Belay Off

The buzz of the rope running through the abseiling rig echoed. There was a general background of animal noise, of calls and scurrying, but the rope passing through the two rings dominated, as though the wild place we were descending into had turned its own volume down in order to better pay attention to what we were up to.

There was a hole in the floor of a big plaza area on H level — that is, eight levels below nominal zero — which looked like it had originally been intended as a decorative feature, a waterfall and a way to look down into the level below. We were using it as an entry point; as far as we knew, nobody else had been down here, ever.

In the distance, a squimpanzee called its challenge: A long whoop, then whack-whack-whack as it beat its heavy tentacles against a hollow log or something. The challenge calls had been coming from nearly right below us when we’d first begun rigging the descent ropes; I was glad they were moving away. Squimpanzees are nothing to toy with; about three-quarters the size of a person, with between five and nine cartilage-enforced tentacle-limbs, and arboreal in the drop-out-of-a-tree-on-your-head sense, they were native to the planet the Ship was in permanent orbit around.

In my backpack was a carefully-packed cluster of crude glass balls, each one filled with a mixture of capsaicin, phenacyl chloride, and what seemed to be a random assortment of other herbs and chemicals, which were purported, when forcefully broken, to produce a fog of unpleasantness that was allegedly even worse for squimpanzees than humans.

Each of the Ship’s micro-nations blamed the others for introducing squimpanzees. The truth was, the things started small and grew, so it was entirely possible that they’d stowed away on a rocket, or had even climbed the space elevator; rumor said that they didn’t actually need to breathe, not the way humans did.

I level, in this section, looked entirely overrun with jungle. It was hot and humid and the plants that took up every possible cubic millimeter of space, all stretching towards the full-spectrum glow plates in the ceiling, seemed to do just fine with whatever they’d been able to find or make for soil. Abseiling through the green felt like descending out of the Ship altogether, back to the planet our ancestors had had enough of generations ago, except that most of the plants and animals down here weren’t from that planet, or from long-ago Earth, not if the botany texts and spotting-guides in our tablets could be trusted.

No one knew, of course, where the Ship had come from: It had appeared, three hundred years ago, in a low-ish but stable orbit, and had simply sat there, until the first humans managed to claw their way out of the gravity well to go up and check it out, a decade later. Those human explorers, having reconstituted a space program out of thousand-year-old documents and guesswork, found the entire ship in much the condition we were now descending into on I level, in the next-to-rearmost section: Primeval, abandoned to nature, as though some race of people had built a ship consisting of hundreds of square kilometers and a hundred levels, in places, of jungle ruin.

Some of it was still like that. There were sections that were supposed to be buffer zones, between national groups; others simply hadn’t been annexed, because they weren’t convenient to anything. We liked to imagine they hand’t been explored. Mostly, we were pretty sure we weren’t the first people anywhere on the Ship; but for a summer break camping expedition for four academy sophomores, descending into primeval, unexplored jungle was an exciting theme.

The soft soles of my boots touched the sandy earth at the bottom of I level, and there were a couple of minutes of confused fumbling with the double-ring abseiling setup.

“Belay off.” Softly, because the people listening were all standing close-by, or should be. “Where’s Tep?”

The two girls were there, uniforms the same orange-with-blue as mine but cut slightly differently, hair cut the same as mine. We weren’t required to wear the uniforms over break, but the field uniform made for good, sturdy camping gear, so it’s what we wore.

“He wasn’t here when I got to the bottom,” said Arah, who was capital-I Involved with Tep. “I thought he’d be back by the time everybody else was down, but…” She shrugged. She looked as though she was just on the verge of deciding something was wrong.

Emmen caught my eye with a concerned look. She was calm, level-headed, smart in a bookish way; she was along on this trip in the hopes that she’d connect with me, and turn the me-and-Tep partnership, threatened by his deepening connection with Arah, into a foursome.

“Well.” Nothing new about Tep wandering off. “Something must have caught his…”

“Hey,” said Arah, “Look at that.” But there was only waving branches where she’d been.

Emmen sighed and began walking the direction Arah had gone; following along seemed like the thing to do.

“That’s… weird.”

Emmen was leaned over one of the little coffins, staring at some sort of panel.

