Her eyes opened to stare into the cold grey metal above her bunk, and immediately, she knew something was deeply wrong.
The meagre light from the door indicators provided a break in the blackness, limning the vague shapes of bunks in the gloom. She could feel it in her chest, in the way her body was cradled within the confines of her sleeping quarters. Closing her eyes once more, she listened. Beneath her bunk, Harold the welder snored rhythmically. From outside the dormitory, in the halls, came the echoing murmur of soft conversations between familiar voices. Sliding a hand from beneath the rough little blanket, she placed it against the bare wall. The endless rolling vibrations of the ship came to her, as familiar and personal as her own heartbeat.
She held her breath.
She felt the multitude of sensations, in her mind picturing the great workings buried in hundreds of feet of mechanical bowel far below. The monolithic turbines that powered the air purifiers spun without pause. The thudding reverb of the mighty engine bearings roiled. The high-pressure fuel blasted through crevice and valley, bringing heat and power behind every wall, beneath every footstep.
She frowned. In the tips of her fingers, she felt it; such a tiny difference, but as startling as a halt in her own blood flow. Between the vibration, the surges, the clangs, and the thuds that she felt every hour of every day, a fragment of the whole was missing.
She swung from the bunk, her feet dangling in the air for a moment, before she hit the floor lightly and immediately began tugging on her clothes. She was strapping on her well-worn elbow pads when the entrance light flickered and with a whir of hydraulics, the door to the dorm slid open.
Captain Rinsey was yelling before he’d got a foot through the open portal, his gruff brogue echoing in the small room and causing a general murmur of displeasure from the other sleepers. ‘Canary! We need you girl, on your…’ he stopped, seeing the girl nodding and demonstrably ready to go while others were still struggling into wakefulness from the warmth of their cots.
‘I know. I felt it, Captain sir’, Canary chirped, standing and striking an approximation of a salute.
Rinsey gave a bark of a laugh and stepped out of the way, ushering Canary into the hall beyond. As he left, he gave a slap to the lighting board on the wall, flooding the dorm with a glaring neon glow. He levelled an accusing finger at a slumbering shape as he moved to leave.
‘Oxlef, I know damn well you’re on duty today. Get up and show some hustle down to the doors.’
Rinsey stepped back out, looking to see Canary already striding off down the hall, fastening the straps of the toolkit to her hip as she went.
‘Shown up by a thirteen year old. I swear, you’re a disgrace.’
Canary was tightening the straps on her gloves as Rinsey quickly caught up with her, his long strides forcing her to trot to keep pace.
‘Is Polydras already waiting, Captain sir?’
Rinsey nodded, making a gesture of greeting to a cluster of people they passed as the pair continued off down the tall metal hallway, ‘He’s waiting by the access panels down by starboard seventeen, eager to see you.’
They hung a sharp turn, Rinsey’s pace increasing. Canary looked up at him, her expression aghast.
‘He’s there himself? You let him come all that way?’
Rinsey waved a dismissive hand. ‘You know as well as I do that when the old bastard has it in mind to do something, no mortal man can stop him. So greet him happily and tell him he looks healthy. He said he was feeling unusually spry today.’
Rinsey smiled, but Canary took the news with an unpleasant flutter in her stomach as they strode on. The labyrinthine halls of the ship were beyond second nature to the both of them, every turn of the great structure so familiar, their navigation was absolutely unconscious.
They passed the gigantic doors as they went, two guards were sat playing at some game atop an overturned crate in front of them. Canary barely even spared a look for the immense metal doors, silent and immovable as they had been for as long as she could remember. Rinsey continued, ‘Polydras sensed the anomaly and alerted me soon as he could. First, he suspected a flaw in the filtration system, but…’
‘It’s the cooling, right?’ Canary said. Rinsey gave a nod.
‘Mm, he expected you’d feel it too. Got the knack, or whatever it is. ’Sides, everyone’s going to feel it soon enough. Be boiled in our boots in a few days if it isn’t up and running again soon.’
With a brief word of encouragement, Rinsey left Canary to go about his own duties as they passed from the smooth metal hallways into the corroded series of rooms, that made up the makeshift communal areas of the ship. People bustled and went about their day, surrounded by the hanging drapes used to protect passing elbows from the rusty walls. The rough grating that passed for the floor gave echoing clangs under every footfall.
