The ship’s computer chirped helpfully, rousing the man. Jarvis gave himself a shake and then pulled out of the seat. After giving his suit another quick glance, he took a tired step towards the airlock.
“One Moment, Please,” the computer declared.
Jarvis heaved a sigh and licked his lips anxiously. He shifted his weight from foot-to-foot, waiting for the door to finish unlocking.
“Waste of time,” the young man murmured. He should have been halfway home by now. It was outrageous the way the company acted at times. He had just completed a nine-week colony inspection, with unrivalled precision, he might add. The report had been submitted in record time and, in his humble opinion, had more than earned the promotion that had been dangling in front of him for the past two seasons.
Instead, after only two weeks in cryo-sleep, Jarvis Eames had been awoken to find a message from the head-office.
It has come to our attention, the message read, that the mining plant SG-783**-*LT, commonly known as “Adams”, has reached minimum yield. The company is incredibly concerned by this development and demand an immediate investigation. Given your current location, we have decided that you are best suited for this task. The co-ordinates have already been logged into your ship’s computer. We expect your report as soon as possible.
The locks hissed as the door finally decompressed and, with a red light flashing in the ceiling, it swung open. Jarvis stepped off the ship, grateful at least for a change of surroundings. Though the relief was minimal at best. The Atmos-Sphere used the exact same oxygen recycler as found on his ship. As such, the stale and fetid air surrounding him was no different to that found onboard. What was different, however, was the view. Gone was the turgid, often-boring view of space. And, in its place, was the rolling horizon of a new world. Jarvis walked the small distance to the hangar’s perimeter.
Despite knowing the artificial field would prevent him from falling, Jarvis couldn’t help feeling nervous as he approached the edge. During his approach, he had briefly skimmed the file attached to his orders. In it was all the information he needed to know about this planet.
This was a dead world. That was the first thing the file said. It had been discovered by scouts nearly fifteen years ago and, at first, had been overlooked. Back in those days, Cruemann Haines had been focusing on worlds ripe for colonisation, and this world did not fit the ideals at all. Everything about this planet was dangerous. Ninety-seven percent of the world was covered in an ocean, irradiated beyond recovery, its noxious fumes poisoning the air. What little landmass there was had been discovered to be calcified, and resistant to any forms of terraforming. The planet had been choked of life, created this way, presumably, by artificial means. Though there had been no way of discovering if this were true or not.
Upon reading, Jarvis had found it hard to imagine. Now he was face-to-face with the reality. The silence hit him most of all. The world, dead down to its very core, was devoid of all sound. That, coupled with the eerie stillness of the ocean, made Jarvis think more and more that he was looking at a simple, haunting picture. The image made his eyes water. Its vacuous quietude pummelled at his ears. His skin prickled from its strangeness.
His tongue dashed across his dry lips as he shook himself awake. He needed to get going. The miners would already be aware of his arrival. If they were to see him just standing absently on the edge, what sort of impression would that make? Silently cursing the name of the company, Jarvis turned away from the alien vista, glancing instead at the comforting, man-made monolith.
A defensive, box-shaped layer of weathered-grey metal shielded the real station from the radioactive atmosphere. Beneath, though, Jarvis knew there was an ants’ nest of corridors and chambers, all leading down to the refinery, the thriving heart of the rig. He glanced up at the chimney stacks jutting out of the roof. If the station had been operating as hoped, they would have been coughing out a steady stream of unprofitable fumes. Now he could barely make out the smoke trickling upwards.
Adjusting his tie, Jarvis stepped up to the station’s entrance. Scored into the thick glass was the company’s logo. It was a relatively simple design; it was a plain, old-fashioned rocket in mid-flight. The trail of its exhaust curled up into the C, whilst the ship flew through two vertical lines, completing the H. Jarvis wondered how many weeks it had taken to come up with that.
The doors slid up with an echoing hiss, and Jarvis wasted no time in stepping inside. The doors quickly swept back down behind him. He took in the dingy lobby with a sneer. It was hardly fitting for a mining station, especially one sat in the heart of a Class Two zone. Three lumpy grey chairs lined the wall to the right, with a rusty-looking vending machine nestled in the corner. Directly ahead of him, sat beside the entrance to the next room, was a curved desk. This was where, on another station, a security guard or receptionist would be sat. But, given where he was, Jarvis wasn’t surprised to see the only occupant of the desk was a thick layer of dust. The room wasn’t completely neglected, however. He noticed a smattering of debris left by the station’s operators. Empty cans of soda chucked into the corners of the room, Gill-Weed packets stuffed down the sides of the chairs, and someone had decided to place a hologram unit beside the reception desk. It was currently projecting the flickering image of a potted plant. Jarvis rolled his eyes at this sight. Other than these minor pieces of rubbish, the room was much like the world outside. Jarvis shifted uncomfortably as he became aware of the silence beginning to seep through the walls. He couldn’t count the number of hours he’d spent in rooms like this one, identical in every way. To see one so empty and quiet was unnatural to him, and sent a shiver down his back.