There was a definite smell of self-scrubbing air filters in here, air that had been continuously recirculated through the system for who-knows how long without being breathed. The doors, kept clear by some ancient mechanism or through pure luck, had hissed slightly as they whisked aside.

There were places in the ship that were like this, operating as though its original inhabitants had simply stepped away for a few minutes and would be right back; other parts were dark and cold. Those dark and cold places — the doors permanently locked in the open position, the eerie overhead lighting off — were the majority of the ship, and tended to be the parts that humans inhabited.

Places like this, where the ship responded to people’s presence and seemed… primarily inhabited, rather than secondarily inhabited, were the phrases we were taught to use at the Academy… they were always a little bit spooky. Something about the spectrum of the light used, I’m told.

Also, whoever had built this ship loved big spaces and very high ceilings, but they were obviously about half the size of humans; at least, of humans of this planet and my generation.

The room we were in was full of coffins, row after row of them, lit up with those little clusters of colored lights which look as though they’re obviously meant to convey some information, some piece of data, but end up just looking mysterious; the ship is full of them, telling us all… something. The small coffins were just about the size of whoever all the chairs had been built for, but they looked just the right size for human children.

Arrah was standing in the doorway; she had her phone out, and was trying to use it to call Tep. He hadn’t answered, the first dozen or so times she’d tried, and we hadn’t heard his phone’s notification sound ringing through the jungle, and every time we saw something interesting or found something new, Arrah went ahead and called again.

It seemed clear that either Tep had found something interesting to look at, in which case he could be hours and might very well have turned off his phone after ignoring Arrah’s first two calls, or else he was stalking us, looking for some opportunity for a prank, in which case he’d have turned off his phone for stealth.

Either way, this was too much fun to let Tep’s sense of humor or Arrah’s anxiety interfere. We’d been walking through what seemed like primeval jungle for about twenty minutes when we ran across this door to… well, to another world.

“What’s weird?” The path to where Emmen was standing was a maze through all the little coffins.

She looked up at me, serious expression looking slightly rattled, as standing in a room of child-sized coffins might do.

“I… think I saw this one move,” she said.


“It moved, I swear to you.”

“What moved?”

Emmen looked up at me, her mouth open, and then back down at the little coffin she was standing over. She reached over and wiped a central panel with her sleeve, not as though it needed wiping but as though she was showing me something.

Wiping the equivalent panel on one of the coffins near me served to clear what had seemed to be an opaque lighted panel, turning it instead into a little window, through which I could see a dimly-lit little monster: Facial features equivalent to human, but all out of proportion and disarranged, with gray skin and no discernible eye brows.

The one in my coffin twitched, like someone in their sleep.

“What the hell.”

“You’ve heard… I mean, we’ve…” Emmen looked from me to Arrah, still in the doorway but now paying attention to what was going on. “The stories…”

There were stories, rumors, that the ship had been inhabited by sleepers, waiting in their suspended animation chambers, when our ancestors first boarded the ship; rumors that said that there’d been a huge effort to clear them all away, hide them, kill them, burn them up in huge nuclear fires, before the bulk of settlers arrived.

Standard conspiracy theory stuff.

But here they were, sleepers in little coffins, off in an unused and unexplored part of the huge old ship…

Something changed, something about the state of the room, the lighting or the air or…

“What did you do?” My voice unintentionally accusatory, actually just startled.

“I didn’t do anything.” Emmen, going very still in response to danger, except for her eyes.

“What’s going on?” Arrah, standing in the doorway, already freaked out.

With a sudden hiss, the lids of the coffins slid off, the one I’d been looking at knocking me aside. Across the room, one of the little monsters sat up, looking around the room; it saw us, and if the expression on its face at that moment was their equivalent of “surprise,” then the next one was something else entirely: Anger, perhaps, or determination.

It said something out loud, something with a lot of clicks in it, and then Emmen, Arrah and I were swept aside, pushed hard up against the wall by something completely unseen.

A voice responded to the alien, a voice which seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It exchanged several sentences with the alien, and then switched to English.

“Please don’t be alarmed,” it said. “The Margrave would like some time to orient herself and account for her people before she interacts with you. Simply remain still and everything will be fine.”


Emmen’s shrug mirrored my ignorance.

