An elegant room. Matte cream floors, a circular recess in the center with brown parquet floor, on which stood a semi-circular white sofa with square, beige back pillows. A white curve-screen television placed directly in front of the sofa. Two pictures of a moon hanging on the far wall -- not Earth's moon. On the left, the whole wall a window, opening out onto blue, calm waters. Sparse clouds hanging low in the far sky, a sky pale blue and tranquil. His legs ached from the ten-mile walk which had brought him here, but he had to resist the inviting comfort of the seat and keep going. This was far from over.
All right, maybe just for a minute or two. Resting his loins on the soft yet firm cushion, he felt it absorb the stress of his buttcheeks instantly -- it must have been some kind of smart polymer, designed for optimal comfort. He needed comfort. Especially after trekking all that way, on foot no less, down the emergency path of the galactic throughway.
-- All right, Scout.
The tiny voice of the C.O. in his ear, digitally squeaking.
-- We get it, little baby had to get some exercise for once. Now can you please resume the mission?"
Nick exhaled deeply, half-frustrated, half-relaxed. Just one minute on that sofa really hit the spot. He wondered where the owners had purchased it -- seemed custom. Not the kind of thing you can buy from IKEA.
Was it sponge, maybe? On the backrest, at least. Making the whole thing out of smart polymer would cost millions ...
"All right already. Get off my gravity!"
Pushing himself upwards, Nick marveled at -- oof -- how the sofa's material -- ouch -- instantly returned to its original taut form. He forced himself across the room to the far wall (the one with the paintings), checking under each one for a hidden switch. Nope -- they wouldn't make it that easy. The problem was Nick's feet, which were the arched kind, which made it all the sorer to walk on. So the wall on the left was all window -- the wall in front was the moon-painting wall -- now the right wall, one more painting (no hidden switch), then a half-height window running in a horizontal strip across running across the length of the wall, function unknown (probably a stylistic thing) -- Nick ran his hand all along the orange seal bordering its pane, feeling for any notch or secret switch. Nothing of the sort. Now what? Resisting the temptation to sit on the low-set rim lining the wall underneath the window, he gave the room another once over: a grey, light-studded circular fixture hanging down from the ceiling directly over the brown parquet. Hanging from the center of this circle was a regular ceiling light with a white lampshade. Seemed superfluous, given the array of smaller lights bordering the fixture. He agonized over doing it but the minimalist decor of the room left Nick with few other options -- he would have to get to that lamp -- and the only way to do so was to stand on that beautiful sofa. Oof, off went his moonboots, his astro-fiber socks damp, Nick cringing the moment he felt his filthy sock-sweat impinge on the sanctity of the sofa's top cushion, but well he was here now so what the heck -- minding his balance, reaching up, fingers outstretched, almost, Oh fuck, Ahhh!
Hands thrust out to break his fall, torso-first straight into the curved TV set, knocking it backwards, Nick landing straight on top. Well, that was gonna leave a bruise. For whatever reason, Nick's first impulse was to look back at the sofa to see if he'd left a footprint.
-- Scout, enough with the sofa! Did the lampshade contain a switch or not?
H.Q. could only hear Nick's subvocalized thoughts, but didn't have access to any of his sensations -- such as tactile sense, for example.
Possibly -- I think I might have felt something, Nick thought "out loud."
-- Well get back up there and try it again! You don't have all day. Our diversion will only hold up so long and then --
Okay okay okay okay okay. Up on sofa, stretch out, hold balance, don't fall, abs BURNING at this point, once this whole thing is over, Nick was going to have to up the ante on his whole exercise regimen and so forth, but --
-- Scout, focus on the task at hand, please.
Don't interrupt me! Fingers hitting lamp, okay, reaching around and inside (how did they keep the dust off the lamp when it was this high? Vacuum cleaner attachment?) -- bulb is thick and plasticky, must be organoplastic -- nothing on this side of the shade, stretch ... just ... a ... little ... more ... THERE!
Nick's sore calves finally gave out just as his fingers pushed in the secret nub, and once more he descended to the wooden parquet (this time somewhat less violently -- only marginally bashing his right shoulder upon impact). Good.