Canary’s tiny figure was a common enough sight in the old parts of the ship, her jostling tools, the ancient pair of goggles rattling about her neck. She gave a smile and greeting to the old quartermaster as she passed his mess hall, metallic spouts glistening, ready to dispense the nutrient paste that made up most of everyone’s diet.
Canary knew every step; the ship was her home, her existence. Every curve, every facet, every corner, and every face was drilled into her mind. Canary smiled and reached to put her goggles into place as she finally turned into the long curving hallway that would continue several hundred yards along the starboard side, and soon enough, the old priest came into view.
Polydras was standing, both hands outstretched, reaching into one of the hundreds of access panels that filled the corridor. One hand, fingers wrinkled with age and calloused with use, was splayed out, tapping accurately across a complex numerical pad. His other arm, the priest’s complex gestalt of metallic digits, articulated cables, and tiny grabbing claws in place of a hand, was busy making minute alterations and adjustments to the machinery behind an open panel.
The old priest didn’t turn to look as Canary approached, but simply nodded in acknowledgement.
‘You knew before he arrived, eh?’ Polydras said. His voice was a strained croak, artificially increased to better volume by an electronic support system somewhere in his throat. The resulting effect was that of a kindly old man’s greeting reverberating down a harsh metallic tube.
‘Woke me up, knew something was wrong.’
‘Called out to you, yes?’
‘I think so, sir.’
Polydras’s working hand pulled away from the panel, tiny searching claws retracting back into his wrist with a chorus of whirs. He closed the panel with delicacy, resting his flesh hand upon it.
There was a smile on his old lips as he turned to face Canary, his gaze somewhere a foot over where she actually stood. The cybernetic additions over his eyes glistened silver, layers of complex lenses held within the chrome. Once the lenses had been glorious, lit red, focusing his vision into a precision far beyond the capabilities of mortal flesh. Now they were silent, dark, blind.
‘I think so too. Now, eyes up here. Tell me what she’s letting us know.’ Polydras gestured towards the blinking lights of the panel with his flesh and blood hand. Almost immediately he reached to steady himself, his frail form shaking with exertion.
‘You should rest, sir, I can try to handle this.’
‘Nonsense, child. Now go on. I need your eyes.’
Canary looked, and frowned to make sense of the complex series of warnings the panel was suggesting.
‘I… I’m not sure. I can’t read this.’
‘Describe it to me, child,’ Polydras said.
Canary hesitated, her fingers gripping her toolkit in concern.
‘I can get in and do it no problem. If you could turn on your optics for just a moment…’ she chanced. Polydras gave an echoing sigh, and reached to pat the girl’s shoulder.
‘One day, I will not be here to do this. Once there were many just like me, and we had many servitors to assist us. Now, here in our home, there is just me left, and the servitors have gone quiet. And now you shall be the one who hears what the machine wants, and you shall be the one to continue to carry out her wishes. Yes?’
‘Good,’ he gave a squeeze of her shoulder, ‘and besides, you know I’m saving my old eyes for…’
‘Saving them to look upon the golden throne when you’re called home,’ Canary mimicked his eternal saying with an unconscious smile.
‘That’s right, little one. Now look again, and tell me if it’s access B, or access D.’
Canary looked. She gazed into the panel, at the lights, at the incomprehensible clutter of information. She couldn’t read, but she had watched Polydras at his work for most of her life.
‘It’s D. I can go in Access D.’
‘And why might you choose that, my sharp eyed Canary?’ Polydras asked.
‘The cooling system for this quarter is accessible through two different ducts. The energy spike is between there.’
‘It’s also accessible, to your bony little body at least, from Access B, don’t you think?’
‘D. It… feels right.’
Polydras nodded solemnly, and reached to tap out a command on the panel. Immediately, part of the wall hissed open with a groan of hydraulics.
‘Got your equipment?’ he asked.
‘Always,’ Canary said.
‘And let it always be so. In you go.’
Canary hoisted herself up into the access hatch, and her tiny frame slid into the mess of wires, cables, and piping with practised ease. Worn knee pads shuffling, she continued into the duct, her fingertips feeling her way along, eyes alert for anything out of order, the tiniest deviance from the usual.
She remembered the earliest times she’d acted as the eyes for the old priest, slipping into access panels and engineering ducts meant for tiny servitors. Captain Rinsey used to call her the ship’s Snotling, but after that first time her tiny hands had been the ones to re-affix the loose wire that had killed the lights to the entire mess hall, he changed his tune and supported her practicum under Polydras.