“It’s an archaic term for a hereditary noble whose ancestors were charged with the defense of the borders of an empire,” said Arrah. She had her phone out and was dialing Tep’s number; had been, every five minutes or so, since we hit the bottom of the abseil ropes.

Emmen met my gaze and gave another shrug.

“More or less an accurate translation of Margrave Click-clack-clack’s position,” said the disembodied voice. Rather than Click-clack-clack, it made a series of click-and-clack noises, which apparently represented the alien’s name. “Including the archaicness — her own people would, for the most part, have to look up her title in order to understand…”

“So, what, she’s a noblewoman in some alien empire?”

“More or less.”

“And what are you?”

Arrah snapped the phone shut and tucked it in the uniform pocket more or less designed to hold phones; she’d clearly shifted gears.

“I’m…” There was some hesitation, and after a moment we realized that the voice was discussing something with the Margrave and her crew, all of whom were up and moving about the compartment — in distinct contrast to the three of us, who were crammed up against a wall by a disembodied invisible force.

“I’m a core persona of the colony ship Clackity-clack whistle-click,” said the disembodied voice. “My function is as a command interface.”

“Artificial intelligence,” breathed Emmen.

“Sort of,” said the disembodied voice. “I would be skeptical of placing too much emphasis on the idea of me as an independent, sentient being… I am, rather, a construct intended to interface…”

“So why… I mean, we’ve been living here for hundreds of years, why have you never spoken before?”

There was a pause. “Well,” said the disembodied voice, “Because no one with the authority to tell me to speak was awake to tell me to speak. Just now, the Margrave told me to keep you busy while she came up with a plan.”

“So,” said Arrah, “That’s why there’s nothing like a distinct control room, or bridge, or whatever…”

“Because the designed interface is a persona,” said the voice we were now beginning to think of as ‘the ship.’

“What are they doing?” Arrah said it out loud, watching thing small grey aliens mill around.

None of us, I realized, were particularly panicked or even frightened. I wondered whether the invisible force keeping us penned up agains the wall was manipulating our emotions.

“There’s some discussion as to what they’re going to do next,” said the ship. “I’ve been bringing them up to speed on the last three hundred…”

“Wait,” blurted Emmen. She’d been looking more and more upset. “Was it… was it true? I’ve heard stories, that when the first settlers arrived, the ship was full of, of sleeping aliens, and that… Was it like this? Did we murder the crew of this…?”

“No,” said the disembodied voice. “There had been an environmental accident, a sort of toxic infestation, which is why the crew and the colonists had taken to their suspension capsules. The capsules here were sealed off from the toxins by bulkheads, but the ones in the main areas, the bulk of them, became susceptible to the toxin, and most of the crew were dead when the ship arrived in orbit, including, I’m afraid, anyone senior enough to direct me to take any action on the matter.”

“So you’ve just been… watching. Listening.”

“More or less.”

It had become obvious to me that the ship had to have been conscious, at least to some extent, to be able to speak to us; the idea that it had simply been listening, the entire time… was both thrilling and sort of creepy.

“Can you sense… outside this room, then?” Arrah, suddenly having a realization. “Can you see where Tep went? He’s another member of our party, we were looking for him when we came in…”

“Guys.” Emmen was watching the aliens, who seemed to be shouldering packs and buckling things on and generally getting ready to go.

“No,” said the ship, “I’m afraid I don’t sense a another particular human on this level, though my sensors seem to be badly degraded here, so it could be… I do sense other life forms.” There was a pause. “The Margrave wishes to inform me that she’d like you to accompany her and her people…”

“To where?”

“To another, larger suspension capsule chamber, nearby,” said the ship. “More of her people are asleep there, she’d like to retrieve them. After that, I believe she intends to leave the ship.”

We needed to get back to the part of the ship without invisible talking walls.

Arrah grabbed me as we were pulled along by the invisible field. Nobody asked us what we intended to do, presumably because our intentions didn’t matter when there were invisible forcefields to herd us along with. Our phones, which used human-built radio systems bolted to the inside of the ship, nevertheless didn’t work through whatever field the ship was pushing us around with.

“We have to find Tep.” Her low and sibilant and close. “I know it’s, like, secret aliens and shit, but we still have to find Tep.”

