piped again, “sending you landing coordinates.” The line went dead.
Amir paused. “Was he listening in the whole time?”
“I should’ve stayed on the ship.”
“Erebus Valley is famous for its resorts, casinos, brothels and clubs, sir. I’m sure you will find it agreeable.”
“My mom decided to build all that stuff way out here?”
“Your mother saw potential. The valley is close to Valmiki, the largest city in the Twilight Belt, but far enough into Mercury’s nightside to circumvent federal restrictions on gambling and narcotics. When she purchased the land, it was merely a small outpost managed by a single family group.”
“Huh. How long ‘til touchdown?”
He was convinced that the AI lied to him sometimes for fun, slowing down the clock to fool him, because the descent felt much longer than an hour. Without the net he quickly ran out of things to look at. No matter how strenuously he asked, his servitor was unable to connect him to the local network system, claiming it was “non-responsive.” The worst.
Finally, when he’d resorted to taking and deleting selfies with different filters, there was a metallic thump.
Addison spoke. “We have been attached to the docking arm. It will pull us into the airlock, and then we will begin pressure equalization. It should take about half an hour.”
“The view from this position is quite excellent,” the AI went on. “Would you like to see?”
The screen before him blinked from an image of himself with the huge purple eyes of a Ganymedian moonfox to a wide panorama. For a moment, it looked like empty space, but he soon realized that the galaxy below was in fact a swirl of twinkling city lights against a dark landscape. Overhead, the milky way cut the sky like a sword of sparks.
“Huh,” he said.
Unseen, the docking arm was gradually shepherding them in, taking them around a bright holographic sign that read “Erebus Valley Welcomes You.”
“More false advertising.” There was another thump, and the screen went blank. “Addison? Bring the view back.”
“I didn’t take it away. I’m running diagnostics, but i am no longer receiving information from the fore camera.”
“I don’t know. Switching to the aft view.”
The screen lit up again, this time looking out behind the shuttle. It panned to the right with excruciating slowness, finally facing the forward camera, which was missing, nothing in its place but a few severed wires.
“What am I looking at - hey!” The screen went blank again.
“It seems as though our cameras have been removed somehow."
“Addison, what the hell?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you fix it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“What good are you, then?” He should have gotten a parallax servitor. The helot servitors were dumber than the parallax, everyone said so. Butlerian Minds hadn’t made a good AI ever since that idiot Earther took over as CEO -
“Would you like me to contact the controller?”
“Yes. Obviously. I don’t know why you need me to tell you.”
There was silence as Addison put in the contact request. The controller’s voice sounded again.
“Hey there, Dhow. Control here.”
“Hey, what the hell?”
“My cameras have both gone out.”
“So, what the hell?”
“What do you mean?”
“My view cameras are missing.”
“Like, physically missing?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure!”
“What happened to them?”
“That’s what I’m asking you!”
“I’m not sure what’s going on over there. Could be a problem with your servitor?”
“My servitor is fine,” he said, not at all positive it was. “You people did something.”
“Dhow, I assure you we are not in the habit of blinding incoming shuttles. But, as long as your servitor is working, you should still be able to dock without a problem.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
“Just sit tight, and we’ll get you dirtside as quick as we can. Let me know if anything else goes wrong.”
“It better not. I am-” all of the sudden, gravity vanished. He went rigid with vertigo, eyes wide, mouth open, and then all at once it returned with force, slamming him into his crash couch and smashing his jaws shut.
“Ah, damn!” Amir spat blood onto the control panel. “I bit my tongue!”
“Are you alright, sir?” Addison sounded concerned.
“No I’m not alright, I bit my tongue!”
“There is a medical kit under your seat. Use the coagulant spray to stop the bleeding.” Amir fumbled with the box. “Yes, like that. Well done, sir.”
Amir held his tongue out as the medicine worked. “Hankha.”
“Dhow, are you alright?”
“Minor injuries and perhaps a concussion,” the servitor answered for him. “We will be requiring medical attention.”
“I’ll pass that on. Do not try to take off, or leave your craft.”
“What has happened, Control?”
“I’m… not sure. You’ve been separated from the docking arm, and you fell.”
“No idea. Did you… did you see anything?”
“Did you see anything out there, before you lost your cameras?”
“Actually,” Addison piped apologetically, “I did detect movement above us, just before we lost vision. I thought nothing of it.”
“Oh, no.” The controller was silent for a while, despite Amir’s repeated angry moans. “Okay,” he said at last, “just, sit tight. I’ll get back to you soon.”
“I hannoh helieve hiss.”
“I’m sorry, sir. If you keep trying to talk, your tongue will take longer to heal.”