His tongue once more darted across his lips, a tic he’d had since childhood. The spell was broken as his eyes caught a shape through the doors. It was vaguely man-shaped, obscured by the grimy glass. It was standing a few feet from the doors, still and waiting. Jarvis stared for a moment, then stepped towards the desk. A computer screen flared into life as he laid a hand on its surface. He typed in his personal ID code, and then laid a thumb where commanded.
He wasn’t surprised to see his was the only name logged in the register since the season began. Who in their right mind would want to visit this Hell-hole? The door beside the desk clicked and then swept to the side, revealing a long corridor. The lingering shape behind was revealed to be a man in his early sixties. His back was stooped slightly, and his hands were folded in front of his chest. He wore a raggedy cardigan, corduroy trousers and a pair of buckled slippers. Jarvis had to fight back the surprise as he stared at a spitting-image of his great-uncle. The man had been dead for eight years, and yet here he was. Every detail accurate, even down to the odd liver-spot on his left nostril. The effect was slightly spoilt by the fact the right side of his face kept flickering in and out of focus. Jarvis frowned at this.
“Good morning, Mr. Eames,” the copy of his great-uncle said. “My name is Albert, and I would like to welcome you to Mining station Adams.”
Jarvis looked the apparition up and down. “That will be enough, Albert,” he declared. “I have Level Magenta clearance, and request you remove the psychic cloak.”
Albert stared blankly at Jarvis for a moment, one side of his kindly smile blurring slightly. Finally, the image dissolved, revealing the true face of Albert. It was commonly known as a ‘Nanny Droid’. These machines were stationed at each mine, charged with overseeing the wellbeing of the mines’ operators. These androids, unlike their human charges, would never suffer from cabin-fever, or feel the effects of their solitude. Projecting an image of a loved one was just an example of its many techniques for calming the workers. Its real appearance was that of a spindly-framed, barrel-chested automaton. It flexed its four pencil-thin fingers, and a soft crackling emanated from its chest. Its head was beak-shaped, a circular speaker where a normal mouth would be. Two eyes, shaped like opals and sized like peaches, stared at the inspector. One of its eyes was brightly lit, but the other was dim and fading in and out. Jarvis was concerned to see the reason for this was a large fracture running along the right-hand side of the robot’s head. Frayed ends of wires were sprouting from its cracked cranium, and its head twitched erratically.
“I apologise, Mr. Eames,” Albert said, its voice sounding tinny without the holographic image. “Does this image suit you better?”
“What happened to your head?” Jarvis asked, nodding towards the wound.
The head snapped to the left. “I hope that your stay at this station is both comfortable and enjoyable.”
“I asked you a question, Albert,” Jarvis snapped.
“I apologise, Mr Eames,” the machine answered. “Some of my audio-receiving functions have been compromised due to an industrial accident.”
“Accident? What accident?”
The head snapped back to the centre. “I register an elevation in your heart rate,” Albert stated. “Might I enquire as to the cause of your stress?”
Jarvis snorted angrily. “You just told me there was an accident!”
“Correct. An accident has recently occurred, however there is no need for alarm. I was the only one to be damaged, and it was due to my own negligence. Further investigation has not been deemed necessary.”
“You are not authorised to make that decision,” Jarvis pointed out.
“The decision was not my own,” Albert stated, its right eye briefly flaring. “Site manager Dixon made the decision.”
It wasn’t his decision to make either, Jarvis thought. Even if there were no human casualties, an accident on site had to be reported. No one liked making those reports, but they had to be made, nonetheless. If he was only here because they got lazy, Jarvis was going to be furious.
“I see,” he said, gritting his teeth. “I guess I’d best get on with things then. Take me to Mr. Dixon.”
Albert bowed its head, sparks jumping from the exposed wires. “Please, follow this way.” The machine turned and began tottering down the corridor. Its metal feet clanged against the grilled floor. Heaving a sigh as he sensed the work ahead, Jarvis followed. “Why can’t we hear the drills?” he suddenly asked, aware that the tolling of his footfalls was the only sound.
