Aksel could see a smear, something just inside the vessel’s skin. He blinked, rubbed his eyes. It was still there.
“Query,” he asked. “What am I seeing?”
The voice responded, I cannot know what you are seeing. I can only know what you are looking at.
“All right,” he said. “What am I looking at?”
The voice did not respond. Why did the voice not respond? Surely it knew what he meant. And then he remembered.
“Query,” he said. “What am I looking at?”
The voice responded immediately, Bulkhead.
“No,” he said. “There’s something there, something more.”
The voice in his head responded, Interior of your faceplate.
“No,” he said. “Not that either.” He called on the vessel to remove his helmet, which it did by extruding a chrome claw from a bulkhead and plucking it deftly off his head. Why did it do that? he wondered. It could have done it just as easily by deploying a focused magnetic field. Was the vessel trying to unsettle him?
He looked again. The smear was still there, just in front of the bulkhead, a few inches away from it, over his head, perhaps a meter long, a half meter wide. He reached up and tried to touch it, but, strapped down as he was, couldn’t reach.“Query,” he repeated. “What am I looking at?”
Bulkhead, the voice insisted.
“No,” he said. “Between myself and the bulkhead.” For a long time the voice said nothing. Had he gotten the form wrong? He didn’t need to say query again, did he? But then, finally, hesitantly, the voice spoke.
Are you looking at the object properly? Is your gaze centered upon it? If your gaze is not centered upon it, you are no longer looking at it, but merely remembering it.
He instructed the vessel to reposition his chair until the smear was centered in his vision. He focused his eyes on it. He held his gaze steady, unblinking.
“Query,” he repeated. “What am I looking at?”
Bulkhead, the voice said.
“No,” he replied, irritated. “In front of the bulkhead.”
There is nothing between your eyes and the bulkhead.
But it was there, he could see it. A smear, semitransparent but certainly present. He was sure he could see it. What was he seeing?
I can tell you what you are looking at, the voice said, unbidden, but not what you are seeing. Which made him wonder if the voice had burrowed deeper into his head than he had realized and could hear what he was thinking.
Apart from the vessel, apart from the voice, he had been alone for a very long time. He had been strapped into the vessel and then the vessel had been accelerated to an extraordinary rate, but very gradually, over the course of days, so as not to kill him.
The chair had been made so that he would never have to leave it until he left the vessel for good. The chair was now so integrated with his body that it was hard for him to remember where body stopped and chair began. When he awoke, he felt as if he didn’t have a body. It was a tremendous effort to move a digit, let alone a limb.
When he awoke, the vessel displayed on the inside of his faceplate a countdown of the months, days, minutes, and seconds before deceleration would begin.
Off, he whispered, and the vessel reduced the countdown to a red pixel.
Why was he awake? Was he meant to be awake? He was still groggy, still woozy. Maybe he wasn’t awake at all but only dreaming. He wasn’t meant to be awake in the vessel, ever.
Why am I awake? he whispered, and suddenly there were words in front of his eyes, as if the faceplate had been written on. It was the vessel, responding.
Unexpected failure in storage system, the words read.
What failure? he asked.
Storage system component 3/9aOxV.
Excuse me? he said. Upon which the vessel displayed a series of schematics that made no sense to him at all.
So he would remain unstored for the rest of the trip. Would he die? The vessel indicated he would not die: it would feed him intravenously through the chair, converting the molecules of extraneous portions of itself into nourishment. Would he waste away sitting in the chair? The vessel indicated no, that it would continue the stimulation of muscles and nerves that it had been conducting while he was in storage. Which meant that his body was constantly twitching, his muscles bunching and releasing, but that he was not the one doing it. It was being done to him.
He asked the vessel for a distraction. It opened a feed to his faceplate and showed him space around itself, mostly black, a few specks of light. He asked if it couldn’t provide music or some sort of teleplay, but as it turned out, no, it couldn’t. He was never meant to be awake—nobody was ever meant to be awake on the vessel. The vessel could show him space. The vessel could show him schematics.
Perhaps if he told it stories, he hoped, it could learn to tell them back.
Indeed, it did tell them back: verbatim each time. When instructed to construct its own stories, it offered a mishmash of what he’d already told it, but in a way that made little sense.
And so, instead, he regarded schematics, examined a representation of space on the inside of his faceplate, traced the curve of the bulkhead with his eyes. He slept, woke, slept. He never ate, but, fed intravenously, was never hungry. At least not at first. He watched his body grow lean, hardly an ounce of fat left. His suit draped loosely on him.
Are you sure I’m being fed enough to survive? he asked.
Technically speaking, the vessel responded, you are being fed enough to survive.
The voice manifested after several weeks of being awake, alone. At first, he sensed it more than heard it, had a strange inkling that something was there, speaking to him—or, rather, trying to speak to him. Was it the vessel? At first he thought, yes, it was the vessel. But they didn’t talk quite alike. And when he asked the vessel about the voice, it seemed baffled.
For some time—days, even weeks—he just listened. He taught himself to filter out the noise of the vessel around him and just wait, listen. It was as if the voice was there, slightly beyond a frequency he could hear, making his eardrums throb slightly but not in a way that conveyed sense. He spoke to it, tried to coax it to speak back until, suddenly, to his surprise, it did.
It had rules, formulae that must be followed, patterns of speech it seemed prone to respond to. He had stumbled onto them only slowly and gradually. It would not always tell him what he wanted to know. There was still much he didn’t know.