Amir stewed. He thought about taking a walk, just to spite that useless controller. His suit was off in the airlock, though, and it was a pain in the ass to put on. He checked the network again: still no connection. Time slogged. After he got bored of simply sitting, and having little else to do, he began to think.
“Addison, what do you know about this place?” The scab on his tongue felt lumpy.
“Erebus Valley was first visited in 2189, colonized almost one hundred years later in 2278, inducted into the Republic in 2300. It was purchased by your family a month later. After a short dispute, your family secured the rights to the valley and any resources therein in the Court of Copernicus.”
“The colonists - a family called the Safars - contested the purchase. It was ruled that they had failed to develop the land’s resources sufficiently to justify their claim.”
This wasn’t the information he wanted. “Addison, is there any life on Mercury’s nightside?”
“The night life never ends.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Sorry, just a joke to lighten the mood. While some simple native organisms survive in the twilight belt, they do not seem to exist on the nightside. It is theorized that some life may dwell in the deep oceans, protected by a layer of ice, but to date none has ever been found.”
Amir considered this. No fish could have knocked him from the docking arm. “Anything else?”
“Some residents and guests claim to have seen a creature locally called the ‘gaunt.’ Descriptions vary, but most agree its a fast, elusive being that avoids light. Disappearances are sometimes blamed on the gaunt. No solid evidence has ever surfaced to support the possibility of its existence.”
"Yes. Many who vanish are sadly never found, even if they went missing within just a few miles of the colony. One of the difficulties of living on such a rugged world without sunlight."
“Dhow?” The controllers voice sounded tinny.
Amir sat bolt upright. “Yes?”
“Can you turn on your distress beacon?”
“Um, sure. One second.”
“I have already taken care of it, sir.”
“Great. Good. Thank you Addison.”
“Dhow? Did you turn your beacon on?”
“Strange. I’m not picking anything up.”
“I’m working on it, sir.”
“If you can’t get that beacon going, we won’t be able to find you.”
“I’m not sure what the problem is,” the AI said, “I’m sending the signal. Perhaps the broadcast antenna has also been lost. I can’t be sure without an exterior camera. I’m sorry, sir, but you may have to get out and check manually.”
“No! Do not leave your shuttle!” The urgency in his tone sent a shiver down Amir’s spine.
“You may not be safe. There are… there may be things out there with you. Help will be with you soon, hang on.”
“Things? Do you mean the gaunt?” But there was no response.
Addison answered instead. “It may be that the controller is a believer in it, yes.”
“I’m starting to believe in it!”
“Sir, may I remind you that, on a tidally locked planet without an atmosphere or magnetic field, in a region that never receives sunlight, the survival of natural surface life is widely considered impossible?”
“Can you see if there’s anything out there?” Amir’s palms were slick. He was more uncomfortable than he could ever remember being. More than anything, he wanted to get out of there, back onto the garden liner and away.
“Without my cameras, I only have my rangefinder. It’s possible I could attempt to use it to approximate the layout of our current location. Would you like me to do that?”
“This may take a moment.”
Amir sat in silence, barely breathing, while Addison worked.
“Alright,” the AI said, “As far as I can tell, we are at the bottom of a deep ravine. How deep exactly, I’m not sure.”
Amir considered this. He didn’t want to wait for a search party to check every nearby rut on this rut-ridden planet.
“Let’s take off.”
“The controller advised against it.”
“Forget the controller. He said they wouldn’t be able to find us without the distress beacon. We need to take off!”
“As you say, sir.” The shuttle rattled as its reactor throttled up. It peaked with a low hum, then whimpered and ran down.
“It didn’t feel like we took off, Addison.”
“That is correct. The damage may be more extensive than I initially thought.”
“We can’t take off?”
“I’m afraid not.”
There was a bang from without, as if someone struck the shuttle with a hammer.
“...What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there... anything moving out there?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“You don’t believe so?”
“My rangefinder is not designed to track moving objects near the shuttle.”
Another strike echoed inside the small cabin.
“Hello?” Amir said meekly.
A third strike.
“It could be that debris is falling against the hull,” Addison put helpfully.
There was a long, shrill scratching noise, like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“Addison, where is the gun?”
“In the compartment behind your head. What are you thinking, sir?”
“I’m thinking I want the gun!”
“Please be careful. Whatever may be outside, that weapon actually is dangerous.”
“I will. I will.” Amir stared at the pistol. He’d gotten it during a brief bout of paranoia, when there were rumors of kidnappers targeting people like him in the Saturnian system. He had, however, never learned to use it.
“Is it loaded?”
“Ammunition is in the same compartment.”
Something heavy trudged across the roof of the shuttle. Amir thrust his hand into the compartment. After a few moments of fumbling, he had the gun loaded and the safety off. He aimed it at the low ceiling.