“The drilling is taking place several hundred miles beneath the surface of the ocean,” Albert explained, approaching a thick metal door. “The work taking place within the central factory is mostly refining.”
“But surely we should still be able to hear some of it,” Jarvis asked. In his mind he should have been half-deafened by the roaring of the engines, and the thundering of the refinery. Instead, as the interior door opened, he was hit by a fresh wave of stillness.
“In order to ensure maximum comfort for workers during times of leisure,” Albert explained, sounding more like a company advertising campaign, “each of the individual workstations are soundproof.”
The young inspector considered this boast. It wasn’t a particularly large station, and the chambers were still relatively close together in this hive. The ability to soundproof would never be perfect. If the mine was working as expected, he still should have been hearing something.
“Including Mr. Dixon,” Jarvis said, following the android up a flight of stairs, “there are five engineers working here, correct?”
“You are quite right, Mr. Eames,” Albert stated.
“I will need to speak with all of them,” the inspector declared. “As soon as possible.”
“May I ask why?”
Jarvis scoffed loudly. “I’m sorry?” he spluttered. “You surely know why I’m here? The company would have sent word –”
“I’m afraid Mr. Dixon has recently become quite lax when it comes to checking messages,” Albert explained. “I can only apologise.”
Just what sort of operation was this man running here? Jarvis couldn’t help feeling his fists tighten and his left eye begin to twitch.
“I will endeavour to arrange a meeting as soon as possible,” the droid continued. “However, please prepare yourself for a wait.”
Jarvis was left in the high-ceilinged recreation room whilst Albert went to look for Dixon. The young man stood in the centre of the room, discomfort wrestling across his face. Several aged sofas had been scattered in the room, arranged to face a projection screen nailed to the far wall. The chances of watching anything, however, were nil. The display unit was sitting on the floor, dismantled down to its circuit board and with wires strewn everywhere. Someone had hoped to bypass the company block, Jarvis assumed. He smiled at this thought. He was surprised they waited this long to try and get those channels.
A ping-pong table, decorated with coffee and food stains, sat on the other side of the sofas, and a small kitchenette dominated the left side. But what gripped his attention, more than anything, was the large bay window in front of him. It washed the room in natural light, though Jarvis felt there was nothing natural about the view itself. That alien ocean spread as far as the eye could see and looked as solid as a meadow. “Where’s the breeze?” Jarvis murmured to himself. He shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, almost trying to encourage the ocean into its natural rocking motion.
“You appear to be distressed, Mr Eames.”
The inspector released a startled yelp, spinning around sharply. Albert stood in the doorway, its head snapping to the right. “I fear,” the droid continued, “that you have not recovered fully from your premature wakening.”
“I’m – I’m fine,” Jarvis stammered, fiddling with his tie, and once more feeling his tongue dart out between his lips. It was an act his great-aunt had always hated. “Do it one more time, Jarvy,” she used to yell, “and I’ll rip it out with some hot pliers!”
He shuddered at this memory and risked a quick glance at the vista behind. “Might I recommend a light refreshment?” Albert asked, already making its way towards the kitchen.
Jarvis slowly lowered himself onto the edge of one of the sofas. He was sat with the window to his left, the ocean with the green hue in the corner of his eye. “Just how can anyone relax in here with that for a view?” he spat.
“The workers, more often than not, were able to put it out of their minds,” Albert stated, carrying over a tray with a tall tumbler of amber liquid and a plate of oat crackers. “I always believed that a sea view had a calming effect.”
“Calming?” the young man laughed. “There’s nothing serene about a dead sea! Trillions of gallons of water, completely lifeless. It’s just . . . wrong.”
“Mr. Dixon did not believe so.”
“The site manager became quite convinced that this world is not as dead as reports suggested,” Albert explained. “The topic became quite an obsession with him.”
“Really?” Jarvis said, taking a sip from his glass. “What changed his mind?”
“We had a frank and open discussion,” the droid said, its head jumping from side-to-side. “I was able to alleviate some of his concerns.”
“Would you say that he’s up to the task of running this place?” Jarvis asked, glad to be shifting the topic of focus.
“I have no further concerns for Mr. Dixon, or any of the crew members.”
Well, Jarvis thought, I do.
“Did you let the crew know that I had arrived?”
“Your body requires more time to recover from the stasis,” Albert stated, returning slowly to the kitchenette. “Might I offer you a cabin for a few hours rest?”
Jarvis realised with an annoyed sigh that the droid was once again offering him its damaged side. He jumped up from his seat, threw a cursory glance at the ocean, and then approached the robot. “Albert,” he said, raising his voice.