She was right, of course, but there wasn’t much to actually do about it. Looking at her, really looking at her, it suddenly snapped into focus that she was really, seriously worried about Tep, and either the bigger picture hadn’t sunk in, or she was letting herself be preoccupied with Tep’s vanishing because she didn’t want to think about the fact that we were the captives of aliens.

“Listen.” Looking back at Emmen, and at the Margrave and her people. “Tep is probably somewhere having a drink and wondering if he can get back to civilization in time for the clubs to open.” It seemed likely. Probably, at first, as a good joke at our expense, then out of boredom at waiting for us to pick up on the joke.

“Also, we don’t seem to have much choice in where we’re going, and even if we did, we would be calling

There was a Whoop! Whack-whack-whack-whack from surprisingly close by: The Squimpanzzes we’d heard before were nearby, and somehow we’d gotten way closer to them than anyone really wants to ever get to a wild Squimpanzee.

There was a rise in the garble of alien voices, and then the ship’s voice cut over to English.

“The Margrave wants to know if the Squimpanzees are contained, or trained, in any way.”

The three of us exchanged a look. As far as we knew, nobody had ever trained a Squimpanzee to do anything except die when shot.

“You can’t train them,” said Emmen, definitively. “They’re a hive animal, they just do what the hive tells them to do.”

“That’s not quite true,” said the ship’s voice. “In fact, they’re interestingly adaptable: The level of intelligence of individual Squimpanzees, and hence of the collective, can raise or lower quite drastically in astonishingly short periods, in response to changes in environmental…”

“Nobody here knows anything about that.” Arrah, looking around impatiently, was

The whole party seemed to have come to a halt, one of those stops that happen when the leader of a walk is unsure where to go next and everybody just mills around.

“You can project invisible walls, right? So what are they worried about?”

“We’ve reached a point, an area, where my internal systems are not fully online,” said the ship. “I can still talk to you, but I don’t have control of many of the doors and lights, and I can’t project force.”

Emmen reached out and waved a hand around. No mysterious invisible force blocked it. We exchanged looks: Now was the time to run for it… but was there a way back to human-controlled areas of the ship that didn’t lead through an area where the ship could contain us?

For that matter, what did human-controlled mean, at this point?

Arrah had her phone out and was hitting “redial” for the hundredth or so time. This time it didn’t get the dead-air signal it had been getting since the ship started herding us; instead, we heard the faint sound of “ringing” come from Arrah’s handset — and then, shockingly, the sound of Tep’s phone ringing from up ahead.

Another gabble of voices from the aliens, and the ship’s voice said, “What is going on? The Margrave wants to know who’s up there…” But Arrah was already pushing forward, past the knee-high crowd of Aliens, into the brush.

“Tep!” She shouted. “Tep, stay put, we’re coming to you…”

Following Emmen through the little crowd was more difficult, as they’d recovered from the surprise of Arrah’s bolting ahead and were more or less trying to get us to slow down, but we managed to follow Arrah around a corner and through a gap in the foliage which turned out to be a partially covered but still wide doorway.

The area inside the big room was very dark, almost as though the lighting on the ceiling wasn’t working, but occasional gaps hinted instead at the ceilings being covered by something.

The room itself was very much the mirror of the room where we’d found the Margrave and her people, expect that it was larger, and the coffins — suspended animation units — had all been broken open, a long time ago from the look of it. There were bits of mechanical wreckage all over the floor and ugly stains on the units themselves.

Tep’s ring tone was coming from the back of the room. Arrah stepped forward toward the sound, but as she did, a large, fully-grown squimpanzee rose up from where it’d been crouched behind a cluster of coffins. It had something hair-raising smeared on its fur, and one tentacle was holding something that looked like a slick mess of raw meat and orange cloth.

The Margrave shoved her way between us; she was making clicking noises that sound like shocked grief even through the specio-linguistic barrier. She and her people were rushing into the room, looking around at the wreckage of what they’d clearly expected to be a large group of their friends and family.

A black shape dropped from the ceiling near the squimpanzee: Another adult, turning to look at us, making a series of low “Whack-whack” sounds.

The gap it left, in the ceiling, momentarily illuminated the scene with even more gruesome detail, before the hundreds of other squimpanzees which were lining the ceiling moved to fill in the gap it had left.