Swivel head around, the far wall with the two moons snapping open in the middle like an autodoor -- how had he not noticed a crack? -- smoothly and soundlessly, the twin doors gaped wide, exposing a dark corridor, hazy, brown, periodic, psychedelic purple columns lining a pathway stretching onward for an impossible distance -- was it mirrors? an illusion of light? Looking through the left window, there was no sign of a corridor extending out in that direction. Well, no time for consistent laws of space. Nick started traversing the hidden tunnel on aching bones, the green glowing bars running along the floor merging with the purple-column light into an eerie non-color which filled his mind with a generic doubt -- something was off, uncanny, but he couldn't say what. The floor was made from some kind of plastic with a super-low friction constant, Nick could tell, skimming across it as if he was heading to school on a winter morning. Except it wasn't cold in here, or warm even. The room matched body temperature exactly -- like there was no atmosphere at all. Was he even breathing?
This wasn't a mirror image. Nick progressed deeper and deeper down the corridor, the modern deco room receding further behind him each time he turned his head to check. No sound, no friction, no atmosphere -- but there was air, at least. There had to be, right?
-- Your O2 stats are all nominal.
Right, yeah, he wasn't alone here. He was here for a reason. He wasn't losing his mind. He was here, this was here, this was real. Yes. Yes. Somehow, beyond common laws of physics and geometry, he was walking forward still, through space, or some manifestation of it.
The brown cave gave way to bright bathroom blue and pure white, from nowhere, sudden, opening out of that perfectly straight corridor, Nick step by step stepping out saw the mint blue floors, silky, almost liquid-smooth, hexagonal shapes lining the walls, pale blue and deep blue, sea colors, aquatic, hazy lights from small bulbs lining the ceiling's rim, square now, not circular, a glowing square set right in the center of the ceiling. The room itself no bigger than 3m2, all Nick's senses telling him it was a bathroom, but the lack of a sink or toilet negating this impression. What then?
-- Look for a container of some sort, Scout.
Not many places to look. Nick's hands glided around the smooth walls, feeling the hexagonal shapes and in between them, surveying the floor, cool to the touch, the ambient blue light turning his hands murky green. Finally, the counter by the wall in front -- a mirror hanging on that wall reflecting the room, but not Nick himself. Like he no longer existed.
-- Save the existential dread for after the mission.
All right. Focus. Nothing on the counter or under it -- again, seemed like there should be a sink right there, but nothing. A lack of things. This whole room like a negative space -- defined not by what was but what wasn't.
-- That's great, very poetic. Now can you find the device, please? You have less than 15 minutes left before its owner returns.
Look, look, look. It had to be there. There was nowhere else! Standing up on the counter, feeling across the ceiling light -- nothing this time -- climb down, look around, checked that wall, checked that wall, that was the way I came, okay just one wall left -- yes, there -- no hexagons on this one, just pale blue from top to bottom -- suspiciously empty -- again defined by what wasn't there, what should have been -- a shower? A towel rail? No, nothing -- feeling around it, pressing, pushing, PUNCHing, heck, anything? Come on. Come on. Come on. Click.
-- Was that a Click, Scout?
Yes. One quarter of the wall now not-wall, receding backwards and sliding open -- revealed indent inside the wall -- more negative space -- now reaching inside and fishing around -- an overly-smooth tactile sensation not-quite-wet but felt like it should be -- and no-light, absolutely none -- the blue light of the not-bathroom unable to travel inside, his own hand disappearing out of sight the moment it entered the opening -- but he could feel, still. Feel. Hard and smooth. Not-wet. Not-sight. Not-there, no, wait, afraid -- pulling his hand back out, still existed.
Whew. All right. Again. Not-wall, not-floor, not-ceil -- Scout -- ing, not-not-not-back-back-there-arm-pushing-up-to-shoulder, then stretching forward further -- can't quite make it, he'd have to dip his head -- Scout -- in there now -- at first Nothing but then -- infinite space, an abundance of -- what? No-way to describe -- just Stuff -- the opposite of something -- Everything? -- Scout, respond dammit!