The machine turned its head towards him, sparks jumping in greeting. “How may I be of service?”
“The crew?” Jarvis snapped. “Where are they? You said you were fetching them for me.”
“Of course,” Albert answered, bowing its head with a jerk. “There will be a wait, however. The crew is extremely busy.”
“Hardly,” Jarvis muttered. “Our last survey predicted that this station’s production should be making a seventeen percent increase by the end of the next season. Yet they are barely covering the minimum yield!”
The machine raised a hand, silencing Jarvis. “Your concerns have been noted, Mr. Eames,” it chirped. “Please do not allow your stress to overwhelm you. Your health is far more important than the company’s profits.”
“Tell that to the board of directors.”
“I, unfortunately, do not have the appropriate clearance for such an action.”
Sighing, Jarvis began rubbing his temples. “Albert,” he said. “Who is in charge of your maintenance?”
“I am able to resolve minor malfunctions alone,” Albert explained, refilling Jarvis’ glass. “But, for major damages, I am to report to Goldberg. She is responsible for my overall maintenance.”
“And she hasn’t fixed your head?”
“She is currently focused on other problems.”
So, there was an issue. “Take me to see the chief engineer, Albert. Now.”
“I’m afraid it may be difficult to reach him at this present moment –”
“Then take me to his office,” Jarvis ordered. Dixon couldn’t hide forever, he thought. The android remained where it stood, and for a moment Jarvis thought it was going to refuse.
“Of course,” it clicked. The machine then turned and marched out of the room.
The young inspector went to follow when he caught something in the corner of his eye. He quickly spun round, focusing on the window. There it was, he hadn’t imagined it. Miles away, almost hugging the horizon, was a dark shape, bobbing in the toxic water. That wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. There should have been nothing out that window except endless tracts of putrid oceans. Jarvis felt his tongue roll across his drying lips. No debris could have fallen off the station either. These things were built to be structurally sound for at least eighty seasons. So, what was it?
Jarvis took a step closer to the window, and then it was gone. One minute the black shape was rolling on the water, and the next it ducked beneath the surface. Without even realising it, Jarvis had been holding his breath. He let it go in a stuttering sigh and felt the sweat begin to prickle on his forehead. Maybe, if he gave it a moment, the thing would bob back up and he could –
“This way, Mr. Eames.”
Albert was standing in the doorway, waiting for the inspector to follow. “Of course,” Jarvis said, turning back to the window. “But did you just see –”
When he looked back, the android was gone.
Remember why you’re here, Jarvy. He shook his head, feeling the voice of his great aunt rattling around. Don’t get distracted.
But, unable to shake a growing nervousness, Jarvis strode out of the room.
The route to the site manager’s office was a winding labyrinth of stairs, darkened corridors and disused cabins. Jarvis obediently followed his metallic guide, listening to the rhythmic clunking of their footsteps against the grilled floor. Once or twice the young man paused, feeling a vibration rattle the flooring and causing the lightbulbs above to flicker on and off.
“Please be calm, Mr. Eames,” Albert cooed. “What you are feeling are simply the after-effects of the drills.”
“Ah,” Jarvis said, adjusting his tie. “That’s good then.”
Finally, after what felt like miles, Albert approached a rusty yellow door. “This is Mr. Dixon’s office,” it said, pressing against the button. “I apologise in advance for its state.”
The door rumbled open and the interior light automatically spluttered into life. Jarvis released an instinctive groan. Walter Dixon was not the sort of man to keep his office tidy. But, then again, it wasn’t much of an office. The metal desk took up most of the room, and what space remained had been given up to a large metal cabinet welded to the wall. The floor itself was littered in tools, paperwork and food packets. The desk chair had been upturned and was lying pitifully on its side.
“It looked like a bomb hit this place!” Jarvis exclaimed, taking a hesitant step inside, kicking aside a discarded wrench.
“Mr. Dixon had to leave in rather a hurry,” Albert explained. “He was not in a tranquil state of mind.”
How bad was this problem? The chief engineer left in such a hurry he tipped his chair over? The whole crew have been so occupied they couldn’t even fix their android? Well, hopefully one of them would materialise and brief him on the situation. Jarvis wanted to put off visiting the station’s bowels for as long as possible.
He felt his jaw strain as a yawn tried to escape. Albert’s head immediately snapped up.
“Mr. Eames,” it said. “I detect that the after-effects of your cryo-sleep are beginning to emerge. Might I recommend some rest?”
Jarvis waved the robot aside. “I have work to do,” he said, wiping his eyes. Albert wisely remained silent.