Vessel, he whispered, please replace my helmet.
The same chrome claw on a long pale arm plucked the helmet from the floor with surprising delicacy and pushed it back onto his head. When it was affixed, he looked again for the smear through the faceplate. It was still there, still visible. It didn’t matter what the voice claimed.
He asked the vessel about the smear.
There is nothing there, the voice said again, despite his not following discourse protocol. I already told you.
“I wasn’t speaking to you,” Aksel said. “I was speaking to the vessel.”
But the vessel did not respond. The faceplate in front of his eyes remained blank.
“Have you disabled my interface?” he asked.
There was no response, either from vessel or from voice.
“Query, have you disabled my interface?” he asked.
Query, the voice responded. What is an interface?
Interface, interface. What an odd word, he told himself. Intraface would mean inside the face, within the face, which made sense. But interface would mean between the face. What did that even mean: between the face?
“Query,” he began, but the voice immediately cut him off. Don’t ask, it said.
It had a tone now … did it have a tone? Had it had that mocking tone before? What was the voice? What did it have to do with him? Why was he willing to listen to it? Why hadn’t he panicked?
But no matter how he tried to work himself up he couldn’t bring himself to panic. Maybe the voice was doing that to him too.
His arm was little more than a stick wrapped in skin. Looking at it, it didn’t look like an arm that could possibly belong to him. In fact, the more he looked at it, the less it looked like an arm at all.
But when had he taken his suit off? Why was he looking at a bare arm at all? And why, if he wasn’t wearing his suit, was he wearing his helmet?
Or wait. Was he wearing his helmet?
His gaze slowly slid to the smear then slid away. If he looked at it out of the corner of his eye, it almost made sense, almost looked familiar. He tried to look at it and not look at it at the same time, but, like the voice had been at first, it felt like he could almost sense something but not quite. As if whatever it was was impinging on this world by accident, was only being seen because of an anomaly.
What if that anomaly is me? he wondered.
Or was that the voice wondering it?
Perhaps, if he got closer. Perhaps, if he regarded it from one side, at an oblique angle.
Vessel, he whispered, move the chair forward.
But the chair didn’t move. The vessel was paying him no heed. Perhaps, as with the smear, it no longer realized he was there.
He kept looking, kept staring. Part of him felt the smear was staring back. Watching him. Was it staring back? No. It was just a smear, a smear couldn’t stare.
If he could only get closer, move a little nearer, then he’d see it clearly, he was sure. Almost sure.
Time went by. Years maybe, or what felt like years. When he regarded his arm again, it still didn’t look like an arm. When he lifted the claw on the end of it and touched the release and kept pushing until the belts restraining him actually parted, it looked even less like an arm.
It took immense effort to free himself from the chair. And more effort still to crawl across the deck. Still more to turn and look upward, to regard the smear.
Was it still there? Yes, it was still there, but differently distended from this angle. It was, almost, a face. It was, almost, a human face. He crawled a little closer, looked up again. Still smeared, still distorted, but anamorphically transformed. Yes, a face. Maybe. He crawled until his head was touching the skin of the bulkhead and then looked up again. Yes, a face, a face very much like his own—his own face in fact. He stared into it, filled with wonder.
After a moment the face smiled, tightly, in a way that bared its teeth.
Or would have bared them if what was inside the mouth was teeth.
They scanned the small craft. Nothing harmful detected, no extraordinary presences, nothing to give pause. Out of caution they kept the craft quarantined, alone at its dock, for several weeks, before finally sending a team in.
The man was out of his chair, eyes wide open, staring up at the upper portion of the vessel’s bulkhead. He had been torn free of the chair and his legs were tangled with a snarl of tubes and wires, many of which were still attached to his body. A discolored spill of dried fluid spread in a trail behind him. His neck was bent impossibly upward, his body desiccated and bloodless.
“Where’s his suit?” asked one of the technicians.
The other shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said.
“What’s with his arm?”
“Arm?” said the other. “Is that what that is?”
It was contorted, and little more than bone. He reached out and pushed down on the arm with his boot. The body yawed to one side, hollow or nearly so. When he drew his boot back, the body rocked back and forth, slowly settling onto the floor.
He grunted. “What do we do with him?”
“Incinerate him,” said the other.
“And the craft?”
There was a long moment before the other responded. “No reason to destroy that,” he finally said. “We can salvage it.”
But he wasn’t looking at the other technician as he said it. Instead, he seemed to be looking at a spot high up the bulkhead, near the curve where wall became ceiling. He took a step forward and reached his hand out through the air, as if to touch something. Then he drew back and stared at his gloved hand.
“What is it?” asked the other.
“Nothing,” he said, confused. “I thought I saw something. My … faceplate must be dirty.”
The other nodded. He started for the air lock. When he realized the first wasn’t following, he stopped, looked back.
“Coming?” he asked.
“Just a moment,” said the first. He had pulled one arm from its sleeve and back into his suit and now had it pressed between the suit and his chest. He worked the fingers up past where the suit joined the helmet, trying to rub at the faceplate from the inside.
“Come on,” the other pressed.
“You go ahead,” the first managed to say. “I’ll follow you out in just a moment.”
All alone, he just stood there, hand caught between his throat and the rim of the helmet, waiting. He had seen something, he was sure. Or almost. A swath, a fluttering, something almost visible.
What was it? He wondered.
Or not quite that: Query: what was it? he wondered. Yes, that was what the thought had been. What a strange way to think.
He wriggled his fingers, swallowed.