And I Am Part Of It Now -- the walls ceiling floor back back back blue mint blue deep bathroom room halls purple green floors back to the beige circle room window walls moon painting curved TV sofa sofa sofa sofa relax -- Nick, are you still there? -- ing, resting, dozing ... off ... all the pains and aches of his legs and lower back receding, floating off, floating away, away, away, float -- Nick get out of there -- ing away now, the rest of his body in the opening, inside. Nothing And Nowhere, absorbing him and his body and being and pain going going leaving at last all the pain leaving and floating into not-something anymore nothing nothing more --
+ + +
-- Fuck! We lost another one.
-- The enquiry board are gonna be right up our asses on this one. That's the fourth scout we've lost this month!
-- I know that! I know, goddamit! But we need that device!
-- Who's to say the device is even located at the beachhouse? For all we know that was bogus knowledge -- the place is clearly booby trapped up the wazooo.
-- We need to reevaluate all our intel then. Start from whoever got us info on the bathhouse and work backwards. If someone has been screwing with us, they're going to regret it ...
Celestial Discovery (CD) is a sub-branch of the multiworld corporation EXCON, itself a behemoth in the corporate space which carries a certain air of omnipotence among both followers and rivals alike. In spite of this, at its core EXCON is just like every other pioneer in the space biz: small, weak, and alone in the vast empty expanse of space. And that's why CD exists: to seek out and eliminate any threat to its parent corp's continued existence.
Chief Operator Max Omega, like most high seats in the corporation, was a "space baby," that is, born in the distant reaches of the Astral Colony for the explicit purpose of enlarging EXCON's workforce as it expanded outwards into the galaxy. While he may have been selected for greatness, a string of unfortunate incidents in his career at CD had led Omega to the thankless position of being dumped with the Scout Project -- intelligence done the old fashioned way, with real-life humans sent to real-life locations to collect material evidence. A dead end, essentially, since 95% of CD's info comes from SIGINT. But Max wasn't about to give up, and pioneered a new neuroTalk tech that let his team communicate in real time with each scout with unparalled efficiency, not only aiding in smoother hands-on collaboration, but closing the possibility of wasted efforts when agents are taken Out Of Commission before debriefing -- as happened with Nick Genostar, Scout Second Class, who had just gone AWOL on a recent mission to find a certain device quote "Capable of nullifying most any imaginable enemy threat."
"I'm not AWOL," Nick corrected. He was making himself at home in Omega's habitation. Specifically, sitting on his sofa.
"What the hell? What are you doing here? And how did you extract from the beachhouse?"
"I didn't." Nick was trying to grasp at a mug on the coffee table and failing hard, his fingers falling on nothing. "Your sofa isn't bad."
Omega stood silent for a good few seconds; his training had conditioned him to respond to any arbitrary contingencies with immediate, reasonable response. This, however ... this just knocked him off kilter.
"What do you mean?" Omega's voice sounded weak, even to himself. Was he even awake? He refused to slap himself in front of company to check; even if that company was a guy who should be dead. Or lost inside an endless bathroom. Or --
"You don't understand," Nick said. Still trying to grab the mug.
"No, I do not."
"It's not easy."
"Well, try explaining it then. Also, there's no coffee in that mug."
"There isn't." Nick sighed and sat back on the couch, then wiggled his backside once, then twice. He sat up again.
"Sorry that I don't have a million-dollar smart polymer sofa for you." Omega still felt like he was in a dream.
"I didn't die at the beachhouse."
"Okay. What else? What happened after you entered the wall opening?"
"I didn't come back."
"That doesn't make sense, Scout. You're right here."
Omega hissed out a hot breath. Dream time was over; now this idiot was just getting on his teeth. "You better start making sense, or I'm going to have to send you to medical observation."
"Oh really? Watch me."
"No. You don't understand ..."
"Then tell me what the hell happened, dammit!"
"I'm not trying to not explain."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I didn't come back out of the hole. I didn't come out of the not-bathroom. I didn't come out of the not-occupied beachhouse."