The young man bent down and picked up the abandoned chair. He dusted it down and then rolled it back into place. He looked up at the droid, waiting patiently in the doorway.
“Will I be able to access Dixon’s computer?”
“I don’t believe he was able to alter the settings,” Albert explained.
Jarvis nodded and then took the seat. He wiped away some of the crumbs from the desk, and then pulled the screen closer. It flared into life as his fingers brushed against the pad.
“I will leave you for now, Mr. Eames,” Albert announced.
The inspector nodded, stifling another yawn. He was both grateful and reluctant to see the robot troop away. He had never liked those machines. The way they always stared sent an odd creep up his back. But, in this desolate station, Jarvis was glad to have even an artificial life nearby. Now he was just left with the soft hum of the computer.
Chiding himself for these thoughts, Jarvis turned his attention to Dixon’s files. The man couldn’t be incompetent enough to neglect making regular station reports. It was the simplest aspect of his job. Even the most basic of readouts should be stored on his local drive.
As he scoured through the weekly reports, trying to pin-down just when the decline began, Jarvis felt his thoughts drift towards that object bobbing in the water. In this supposedly empty world, something had been adrift at sea. Could it have been debris from the station? Impossible, Jarvis thought. Any damage to the structure would automatically get reported to the company.
But they haven’t been making their reports, Jarvis reminded himself.
And the way it had ducked beneath the surface, almost as if it had known it was being watched. The young inspector was suddenly overwhelmed by regret. Why didn’t he get a closer look? Perhaps it was still out there. Maybe, when he returned to the lounge, he’d be able to get a closer look. Jarvis bit his lip. Would he want a closer look? But, hadn’t Dixon said something about this world? That it wasn’t as dead as reports suggested?
He realised that his eyes had been gradually growing itchy and his mouth was aching from the stifled yawns. The numbers and charts flashing onto the screen became a jumbled blur before him as his eyelids kept drifting shut. It didn’t take long for the struggle to become too much. Jarvis let his head topple forward and embraced the darkness as he was swallowed by sleep.
He was standing on a beach. It was still the dead world, he knew that. He could tell because of the vile yellow sky. But there was something different. There was a breeze. Jarvis smiled and closed his eyes, relishing the delicate brushes of the wind. When he opened his eyes and looked down, he saw that he had taken his shoes off. His trouser legs had been rolled up to his knees, and his toes were dug into the delicate sand. It was still silent, but he was okay with that. This was better, it was calming.
Despite the silence, Jarvis became aware that he was no longer alone. He looked over his shoulder and saw a figure standing at the top of a sandy dune. They were too far away for Jarvis to get a good look. But he could tell they were looking back. Not knowing what else to do, he raised a hand and gave a small wave.
The figure waved back, first with one arm, and then with both. Jarvis watched as the waving became more and more frantic. He wondered what was wrong. After all, they were the only two people there. He had to find out, that was his job after all. Perhaps they knew what was wrong with the station.
He went to turn around and climb up the dune, but his feet wouldn’t move. His head shot down and saw a shallow film of water covering his feet. The waves were finally rolling, lapping back and forth. But Jarvis couldn’t move. He looked again over his shoulder. That figure was still stood there, the arms a mere blur in the air. Jarvis felt the water rising steadily up his legs, washing over his knees. His breath scratched at his throat as the panic began to swell inside him. The ominous rumble of the encroaching waves was all he could hear, it even drowned out the thundering of his heartbeat.
He tried again and again to wrench his legs free, but they refused to move. Even when he bent down and tried to pull them by the trousers, they remained steadfast. The water was rapidly approaching his waist and his breathing was becoming more strained by the second. Jarvis turned back again, waving his arms frantically. But the stranger on the dune was gone. His teeth chattering from the water and the fear, Jarvis realised that he was alone. The ocean was at his chest now, quickly enveloping his arms.
He was alone on this dead planet and the water was rapidly consuming him. Jarvis opened his mouth to scream for help, but the words never had time to appear. A fresh wave surged forward, pouring foul water down his throat. Choking and spluttering, Jarvis threw his arms up, trying to grasp at something, anything. But all his fingers brushed was another wave as it crashed over his head, finally swallowing him.
And he woke with a strangled gasp.
Jarvis sat for several moments, waiting for his breath to steady and the sweat to prickle and dry across his body. He ran his tongue over his cracked lips and let his eyes grow accustomed to the gloom. With a sinking heart, he realised that he was no longer in the chief engineer’s office. Someone had deposited him in a private cabin, even taking the effort to swaddle him in a cot. The covers were coiled in a damp mess around his legs. An embarrassed groan escaped him as he discovered that he had been undressed.
