Monday, September 5, 2016

Darkness, My Friend

          Blindness is not usually a trait that saves your life.

          Unique situations happen, though, especially out here on the edge of known space. Even a so-called disability can become an asset. That’s going on my résumé, by the way.

           Sure, sometimes, being blind can endanger your life. It makes life a regular parade of nuisances, most days. At best, being blind gains you a little attention and patience from people who would otherwise walk right by… but that benefit is countered by the number of people who walk by even faster, irritated or even disturbed by your handicap. I suspect most sentients get tired of adjusting to my perspective. I know they get tired of adjusting the shared environment to accommodate my needs.

           Well, those needs saved my life. And not sharing my disability cost my colleagues their lives. So I’m doing my best not to feel superior, for a change.

           Those colleagues were all dock workers aboard the KelVaTinLi, cheap labor scooped up by the siliceous
Zig to work their station freight. We were skilled wage slaves willing and able to handle the hazardous cargoes even the lowest-caste Zig can’t safely touch. I’m a firmware engineer, but I had to sell my services at a discount thanks to the accident that torched my retinas. I was saving up for synthorganic or maybe cybernetic replacements. After this incident, I may rethink those plans.

           KelVaTinLi orbits a blue dwarf at the edge of Zig territory, which means it sits at the rim of their slice of the galactic pie. Cargoes come in from neighboring systems, some of which have only tenuous membership in this galaxy. At least one trading partner, the Cuttle, barely participates in the same dimensional frame as the rest of us. That’s where this winding tale starts.

           ‘Cuttle’ is a Terran name, the one we Humans use, at least on KelVaTinLi. I’m sure there’s a more dignified label for them catalogued back home in Terran space. They’re officially called ‘Species-Culture Tuch’ by the Zig, with typical lack of imagination. But the Cuttle have big triangular heads with black ball eyes on either side and long, thin-limbed bodies. Like cuttlefish. So, Cuttle.

           I have all this description on hearsay, of course. All I know is that the Cuttle smell sort of like grapes and talk like a migraine, and their cargo is so ionized you have to handle it while wearing a grounding wire. Their freight is a special sort of problem for the loading lifts I program, because the whole lifting contact structure has to be isolated from the main circuits of the API… that’s Artificial Pseudo-Intelligence, if you’re not caught up on the latest acronyms.

           Doing tricks like that isolation is one of the reasons the Zig keep me on payroll. Fixing the loaders on the fly, when my tricks don’t work right, is the reason they keep me close to the action when Cuttle cargo is being moved. So that’s why I was right there, in Cargo Bay Hek, when one of the damn stasis crates worked loose from its clamp and tumbled to the deck.

           After the crash and clatter, lots of curses went up, including mine. I didn’t need to see the mess to know something was broken. Nobody panicked, though, not at first. Even the ones who could see the crate didn’t know how badly it was damaged.
           The Cuttle generally know what they’re doing, but either this crate was faulty or else we’d discovered a hidden flaw in its design. Either way, that drop damaged the stasis controls. The contents of the crate were dropped from an artificially slowed time-frame into our normal time stream.
           And those contents were angry. Or hungry. Or both.

           I was busy listening to diagnostics, so I didn’t hear the exchange down on the lower deck. What I assume was that the brute lifters -- Hervé, Jumah, and Wilhelm -- approached the crate to right and reload it onto the lifter. Our shift supervisor, a female
Hrotata named Shorullt, was probably checking the video feed to see if the lift operator, Michael, did anything obviously wrong.

           Now, I don’t mind Shorullt. For a conniving, supercilious little mink, she’s at least competent and fair in her assessments. Don’t think that’s an insult. Hrotata literally look like a mix between a seal and a mink, and their culture and politics are so convoluted that ‘conniving’ is a survival skill. Their females have a natural superiority complex, even toward one another, much less their own males, and doubly so toward alien males like the dock crew. As an alien female, I’m spared only half of her scorn. My blindness hardly registers in her eyes (ha ha) compared to my other flaws.

           That said, she didn’t deserve what happened. Nobody deserves that.

           I heard a pop of decompression, followed by my inner ape screaming OH SHIT. I dropped to the floor, pressing the textured rubber mat into my cheek. I assumed there had been an explosion of pressurized gases. I thought I was dodging shrapnel.

           Turns out, I was already protected from the worst.