Goggles pulled down over her eyes, Canary crawled onward, sliding her small figure around pipes and through bottlenecks of clustered mechanical implements. The vibrations were deep here, not just in the walls, in the tips of her fingers, but all around. She felt the hum of the ship in her bones, the thunder of the technological marvel like coursing lifeblood.
Here was the illness, right above her.
‘It’s here, there’s something wrong here!’ she called back down the duct.
‘Feel it, little bird. Let it speak to you. All you need must do is pay attention.’
Canary reached out. Pointing her fingers together to pass through a gap between welded wall and searing hot heating tubing. Sweat pricked on her flesh. The tiniest sound among the echoing clamour of the ship that surrounded her. She closed her eyes. She listened.
Feeling at first with the tip of her fingernail, then with the edge of her fingers, she felt the curve of loose metal, a rattling sliver, a jiggling curve of a gasket. Fetching her tools from her kit, she fed them through the gap into her palm, slipping the neat metal loop through the gasket.
A little twist is all it would take. Her wrist brushed against the hot metal, and she let out a hiss of pain. Another twist, and she felt the gasket slip into place. The tiniest thing. With her fingertips still pointed, she pushed, feeling the subtle changes in resistance as the curve of metal lifted and fought for purchase, searching for its proper place.
She heard Polydras’s words in her head. His echoing drone. Listen. Let it speak. You are not fixing it. You are guiding it towards its purpose.
It wanted to be there, she wanted to help it.
She rolled her fingertips across the curve of the metal, eyes closed, breath held. She felt it slip, then slip again. Finally, the curve clicked into a groove, a groove that led to a screwing motion, she let loose her breath in a whoosh of air, cool on her face. Quickly now, the clasp was tightening, sliding neatly into its correct place. It came to a rest, the lost part becoming one with the whole.
‘Polydras. Sir… It’s done.’
She heard the buzz of the priest’s gyros spinning, of his mechanical arm at work. The clatter of metal fingers.
With a great surge of power, the vibrations above her increased. The cooling tubes once more lit with energy, surging with purpose. They lived again.
She slumped to a rest in the duct. Feeling the vibration of the ship all around her. The heartbeat returning to normal.
‘Well done, child,’ said Polydras, when Canary slipped from the duct, his voice amplifiers at their lowest setting. He sounded almost sad. He reached his flesh and blood hand out, and Canary held it briefly. His grip was so weak, and his hand shook with a tremor deep inside. It made Canary immediately think of the thrum of the ship, and the feeling that deep down within, far under the metallic shell, something was very wrong.
‘Take me back to my quarters, child. I’m… very tired.’
As the pair walked through the ship’s living quarters, Canary took slow and small steps, allowing the old priest to slowly glide along beside her.
‘Do not worry that you don’t understand, child,’ Polydras said in response to Canary’s silence. She looked up at him.
‘The machine. The great workings. It is beyond any of us.’
Polydras gestured with his mechanical limb around them as they travelled, taking in their surroundings, their home, the ship as a whole.
‘Don’t seek to comprehend, only to listen, and to trust yourself.’
When they came to the doors to Polydras’s private quarters, Canary was confused. She looked up at the old priest, and felt a swell of emotion. He sensed it, like he sensed so many other things.
‘And don’t be sad, little bird. Even if you are alone, trust your instincts, and find your place to fit into the great workings. That is all that can be asked of any of us.’
Polydras proved his point by dying the next day. Canary had only a moment to sit beside him. His ancient figure lay still in his cot, his augmented limbs powered no longer. As he struggled through a last shuddering breath, Canary reached under the cowl of his threadbare hood and thumbed the switch above his brow. She listened to the quiet whir of his ocular lenses as they glowed a faint red in the dark of the Priest’s chambers.
Rinsey stood there, a cup of the same colourless gruel they’d always had in his hand, as Canary emerged from the Priest’s quarters.
‘It’s up to you now, Canary,’ Rinsey said, staring at the door as it slid shut behind her small figure. The girl only nodded.
‘Polydras trusted you to take over. He’d said it for ages. I think we all figured that we’d be… well, not here anymore at some point, but we’re here now, and we’re counting on you to keep her running.’
‘The doors…’ Canary said, her voice low. Rinsey raised an eyebrow, and gestured for her to repeat herself. When she looked up at him, there was a fire in her eyes.
‘The doors. If we opened them, we’d get back into the rest of the ship? Where we used to live?’