Just what impression would that have made? What crew would ever take him seriously now? He freed his legs from the blanket and swung them out of the cot. The room’s lights brightened as his feet touched the floor. The first things Jarvis’ eyes fell upon was a holo-pic on the dresser. It showed a man, in his early thirties, and three children, all under fifteen. This room belonged to one of the crew then, Jarvis realised. He’d have to speak to them first. Try and explain away the pitiable state in which they must have found him.
Jarvis found his clothes neatly folded on top of a chair. Savouring the sound of the light’s humming, he tried to forget his dream and hastily dressed.
When he stepped out of the cabin and into the corridor, he was immersed again in the claustrophobic gloom. He first looked left, and then right. The problem was that all the corridors looked the same. Were they all designed to have that same flickering bulb in the centre? If he went left, it would take him to a rickety flight of stairs that led up. But if he went right, then he would find himself travelling further into the gloom. Jarvis began to feel his tongue run nervously across his lips, the voice of his great-aunt echoing through his head as he did so. He couldn’t count the number of times she would, after catching him, smack the back of his head with her palm. Once, when he was twelve, the ring on her middle finger had torn into his scalp. She claimed it served him right for having such an unsightly habit.
Eventually, biting down on his lip, Jarvis decided to climb. He gripped the rusted rail and winced as every footstep landed like thunder against the metal.
When he reached the top, he found the lighting to be even worse than below. Only one bulb seemed to have any life left, and even that was spluttering weakly overhead. With growing alarm, Jarvis began to realise that he could very well be lost wandering these dank corridors for hours. Loosening his collar, questioning whether it would have been wiser to stay in the cabin. At least then they’d know where to find him. But how long would he be stuck down there, waiting for them to finish their shift? He looked down one corridor, swallowed by the shadows. Then he looked to his left; barely two feet could be seen before the light vanished. With his tongue lashing furiously against his dried lips, Jarvis decided he would endure the wait back in the cabin. He turned to climb down when a sudden noise arrested him.
Chilled sweat erupted across his brow and his heart began to charge against his chest. Slowly, against all his instincts, he turned his head towards the left corridor. The darkness stared back, drawing him in. Then came that sound again.
It was a low, guttural hissing. It sounded to Jarvis like something sucking the air down its gravelly throat. Jarvis wanted to run, wanted to bolt down the stairs, but the terror rooted him to the spot. All he could do was stare into the gloom, hoping that whatever was waiting in the shadows stayed there. There was a thunk and a crack, almost as if something was shifting its weight on the grated floor.
The hissing and the thumping grew louder; a vicious symphony that made Jarvis clamp his eyes shut in a childish response to the terror. The rumbling and the tremors grew louder and louder until his teeth began to ache and his eyes began to sting from the water trying to squeeze between his lids.
Cold fingers suddenly squeezed around the man’s arm, holding him fast. The scream was caught in his throat as it seized up in horror. Every fibre of his body thought that this was the end, until –
His eyes burst open and the breath he had been holding came out in a pained gasp. Albert was holding him by the arm, its blank eyes staring directly into his own. The machine tightened its grip as Jarvis began to sag towards the floor, the strength flooding out of his legs.
“You seem most distressed,” Albert stated, lowering Jarvis slowly down. “Was your rest not sufficient?”
Jarvis glanced up at the droid, then back down the corridor. There was nothing there. Only the empty darkness. No, he thought. That’s wrong, has to be. There had been something, he had heard it. Had he seen it as well? Maybe. Had there been the vague shape nestling in the shadows? Even if there hadn’t been, he had definitely seen something in the water. That had been real.
“Are you quite well, Mr Eames?” Albert asked. “I detect an alarming spike in your heartbeat, and your breathing has become laboured.”
Something was still alive on this planet, and it had made its way onto this station. A cold dread washed over Jarvis as he realised what that meant. No wonder he hadn’t seen any of the crew. Whatever that thing was – whether it was just one or part of many – it had gotten onto the station and done away with the human workers. That would explain why the yield was so low; there was no one to maintain the refinery. Jarvis placed a hand on his chest, feeling the panicked tattoo being drummed against his rib cage.
But then what about Albert? His eyes rolled up to the impassive machine. Why hadn’t it said anything? If something happened to the crew the robot should have immediately reported it to the company. Look at the tear in its skull, he thought. It had been attacked as well! But why . . .?