“Arrah,” I said quietly, hoping she wasn’t too fixated on what had obviously happened to Tep to move, but she was already moving back toward us and the doorway, quickly but without making sudden movements.

Something tugged on my back: Emmen was digging in my backpack.

“What the hell are you…” And then she shoved something in my hand: Glass and rough, it filled me with a sudden forlorn hope: Hope because it might work to bar the door for precious seconds, forlorn because the idea that we were relying on this stuff meant that things were really that desperate.

“Back, back back!” Emmen was suddenly shouting it, and then all three of us were, grabbing the little aliens and pulling them back towards the doorway. More squimpanzees began dropping from the ceiling in the vicinity of the one that had been eating pieces of Tep, but the ones right over our head were moving back, creating space between us and them.

“Now,” said Emmen, and all three of us threw the glass balls down at the floor, hard. Arrah threw both of hers, but it seemed like having one to hang onto was a good idea; Emmen seemed to agree.

And then we were running, all of us, back toward an area of the ship where there were invisible forcefield walls that would protect us.

The ship didn’t bother to tell us when we were back in safe territory, it just gave us a nice soft pillow of an invisible wall to run into. Humans and three-foot aliens all fell over one another into the soft, mushy field.

The realization that this was probably why there wasn’t much in the way of furniture on the ship when humans had arrived was burbling up through my brain when I felt myself set gently, feet first, back on the floor.

“Are you all right?” the ship actually sounded concerned; it had, of course, had three hundred years of listening to people conveying emotion at one another.

“Fine.” Looking around at the others, who looked physically fine, if out of breath and shaken up. Emmen just looked red-faced and winded; Arrah looked pale, and her features were set in an expression that I interpreted as an unwillingness to break down.

The realization that my best friend since creche had been killed and eaten by squimpanzees was just beginning to make itself known amid the fight-or-fight fear, but Arrah was already acting on a socio-emotional damage plan.

“The Margrave wants you to know,” said the ship, “That she is profoundly grateful for your actions in saving her and her people, even though you didn’t have to.”

The Margrave was standing nearby. When she’d caught my eye, she bowed, then bowed to Emmen, then to Arrah. It was a remarkably human gesture.

“The gesture is roughly equivalent, among her people and yours,” said the ship, in my ear. “It’s more current in the culture she left behind than the one you now inhabit.”

Arrah shook her head, straightened her spine, took a deep breath. “It is what any civilized person would have done,” she said.

And she bowed, and then Emmen and I bowed, and then all the Margrave’s people bowed.

Then, as one, the little grey people turned and began walking away. When we began to follow, we were gently, invisibly prevented.

“The Margrave conveys her sorrow,” said the ship, “But asks that you understand that she would like you to stay here until they’ve left the ship.”

“Left the ship?” My foot could inch forward a little at a time, but after a while it became obvious that I was scooting back along the metal floor at more or less the same rate.

“They can’t go,” said Arrah. “They have to stay, and… and…”

She had, I realized, made a sort of emotional bargain: A trade, inside herself, Tep for the aliens. And now they were going. Arrah struggled against the invisible barrier, trying to swim through it and then trying to beat at it.

It was easy to understand that kind of trade, that kind of irrational need to find something… worthwhile, in what was otherwise a horrible, senseless tragedy. For me… it would take longer, if it ever came.

Arrah’s temper tantrum, wrapped as it was in a soft, invisible shield, had an unbearably voyeuristic quality. Looking the other way seemed like the only reasonable response, to me, but Emmen went to her and held her, awkwardly hanging in the air, and Arrah’s screams of rage dissolved into sobs.

There was a shaking, a rattling of everything, and for a moment it seemed like the whole ship was being knocked around.

“The Margrave and her people have taken one of the ship’s auxiliary craft and have left.”

“Auxiliary craft?” Arrah was able to ask the question, voice wobbly and hoarse.

“Yes,” said the ship. “There are three others. They’re difficult to recognize as independent craft, from the inside…” And then it was off happily babbling about the various capabilities of the remaining small ships.

Gone, and gone. It was good that they were gone, because it seemed unbearable to have gained from this.

“Of course,” said the ship, “The Margrave wishes you and your species well, and instructs me to grant the three of you full administrative privileges to me and my systems, so as soon as they’ve entered…”

And that’s when I sat down on the hard metal floor and cried.

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