Rinsey stared down at her, his expression blank. After a long moment, he knelt, his face coming close.
‘Where did you hear that?’
‘Who said they wanted to open the doors, Canary?’
‘I listen, at night. Not just to the ship noises, but the people talking. Oxlef and the other guardsmen. They say that if we opened the doors, we could get back into the ship, to the storage, to everything that’s in there,’ she stuttered.
‘Standing by those bloody doors too long,’ Rinsey hissed. There was a look of focus on his face that troubled Canary deeply. When he spoke again, it was slowly.
‘If you ever hear someone say something like that again, anyone, you come to me, alright? Right away.’
Canary nodded at him.
‘Polydras said that there was nothing we can do from this side, that they were sealed up.’
‘They were sealed up, and so we have to wait until our messages get help from outside. It will come. In time, it will come,’ he stood, brushing rust from the knees of his jumpsuit, ‘It will come, Canary. Until then, we have to all do our part and look after each other. You understand?’
‘…To fit into the great whole.’ Canary said. Rinsey gave a snort.
‘We’ll get you a robe and a little metal hand yet.’
The next weeks wore at every facet of Canary’s experience. Her resting moments left her tossing and turning, starting awake at every noise. Her waking hours were spent in the ducts. She bloodied fingertips tightening loose bolts on rattling couplings, sliced her hand open trying to pry a broken cylinder from a shattered housing, and scorched her wrist tugging the head from a shuddering cylinder.
Every time she lay there in the ducts, eyes squeezed shut, she listened. She fought to hear the voice that would tell her what to do. Every time, she wished that Polydras was there, to ask him what to listen for, where to look.
Most of all, she wished so badly to ask Polydras if the voices she sought to hear were really there. Would the machine really speak to her? Would it really tell her how to fix the endlessly breaking world around her? Or would she reach into mechanical guts, desperately hoping to get lucky, time after time, forever?
She’d lost count of how many times the nutrient processor had gone on the fritz. The tasteless paste it produced stuttering to a halt, the wall rattling, producing nothing but a grinding fury.
Each time it broke, Canary would crawl back there, the filthy smoke sputtering from the machine’s innards coating the back of her throat, and try to see what was wrong. Each time she thought the malfunction corrected, each time the blockage cleared, some new flaw would rear its ugly head and have the people rattling empty cups in hunger.
Tears were running down Canary’s face as she reached into the guts of the processor for the second time in as many days, fingertips feeling the rough edges of the tubes, the crusted joints, seeking something, anything that could be the cause.
She lay back, her head against the rough metal of the duct, and closed her eyes. How had Polydras done it for so many years?
‘Tell me,’ she said, her voice echoing back to her in the metallic tomb around her.
The machine clanked on, an unpleasant roiling deep within the wall. Every sound made the knot in her gut worse.
‘Tell me how to fix you!’ she sobbed, fists slamming the duct walls, producing a thundering crash that came back to her moments later, followed by the echo of her own cry.
Canary stopped, silent, her breath caught in her throat so hard she almost choked. It hadn’t been her voice that had come back to her.
Her hand shot up to cover her mouth, stifling her breathing, her stinging eyes squeezed shut. At first, she feared it was nothing, yet another trick of the labyrinthine machinery. Then, in the span of another heartbeat, the voice came back to her.
It was a whisper. Not of urgency but of encouragement. Not of fear, but of courage.
Canary listened, feeling her spirit swell with every moment that passed. Slowly, she reached her arms up, past the curve of the machine walls, up into the nest of tubing that riddled its back end. One by one, she brushed past the tubes, and Canary listened.
Not that one. Not this one.
She stretched, her tiny frame aching with exertion, and managed to snatch a grip on it.
It reminded her of Polydras’s calm voice, in her ear as he’d encouraged her first tinkering with the faulty lumens in the bunk rooms. She could do it. Deep down, she heard it.
Don’t pull, twist.
Turning her wrist towards her, her fingertips fighting for purchase, she twisted. For a moment, it resisted, and then the tube burst with a sudden deluge of matter. The tube sputtered, freed from the blockage, and immediately cool air coursed from it over Canary’s fingers. It was simple to reattach the tube again, just a little twist.
The machine’s roiling thunk gave way to a tidy vibration, clanking back to life.
Canary dropped to the duct floor with a thud, her eyes filled with tears. She made no effort to stop them.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered into the machine.