His blood suddenly ran cold. What if it hadn’t been attacked?
How hard would it be for an advanced race, one that had survived the hostile environment outside, to take control of a simple automaton? The creatures couldn’t have infiltrated the station on their own. Had the crew discovered this treachery?
“Are you ill, Mr Eames?”
Jarvis certainly felt close to vomiting, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t be at the mercy of this android. Ignoring the turning of his stomach and the shortness of his breath, Jarvis forced himself to stand.
“I’m fine,” he murmured, trying to sound composed.
The droid continued to stare, one eye blinking erratically. “I would recommend further rest,” it announced, trying to guide Jarvis back.
“I need to return to Dixon’s office,” Jarvis said, trying to pull himself free. “I have work to do!”
“In your current condition your work output will not be as efficient as expected from the company.”
“I’m fine! I – I just got a little claustrophobic!”
His tongue traced his lips fearfully. For a moment he believed the robot would drag him to the cabin, ignoring his orders. Sweat begin to trickle down his neck at the thought of what the creatures had in store for him. Just as he was readying himself to fight the droid off, it took a step back, releasing his arm.
“This way, please.”
Jarvis cautiously followed the droid along the winding corridors. Every time they passed a corner, he began to feel his heart race, expecting any moment to be leapt upon. Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime, Albert halted in front of a door Jarvis recognised.
“I would recommend rest,” the robot repeated, its head twitching erratically. The young man hurried into the office. He paused for a moment, straining to hear the robot moving away. Once he was certain, Jarvis scurried to the desk. He hadn’t much time. It wouldn’t be long before they realised that he knew the truth. He had to act before then.
With his tongue clamped between his teeth, Jarvis pulled himself closer to the console. He had to get a message to the company. The nearest outpost was three systems away. If he was lucky, he had a couple of days before help arrived. He nodded quickly. He could last that long. He had to.
The man suddenly froze. What was he going to say? An alien race had slaughtered the whole crew of a mining station? They’d have him classed as unstable. Evidence. That’s what he needed. Without that, the company would just write it off as paranoia. An idea suddenly sparked in the young inspector’s head. Dixon had made the same discovery, hadn’t he? Albert had said the engineer had spoken of his fears. Perhaps the man had documents, reports even. Ones he had been afraid to pass onto the company, for the same fear Jarvis had.
As his eyes constantly flickered towards the door, he hurried through the various files that cluttered the engineer’s computer. He soon found what he was looking for. His eyes widened as he saw the sheer volume of what Dixon had written. All thoughts of the android were temporarily erased as he realised how long the engineer must have been harbouring these thoughts.
His tongue grazing his upper lips, Jarvis clicked on a random entry.
We’re approaching the end of our first season here, and things are going well. The yield is higher than even our superiors expected, so a good old bonus should be on our way. But, I can’t help feel that something is wrong. No one else in the crew can sense it, which makes me worried I’m going mad! I might have to speak to Albert about it. How I hate that old tin-can.
Jarvis felt himself move onto another.
Something is definitely wrong here, I know it! The pipes keep making noises in the night, noises I know they shouldn’t be making. I asked Goldberg if there was something wrong, but she blew me off. I should report it to the company, I know. But what if it’s not the pipes? Sometimes it sounds like something’s moving inside them. But there’s nothing on this world but us, right? Although, sometimes I think that can’t be right. Nothing can be this dead, surely.
Jarvis skipped ahead, further down the seemingly endless list.
I knew it! I knew something was going on! All their whispering, all their consulting with Albert behind my back! Well, I saw it! I saw them! It was down on the lower levels, in the shadows. I tried to get close, but Albert and Xao stopped me. One of them has gotten on the station, and they’re trying to cover it up! No, what am I saying? They’re my crew. But . . . Albert, he’s covering it up. Keeps on talking to them, muttering things that will turn them against me. Oh, yes, he says he’s just trying to calm them down. That they’re ‘worried’ – he’s a machine! What does he know about worry? I have to act quickly, get the word out, get some help! I have to get us out of here, and soon.
The final entry made a cold sweat erupt along Jarvis’ spine.
I’m doing it. I can feel them watching, they’re round every corner, why won’t they come out? Are they scared? Each time I go looking for them, I have to find them, have to kill them – but Albert – that damned robot – keeps stopping me! He’s protecting them, I know he is. I’m going to confront him, tell him what I know and what I’m going to do. If he tries to stop me, God help me if he tries, well, then I’ll know I was right!
Jarvis released a shuddering sigh. Dixon had known the truth, had even tried to warn his colleagues, but the machine had stopped him. Sweat prickled the nape of his neck as he reread the man’s last words.