           The next thing I sensed was a wave of electromagnetic disturbance, something like the ripple you get off a Cuttle crate if you walk too close. It makes your body hair stand up and your nerves tingle. Except this blast was twice as strong and many times bigger, washing over us like… well, like an ionic wind.

           After that, everyone else started screaming. Again, at first, I thought they’d been hit: by flying debris, by radiation, maybe just by an energy source. But I hadn’t heard any crash or ricochet like physical objects smashing around. I wasn’t hurting, myself, so it wasn’t hard radiation… maybe. Even if it was, it’d have to be a high dose to hurt anyone right away. I hadn’t felt any heat or direct current, either. What was I shielded from, such that it injured everyone else -- even Shorullt up on the opposite riser -- without touching me at all?

           I was thinking along the wrong lines. I wasn’t protected by any physical barrier, unless you count the gap in transduction from my lenses to my optic nerve. Everyone else saw something.

           I’m not sure whether they saw something so horrible that the sight damaged their minds, or something so intense or untranslatable that it damaged their brains. Given their actions afterward, I suspect the stimulus was more like a jamming signal, overloading their sensory apparatus with sights no Human, Hrotata, or Zig was meant to see.

           I didn’t. I couldn’t. I don’t know if my lack of sight did anything more against that assault than just closing your eyes might, but I didn’t need any reflex. Plus, if I could have looked, I might have been tempted to take another peek… which would have been fatal. It kept firing off its pulse, over and over. You can look for yourself, in the security recordings. It’s like an anti-Gorgon, sending sapients into mindless seizures rather than paralyzing them.

           Gorgon. It’s a mythical Terran monster. Its gaze turns victims to stone. Forget it; too much explanation required.

           Anyway, besides screaming, my co-workers were also thrashing around. I could hear them smacking into obstacles, control panels, and each other. In her spasms, Shorullt triggered several commands through her control panel. I heard the loader start moving, then collide with something organic. Don’t tell me who; I really don’t want to know.

           The loader’s movement spurred me to action, though, in a way the other sounds couldn’t. I could do something about that threat. I jumped to override the improper commands and disabled the loader. My action didn’t stop the chaos in the loading dock, though. At best, I reduced the disorder slightly.

           The creature, meanwhile, was producing more entropy on its own.

           I know it attacked Jumah next, because his wails of pain and terror momentarily coalesced into intelligible words: “It’s got me! Help, someone help!” Then, there was another wash of electrical potentials and a sizzling noise. Jumah went quiet.

           The other screams died down to whimpers at that point, overlaid by the thump and whoosh of multiple people running. I couldn’t tell which of the other two lifters, Hervé or Wilhelm, was the sole survivor below. Given a quiet room and a calm moment, I might be able to tell their gaits apart. The conditions weren’t ideal for that trick.

           There were plenty of competing noises. I heard the click and hiss of Shorullt moving, her long, low body propelled by short, churning legs. Multiple booted feet were hauling their babbling, crying owners in various directions: Michael and Lorna and Li Min. Impacts against heavy plastic and metal objects indicated that either victims or attacker were knocking over storage crates in their haste.

           I was mostly concerned whether anyone -- or anything -- was moving in my direction. It didn’t sound like that was the case. As a result, I froze.

           I probably wasn’t any less afraid than anyone else on that dock. But I was rationally afraid. I wasn’t mentally scrambled by whatever hit everyone else. Holding still, staying out of the way, and not joining the melee made sense at the time. If I misjudged, I might have made myself an easy, stationary target.

           In hindsight, both fears were valid. The creature did pursue whatever moved, first. There were several more bursts and crackles. Some of the running noises ended after each. Afterward, though, the thing started to come after the victims who chose to hold still and spasm in place.

           I could hear Shorullt screaming from her station: “What is it? Help us! Great Lady protect me!” I couldn’t tell who she was talking to, except for the obvious prayer to some Hrotata deity. I wondered if she was on comms calling for help, but I doubted it. Like everyone else except me, she seemed to have lost the sense to take proper protective measures.

           I was the one who signaled Security. With some doubts about my own sanity, I also triggered the inner locks on the deck’s access doors. Whatever was in there with us wasn’t going to get out unless someone let it out. I suppose if it was intelligent enough to hack the doors or persuade one of the crew to unlock them, it might have bypassed my defense measures. But it didn’t seem likely that anyone else was in any shape to open a door.