Canary was lying in her bunk, nursing the scorched hand she’d received when she’d successfully fixed the boiler beneath the mess hall, and she listened. The knowledge felt cocoon-like, the reassurance of being held aloft, supported.
Still, it encouraged her, she could do so much more. With the voice at her side, she could be raised above to a whole new realm. She could truly help the people around her.
She could fix it. She could fix the ship. She could take them home.
Canary opened her eyes.
She could open the door.
Her tools were at her side, their weight reassuring.
Let it always be so.
Canary waited for Oxlaf to leave his duty guarding the doors. As always, in the dead of dark hours, he left his post, and Canary slipped towards the gigantic aperture in silence. They loomed over the hall, gargantuan, unmoving. Canary was reassured again.
You can free them; you can free everyone.
Open the doors.
The duct opened with a clank, dry air dusty in her lungs. Hand over hand, she slipped in. There were gratings here, welded into place so long before. But Canary listened, and she knew the way. Her tiny frame slipping under grates, through the smallest gaps in tubing and machinery, on she went.
It was so quiet back here, Canary seemed dimly aware of the heartbeat of the ship somewhere behind her, but foremost in her mind, the voice encouraged, it whispered, it let her know exactly what to do.
You can save everyone.
All you have to do is open the doors.
When she came to it, it seemed so small. A series of heavy connecting cables, hidden deep within the ducts. They were bolted together, over and over, with massive clasps of gleaming metal. Producing her toolkit, Canary knew just what to do. With precision, she set about removing the bolts.
One by one they fell to the floor of the duct, landing with clangs that echoed like ricocheting shells. Sweat beaded her brow as the fastening bolts dropped, as the massive cables soon began to loosen.
She listened, and obligingly, was told which cables to unscrew, which to pull together, which to reconnect to inverse the lock. With the power rerouted just thus, the great doors would finally be forced open.
You’ll be saving everyone, Canary. They will adore you.
She smiled as she worked, feverishly. It had all led up to this. One by one, she resealed the bolts.
The sound of the engaging door mechanism was earth-shaking. Canary felt her teeth rattle in her skull as she crawled through the ducts, suddenly flush with hot air from the incredible mechanical event taking place.
She had suspected light, somehow. Light flooding through the doors as they opened, the faces of those she knew gazing into their escape. There was no light. There were no blissful faces.
Only Rinsey, standing in the centre of the hall, his face a bloodless mask of horror.
When he saw Canary emerge from the duct before him, his head shook in disbelief.
‘What have you done, child?’ Rinsey whispered. His voice a croak from a dry throat.
Canary looked into the doors, into the blackness beyond, and before she could respond, Rinsey’s scream shocked her into silence.
‘What have you done?!’ Rinsey roared, the whites of his eyes red with terror.
As Canary watched in confusion, Rinsey turned, boots hammering on the metal floors of the hallway as he ran away from her and what she’d done.
The yawning blackness behind the doors drew Canary’s gaze, like nothing she’d ever felt. The urge to stare, to step closer. The noise of the ship was gone entirely now. She barely registered Rinsey’s voice down the hallway, his screams of warning.
In the blackness there came movement. Subtle at first, but growing in washes of brightness that reflected in the dark. Canary stepped closer, her legs moving of their own accord now. The visions became fluid, became smoke, became a conflagration blazing in every colour that Canary had ever envisioned. It was surging toward her now. Blossoming to greater and greater depths. Raw, unfiltered, indescribable.
Canary closed her eyes as it washed over her. Shapes flickered past her, leering faces in the blinding turbulence. Rolling eyes, biting teeth, sinewy limbs that surged and loped without any cohesion of form or logic.
Somewhere behind her, there was screaming, the staccato burst of weapons firing, but Canary didn’t listen anymore. All she heard was the voice as it lifted her, pulling her onward to new heights, sweeping her from her feet towards the ever-changing maelstrom.
‘You’ve done so well, little bird.’
This is acting First Officer Rinsey of the merchant class ship Tremenyas IV.
There was a malfunction in our Gellar field.
The Captain is gone, all the Navigators are dead. Everyone is dead. We’re unable to access the bridge. We have dropped out of warp space and the engines are off. We are drifting unmanned.
Those of us left have sealed ourselves in the bulkhead between Sector 8 and Sector 9 using a construction access door. There are civilians here. The ship is corrupted, they are everywhere.
Requesting immediate rescue.
Requesting immediate rescue.