"YOU'RE HERE!" Omega stormed over to Nick and went to grab him by the lapels. However, his hands slipped right through. "... What the hell?"
"I'm not here," Nick said.
"Yeah, no shit. So what, are you a hologram?"
"JUST TELL ME!"
"I'm not trying to not tell you. I didn't come out -- "
"Yes, yes, yes. Dammit. I don't care what you're not -- I need to know what you are!"
" ... "
"Can't you tell me that?"
"No, I can't."
"What can you tell me?"
Omega rubbed his temples and paced back in forth in front of the sofa. The sofa ...
"Wait a minute -- if you're not here, how come you're sitting on my sofa? Hmm? Explain that."
"I'm not-standing on your sofa."
"How is that any different? You just restated it as a negative." But wait a minute, come to think of it, everything he -- oh.
"Can you not form positive statements?"
"Well at least now we're getting somewhere. Let's start from the top. You didn't escape the beachhouse?"
"You didn't escape the room?"
"You didn't escape the opening in the wall?"
"You didn't find a way to escape it?"
" ... "
" ... "
"Uh ... you didn't not find a way to escape it?"
"I did not, not find a way ... to escape."
"Then you wanted to -- no, that's not right. Then you didn't want to leave?"
"Why?" Omega caught himself and rolled his eyes. "... Never mind."
But Nick replied regardless. "There is no pain here."
+ + +
He ended up bringing not-Nick into the lab to have the top CD research heads try and figure this crap out for him, because he was getting nowhere in his living room. Chief Operator Omega paced the room while the scientists asked question after question, every so often catching Nick -- or rather, not-Nick -- attempting to grasp the not-coffee on the table of his observation quarters, but failing due to the cup itself not being a not-mug. Or something. He couldn't really figure out any of it -- despite his years of academy training for preparing oneself for "any arbitrary situation, no matter how contrary to logic or reason" -- this just wasn't just contrary to logic, it actively worked against it.
"Okay. Let's try this again," Dr. Brightman said, his two colleagues currently lying well back in their chairs and dowsed in sweat from the stress of interfacing with a NegEntity (they had dubbed it).
"Fine. Then tell me why you even showed yourself at all, if it's so great in the hole?"
"But you said you can't not get out of the hole, meaning you can get out of the hole?"
"Damnit, this makes no sense!"
"It makes no sense."
"Well at least we're agreed on that."
"Can I give it another try?" Dr. Boffinfellow jumped in. "I think I might have thought of something."
"Please, be my guest." Brightman collapsed in his chair. It was supposed to be the most astounding discovery of this career, but this was turning out to be less astounding and more frustrating.
"All right,' Boffinfellow pushed the red button activating the mic. Not-Nick was currently not on the side of the glass with them. Meaning he was on the other side. Of the glass. Difficult to get out of NegSpeak after hours of engaging in it. "Not-Nick, this is Boffinfellow."
"Is there anything in the Nothing apart from you?"
"How are you here and there at the same time?"
"So you're only there then?"
"You're not there?"
Boffinfellow turned around to the others excitedly. "Saying nothing means a Yes! We've broken through to him!"
C.O. Omega massaged the space between his eyebrows and sighed. "Boffinfellow, what does that even prove?"
"Well, uh ... " His smile faded.
"Let's see," Brightman folding his hands and staring at the ratty panel ceiling, which had a nasty big hole poked in the end from when the team had just moved in and couldn't wait a week for Maintenance to connect their cabling, so ended up running a 20ft long Ethernet cable above the ceiling and down to the server room to connect to the mainframe. "Not-Nick is admitting that he's not in the Nothing, yes?"
"Mhmm," Boffinfellow agreed. The third scientist was asleep at his desk.
"Yes, and?" Omega said.
"Then he's not there," Boffinfellow said, matter-of-factly.
Omega raised an eyebrow, pushed past Boffinfellow, and hit the red button. "Not-Nick, are you anywhere?"
Omega raised a hand as if to say "Et voila."
Boffinfellow: "What? I don't get it."