           Nobody seemed to be trying to escape through the actual exit doors. They were just running around, hitting the edges of the dock area, then getting caught and… I’m not sure. Flash-fried? Disintegrated? Bent around the edges of another dimension? I’m really hoping for some answers, after we’re done here.

           I suspect even you, official inquirers, don’t know what got loose down there. I doubt the Cuttle properly registered what they were transporting. It’s not even clear whether they fully understand our registration protocols. They might consider whatever-it-was a cuddly household pet. Or a form of entertainment. Or a kitchen appliance. Who knows?

           What I know is that it is fatal to Humans and other forms of sapient, carbon-based life.

           After about a minute -- two hectads, if you prefer -- the running had mostly stopped but the attacks had not. My verbal feedback from the deck sensors indicated three live, respirating, stationary lifeforms and one energetic, mobile anomaly. Then there were two, plus one.

           Holding still was not going to preserve my life. I had to get to the door. But I was still too terrified to move.

           My computer reported that the anomaly was moving again. It was moving toward the opposite side of the room, toward the other remaining lifeform. I had a chance.

           It’s possible I condemned Shorullt to die. She might have managed to escape if I hadn’t saved myself. But I doubt it. Nobody seemed to be in their right minds; no one except me. I doubt Shorullt could have managed the clarity of mind to reach the opposite door and issue the proper commands to open it… even with the lights still on. I certainly hope not.

           Otherwise, I’d hate myself forever for turning out the lights.

           It was an easy command to issue: Disable all illumination. Lights off. My strategy might not have accomplished anything; the predator might not be using the same visible spectrum we… you other sapients employ. But I had to try. I had already seen how fast the thing could move. Unless I slowed it down somehow, it could finish off Shorullt and run me down before I even reached the exit.

           And, as you’ve likely realized by now, I didn’t need the lights to find my way out.

           After several standard weeks working the same standardized dock layout, I knew the placement of every step, every walkway, every guide rail and every walkway. I even knew where the charging outlets were. Making my way to the exit was simple. I could do it running. I literally did.

           Once the lights were out, I bolted as fast as I dared toward the far door. I could hear crackling sparks behind me, accompanied by Shorullt’s dying gasp. Then came footsteps: the sizzling taps I identified with the entity’s movement. It sounded like it was far behind me. It also sounded like it was moving slowly: slower than it had before. I’d like to think I bought some time with my maneuver.

           Or maybe, it wasn’t sure what to do with me. I wasn’t screaming and flailing and panicking like its other prey. Maybe it was confused by the ineffectiveness of its usual trick, like an angler fish seeing a blindfish ignore its brilliant lure.

           Blind fish or blind woman, I wasn’t ignoring my potential death. I was getting away as quickly as I could manage. Hearing my footfalls echo against the approaching door, I shouted: “Door override: Hek Tuch Vi Ti Lo, Elizabeth Kern.”

           Hearing my override code, the security computer opened the exit door, just long enough for me to race through. I managed to breathe out, “Close!” and it sealed shut as quickly as super-magnets could drag the door panels together.

           I heard the thing smack up against those bulkhead doors with a crackle of frustrated charge. My continued existence is the evidence that it couldn’t find a way through.

           I mean, those doors can withstand vacuum and a huge range of temperatures, not to mention blocking most forms of radiation. But I didn’t know what that creature was. I was only betting that it couldn’t get out. I didn’t know what it was capable of. I still don’t. For all I know, it might have capabilities that standard physics doesn’t allow. What I do know is, it can’t cope well with darkness… or blindness.

           So, sometimes, the lack of an ability can be asset unto itself. I don’t know yet how well that discovery translates outside of this particular work environment… but I’m planning to find out.

           I wish you well catching the thing again. I’d suggest contacting the Cuttle and asking how they got it into their stasis crate in the first place. It’s better if you make that call. I might say something undiplomatic. If absolutely necessary, I’ll stick around KelVaTinLi long enough to implement their solution, if my engineering expertise is needed.

           Remotely, that is. I won’t be going back there personally. While my lack of ability might be useful, you’ll have to replicate that trait for yourselves.

           Good luck!

[Thanks to Sonyja Lerulv Freyjadottir for reading and commentary assistance. -NL]