He knew what he had to do. He’d send Dixon’s reports, along with his own, then he’d get back on his ship and get off this damned planet. They wouldn’t be able to get him then. Whatever happened next, well, Jarvis thought, that was up to the company.
His head suddenly snapped up. Albert was standing in the doorway. Jarvis had been so transfixed by the reports, he hadn’t even registered the heavy footsteps making their way closer. He jumped to his feet, knocking the chair backwards.
“You appear stressed, Mr Eames,” Albert declared, taking a step into the office. Its metal frame stood between Jarvis and the door. “Your heartrate has elevated beyond normal, you appear restless, and you have not received sufficient rest.”
The machine took another step, prompting Jarvis to scurry further back. The robot, sparks bouncing from the rend in its head, raised its hands. Jarvis was sickened to see the automaton trying to mimic a calming posture. “Allow me to accompany you back to your cabin.”
“Don’t – don’t come near me!” Jarvis wailed. “I know! I know everything! I – I’ve already told the company everything!”
“You are not well, Mr Eames,” Albert stated, edging closer. “Might I recommend a sedative?”
“I told you!” Jarvis yelled. “Get back!” He shot down, grabbing at one of the many tools scattered across the floor. Comforted by the wrench’s weight, he straightened up and raised the weapon. But Albert was quicker. As if the machine had experienced it all before, its claws clamped down on Jarvis’ wrist. The pain was immense, and he had no choice but to drop the wrench. He stared with horror into the droid’s eyes.
“Violent acts are prohibited against any property owned by the Cruemann Haines company,” Albert declared, it’s damaged eye glowing like a fire. “I am authorised to take suitable action in order to protect myself.”
Cold, metal fingers closed around Jarvis’ throat. “What are you –?” But the words were lost as Albert began to squeeze down on his windpipe.
“Please calm yourself,” Albert requested, tightening its pressure around Jarvis’ neck and wrist. Jarvis gasped, trying to croak out the code to deactivate the machine. But all that escaped his lips was a breathless groan. “You are not well, Mr Eames,” Albert declared. The circular speaker was replaced with a soothing smile. The chrome surface was replaced with liver-spotted skin. The round eyes replaced with those of his great-uncle’s.
Jarvis stared at this calming hologram as everything began to grow dark.
Albert could detect a fault. Its cranium had been damaged. There had been an accident. It ought to report to Goldberg. It couldn’t. It would have to wait. Programmes were jumbled inside its electronic mind. There were too many systems running. There had been accident. It tried reviewing its memory folders. Some were incomplete. They too had been damaged. It would have to report to Goldberg. It couldn’t. It was too busy. There had been an accident.
Albert went along the corridor, its pace steady, despite the load it carried. As it climbed the stairs, it assessed its actions. Verdict: Albert had acted in accordance with its programming. There would be no need to report to Cruemann Haines.
The name brought up a new folder, a new set of programmes. Dixon had been dealt with. His recently developed violence had been unexpected, but not outside the boundaries of his ailment. Albert had reacted accordingly. It tried accessing its memory files. They were damaged. Did Dixon damage them?
Albert dropped its cargo, then approached the airlock.
The damage needed to be repaired. It would have to report to Goldberg. More memory files opened at that name. Some were corrupted. The most recent were mere fragments. Goldberg was resting.
Dixon’s ailment had proven to be contagious. Appropriate action had to be taken. Paranoia was rooted in stress; stress created an inefficient working environment. Albert’s main programming, relatively unscathed, kicked in. How best to relax your charges? As the steel door hissed open, Albert selected one of the activities listed.
The machine stepped onto the platform. It made no reaction to the putrid atmosphere. The lack of breeze had no effect, and the unmoving water below elicited no response. Albert turned back around and grasped Jarvis by the ankles. “This activity will help with your cardiovascular fitness,” Albert announced, dragging the body towards the edge of the platform. It straightened up and looked down at the ocean. Albert counted three figures. Memory files opened again. Dixon and Yews were gone. Perhaps they had already come in, Albert thought. That was good. They didn’t want to spend too long outside. They had work to do. Albert looked again at Jarvis. He too had work. But, as it was listed in Albert’s programming, their health was more important than the company’s profit.
“I hope this proves beneficial, Mr Eames,” the droid said, before pushing the body over the edge.
The splash he made as he landed sent waves pushing into the other bodies, sending them bobbing slowly out towards the horizon. Albert watched this, then turned back. This planet, it decided, was not good for a person’s health.