Omega: "He's not there, and he's not anywhere. Therefore, he is, indeed, Nowhere. But we already knew that much."
Boffinfellow: "Drat! Now what?"
Boffinfellow: "Huh? Oh, the mic is still hot. I must have been leaning on it."
Boffinfellow got out of the way but now Omega sat down and drew his chair closer. "Hold on a second ... " And pushing the button down, "What do you mean by that, not-Nick? Now what?"
Boffinfellow looked between Omega & Brightman, his eyes widening. "What could it possibly mean?"
Brightman moved up to the mic. "Yesterday."
"No." Brightman choked trying to get the words out. "Are you saying that time doesn't exist for you in particular?"
"Time doesn't exist for us?"
" ... "
The three traded pale, incredulous faces amongst themselves. Just because Not-Nick said so, didn't make it true. But then again, he was in a unique position, with regards to knowing reality and all that jazz. That, or maybe this whole ordeal had just been so exhausting to Omega & Co. that they were hearing what they wanted to hear. Which in this case was just about anything that would make a lick of sense.
"Time doesn't exist? What does that mean?"
"It means this is hopeless and pointless and we've wasted more than a week debriefing a hallucination," Omega said.
"A hallucination," Brightman said, "that we've all four of us seen and interacted with, over a sustained period of time."
"More like three of us," Boffinfellow said snidely. "Pearson has been conked out on his desk most of the time. In fact, when was the last time he was even awake?"
"Good point." Omega shook Pearson's shoulders. "Hey there, get up now! If you want to sleep, do it in your quarters. Hey!" He shook harder. "Pearson?" Checked his pulse. Nothing.
No time left.
"Men," Omega's face now sheet white. "Pearson is dead."
+ + +
"This is going nowhere," Omega cursed after Pearson's body had been safely stored away. They would handle official expiration procedures afterwards.
"Well, it went Nowhere," Brightman said, "now it's not going anywhere."
"Brightman, you're really starting to test my patience."
"Don't blame me, C.O. Omega. You were the one that brought that existential straggler in here! I was perfectly fine trying to figure out the location of The Device before that."
"We know the location of The Device, you doddling old fool! It's stuck in the Nowhere with not-Nick!"
Boffinfellow hit the red button. "Not-Nick, is The Device in there with you?"
Omega gritted his teeth. "We've been through all this. Nothing is in there with him!"
" ... "
Boffinfellow looked around at the other two. "Did he just affirm?" Pushing the red button, "Not-Nick, is The Device in there with you?"
" ... "
Boffinfellow's mouth hung so wide open you could see his larynx. "Did he ... did he just affirm a positive statement?"
Omega hit the red button. "Not-Nick, are you alive?"
"Is anything in there with you?"
"Is The Device in there with you?"
" ... "
"What the hell?" Omega scratched his head. "That makes no sense."
"No, it could be a thing," Brightman said, his lexical abilities severely reduced from days interfacing with not-Nick. "By which I mean -- if The Device is not 'anything,' then it makes sense, linguistically."
"Like hell it does," Omega sulked in the corner. "If it's not 'anything,' then what is it?"
"It's The Device," Brightman said evenly, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Omega's eyebrows went up full mast. "Hey uh, Longfellow, what's your opinion on this?"
"It's Boffinfellow, and my opinion is 'who cares?'"
"Well, there's no need to be like that, Boffin." Omega said in an insulted tone. The little sleep combined with Pearson's death had made them all a little cranky. But like hell would they rest until they'd gotten to the bottom of this. What if not-Nick disappeared in their absence? Then they'd have to deal with this vexation for the rest of their careers. Forget that.
"No," Boffinfellow said. "What I mean to say is -- it doesn't matter either way. Because even if The Device is in the Nowhere, we can't get to it. If any of us tried, we'd end up nonsensical and ghost-like, like the way not-Nick is a ghost, like." Boffinfellow yawned and leaned over on the desk.
Brightman continued, "Don't you see? The Device is the only thing that exists in that world. The Device IS the world of Nothing itself!!"