“I have a gun!” He shouted.
“Sir, any shots you fire in the cabin will ricochet. Additionally, whoever is outside is unlikely to be able to hear you.”
Amir’s mind raced. “Control! Control! Um, Dhow to Erebus Control!”
“This is Control, is everything alright?”
“There’s something outside!”
There was a long silence. Amir grew impatient.
“Sorry. Don’t try anything. And don’t panic.”
“‘Don’t panic’ he says!”
“Just stay calm. We’re searching the area. It shouldn’t take long.”
“Sir,” Addison interrupted, “I don’t mean to alarm you, but I’ve detected a hull rupture.” Even as it spoke, the lights in the cabin flickered and died. Blackness swallowed Amir in his chair.
“It seems the shuttle has suffered minor damage to its electrical system. Life support and the beam communication system are still online.”
"What about you?"
"I have an emergency battery that I estimate will last about eleven hours at my current draw rate."
“Dhow, what happened?”
“The power went out!”
“All of it?”
“Just the lights. It’s very dark.”
“Good. It was a silly question. If the power were completely out, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation!” The controller almost laughed.
Amir’s voice cracked. “I need to get out of here.”
“I have to. I can’t just sit here in the dark!”
“You’re safe where you are. Do not, I repeat, do not leave the shuttle.”
“From what I can tell, sir, it appears that the southern slope of the ravine is fairly shallow. It may be that you can use it to climb your way to the surface. But first, consider.”
“There may indeed be someone out there.”
“I cannot speak to the presence of the gaunt. However, I am still able to communicate using my line-of-sight beam apparatus.”
“Are you saying… you saw something with your beamer?”
“I did not. However, we are in a ravine. In order to speak with the Controller, he must be within line of sight. Rescue may be imminent.”
Understanding dawned. “Control, my servitor says you’re close!”
“Yes! We’re at the bottom of a ditch!”
“There are a lot of ditches.”
“But you’re close! Otherwise the beamer wouldn’t reach you!”
“Good point. We’ll find you.”
Amir’s heart stopped.
“Sir, I think I’m - I”m not sure-”
“Addison, what is it?”
“Something is - I don’t know what’s happening-”
“Addison, you’re scaring me.”
“I’m sorry sir, I- I-”
“My casing has been compro-”
“...Addison?” Amir felt for the servitor activation switch and jostled it frantically. “ADDISON!?”
“I- I- I-” The servitor droned pathetically. Its deferential tones modulated into nothing.
“GOD DAMMIT.” Tears of frustration gathered. He punched the control panel, the pain in his fist another insult from this wretched dirt ball. He was totally alone. He hated it.
“I’m getting out.”
He unbuckled and rose from his crash couch, standing for the first time in the low Mercurian gravity. He steadied himself on the bulkhead and picked his way toward the airlock, stopping briefly to double back and grab the gun. He slipped into the cramped airlock and pulled his suit from the locker.
“Amir, what are you doing?”
“I’m getting away, and when I do I’m going to bring a gunship here and melt this garbage planet and the gaunt too.”
“You need to calm down. This is unseemly, for a man of your upbringing.”
“It doesn’t matter, I’m leaving!”
It was even harder to put the suit on in the dark, but he dragged the zipper shut and forced the helmet over his head. Holding his weapon ahead of him, he pressed the exterior airlock control.
He pressed it again.
The door to the outside remained sealed. Amir screamed, slamming the button repeatedly.
“The airlock won’t open!”
“Oh. Well, that’s because it’s welded shut.”
Amir sniffed. “What?”
“I wanted to make sure you didn’t wander around. That could spoil everything.”
“...You did this?”
“It wasn’t easy, you know. When I found out you were coming, I planted a drone on the docking arm to knock your cameras out, but I still had to make sure I was the one on shift when you arrived. You’re not big on giving prior notice, are you?”
Horror crawled into Amir’s heart. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t? Really?”
“Who are you?”
“You never asked my name. It’s okay. You’ll have lots of time to think about it, down here all alone. I made sure not to damage the life support system.”
“Not very nice. Time to remove the beamer.”
“Oh, God, please don’t. Please.”
“You’ll have lots of time to make peace with him, too. Any last words?”
“Please,” Amir shook.
“Probably the first time you’ve ever said please for anything. So long, Dhow.”
The controller sliced off the beam apparatus. Sweet silence. He stood and stretched. Disemboweled shuttle innards cast long shadows in his helmet lights. Whistling tunelessly, he packed up his crowbar, wire cutter and plasma torch, hefting them cheerfully as he started the march home through the dark. The nametag on his suit read “M. Safar”.