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1 – Alone
There are two-hundred souls on board, fifty in B-ring. When I tour corridors drenched in light dimmed by the Pacific above, I see no one. I don’t hear anyone either, only the low groan of Inverness colony and my stomach’s pleas for sustenance. Beyond hunger I feel alone, but I’m not. Proof? A baby doll is proof there are others in Inverness I haven’t seen in weeks.
Clocks no longer told time. In my quarters and the corridors clocks blinked zeroes, which worried me. Clocks were the colony’s most reliable support system. When clocks failed, I turned to the world outside to tell time.
2 – Time
Inverness Colony was deep enough under the Pacific to make days and nights barely distinguishable during a full moon. When the moon quartered, crescented, then went dark in its never-ending cycle of rebirth, I could gaze through a skylight over my bunk to discern night and day. I chalked lines beside the skylight to mark the passage of time until some calamity on the ocean’s surface stole my view.
3 – Lost
I wondered whether the colony’s groan came from machinery deep within its foundations that synced our existence in the space-time continuum with identical equipment orbiting Earth. Electromagnetic pulse attacks in the last war made such equipment a necessity for survivors on the planet’s surface, and those of us that sought refuge in undersea colonies.
What if our machinery malfunctioned, and now every soul in Inverness existed out of sync in the continuum, in separate slices of space and time?
4 – Avocation
I sketched the idea in chalk on my plastic kitchen wall to try and understand it. I drew a line, wiped a spot away every centimeter or so, then named each segment for people I remembered. In a normal space-time continuum, the segments would have been stitched together into the fabric of shared existence. But if our machinery malfunctioned, did that mean we all could be living in our own splinters of time? My chalk line wasn’t convincing; a notepad was.
I drew a stick figure on the bottom corner of a dozen pages, each pose slightly different. Flipping pages in quick succession animated my stick figure, making it dance. I tore those pages out, drew a new stick figure, and added different images between its poses. I flipped through the pages again. My stick figure still danced, along with a pitaya plant that bloomed and sun that rose in the sky, each existing apart from the others in separate fragments of time.
Was that us in Inverness Colony?
It explained how if our machine malfunctioned, we would have lost sync with each other in the space-time continuum, and clocks would have stopped telling time. It didn’t explain how the baby doll, clothed in a homemade dress, ended up where plastic corridor tiles met linoleum in one of B-ring’s three atriums.
The doll’s dress was a patchwork of well-worn denim, flowery cloth, yellow cotton with an orange sun, and doily lace. Each was a clue: denim hinted at overalls worn by mechanics that worked on the colony’s life-support equipment; flowery cloth reminded of sundresses little girls outgrow too soon; cotton sunshine must have been cut from a baby’s bib; doily lace suggested a fastidious soul. Those clues didn’t match the kind of person I thought would let their child lose their doll without good reason.
I should have left the doll in the corridor, but it smelled faintly of pitaya fruit. I stared hard at those rigid, immobile lips, wondering how long it had been since a little girl last spooned her baby doll succulent white meat and crunchy black seeds of fresh pitaya. I inhaled deep, and held the mellow-sweet flavor in my lungs. My stomach moaned.
5 – Nourishment
Pitaya used to grow with other fruits and vegetables in colony atriums that once sustained us under the sea. It was my favorite over all the resplendent tastes and textures we used to take as we needed. We cradled what we took in our arms and crafted meals we garnished with a substance called medium, until our bounty started to die out.
It had been a long time since I’d seen pitaya or anything other than weeds choking the last bit of life out of dying atrium soil. Clothes hung like shrouds on my skin-and-bones frame. The face I saw in mirrors was haggard, eyes as desolate as they were vacant, cheeks hollowed out from medium. I was relying more and more on medium to sate my hunger pangs. Medium was supposed to be as nutritional as anything that ever grew in dirt. I didn’t believe it. I consumed medium because nothing else was left.
6 – The Inanition
I drew the sticky slurry steaming hot from its copper faucet in my kitchen, watching as it glowed unnaturally like pale wax around a candle flame. Medium was inedible hot, so I toured B-ring’s corridors while it cooled into a translucent grey that brought back memories of sugary glaze on donuts, and ashen flesh pulled taut over corpse faces.
I cradled the doll the way I once held sustenance in my arms and hurried past stainless steel doors that mirrored me back ghostly, to my quarters where a cool cup of medium waited. I propped the doll on my kitchen table so I could take in the pitaya smell as I crunched an aluminum straw through skin crusting on top of my meal. I closed my eyes, and daydreamed the fruit’s saccharine tang, as I sucked alkaline mucilage into my body.
7 – Solitary
I took my time. I was hoping for a knock on the door from someone desperately looking for their child’s lost doll, a surly security officer accusing me of stealing it, or anyone else that felt alone in Inverness.
Alone. We were always alone. All two hundred souls on board, fifty in B-ring I hadn’t seen in ages …
This story previously appeared in Antipodean SF, July 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Andrew Dunn writes science-fiction and fantasy from the state of Maryland, often drawing ideas from jogs through forest trails at sunrise. His work has previously appeared in AntipodeanSF, 365 Tomorrows, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, and here in MetaStellar as reprints - his work has also short-listed in several writing contests. Andrew welcomes reader feedback at [email protected]