Omega contemplated this for a minute or so. Maybe there was something to it. "But if so, what can we do about it? Lay siege to the entire beachhouse? Our mission is to secure The Device and investigate its properties, but how do you even investigate the properties of another world so incongruous with ours? That tries to strip you of your reason. That forces you to accept non-logic as reality."
"We can figure that part out later," Brightman brushed his four-day-old stubble with a slight grin tucked inside the corner of his mouth. If they managed to obtain The Device it would secure his career at CD indefinitely. "First of all, let's gather our notes and present a case to the Upper Circle."
"All right, fine. Boffin, wakey wakey, we need your head on this."
Boffin didn't move from his position, sprawled out over the desk.
"Boffin?" Omega's heart stopped and a thick chill began to spread within him. He pounced over to Boffin's desk and poked the motionless scientist. "BOFFIN? WAKE UP!" No response. With a trembling hand, Omega reached over and took his pulse. Silence.
"Is he ...?" Brightman gulped
"No," not-Nick said from inside the glass.
Omega hammered the red button down and yelled back "You shut the hell up, you damn curse! What did you do to my men?!"
Red-faced and furious, Omega hooked his arms under Boffinfellow's and started dragging him out the room.
"Wait there, Omega. Wait a moment," Brightman had his focus fixed on an arbitrary point on the ground, the way he got whenever he was onto something.
"What is it now? The time for theory is over."
"I agree with you, but listen. Listen to what not-Nick is saying: Boffinfellow is not-dead: it was the Nothing that did it to him."
"ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!" Omega dragged the lifeless body back to the door and smashed the Open button with his backside, then headed out in the direction of the Med Bay.
Brightman hurried after him. "No, listen to me! This is it, don't you see? I've figured it all out!"
"Beat it, Brightman."
"C.O. Omega, please!" tottering after him down the empty hall. The empty, silent hall devoid of all sound. Devoid of all life. Alone.
"Wait," Omega stopped to a standstill. "Where the hell are all the guards? And workers for that matter -- It's 10AM on a weekday!"
"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Brightman said.
"Tell me what!?" Omega's tone had descended from anger back to hushed fear. He could feel his body tremble with the weight of his dead colleague in his hands.
"Everyone ..." Brightman huffed breathlessly, "... on this station ... is at risk."
"I know that, you fool!"
"No, you don't. What I'm saying is ... they're not dying ..."
"For God's sake, make sense!"
"They ... they've been ... swallowed by the Nothing."
"What? How? The Device is -- "
"HE is The Device, don't you see?! He has BECOME the device, and we've brought him HERE."
"Oh no ... oh God ..." Omega's complexion turned pale as a star at sunrise. "Then we're all going to -- "
"Yes. The Device which can 'nullify any enemy.' Quite literally ..."
Any arbitrary circumstance, Max Omega had been trained for. But he had not-trained for not-circumstances. He frantically hit every button on the communicator attached to a nearby wall. No response. Dead air. Running from room to room he saw the truth: body upon body lay lifeless on the floor. Floor after floor, room after room. Everyone. Not-living. Omega's groans spat out in ragged breaths, mixed wrath and guilt. "He's a curse! A fucking angel of death! We have to destroy him, Brightman. We have to dump him into space!"
+ + +
Back in the room, not-Nick had become restless. So he should be, Omega thought. He'd just murdered their entire fucking crew.
"No," not-Nick said. "No!"
"You're coming with us," Omega sternly, brandishing the last of his dwindling supply of authority over matters. NegEntity or not, Omega still outranked him on this station.
Not-Nick's head bowed in acquiescence ... or maybe he had just given up trying to communicate. Either way, only one option remained for all of them. They solemnly traversed the sterile grey corridors, not-Nick forced to walk five meters ahead of the other two, heading down to C Deck. They all knew what was down there: the airlock.
He needed no further instruction -- as soon as they reached the bulky safety door banded in aposematic yellow and black, not-Nick passed straight through it into the airlock. But now he just stood there, not-hiding from Omega and Brightman on the other side of the porthole. Not-speaking, not-leaving until they released the airlock for him. Not-able to fling himself of his own volition into that real Nothing of space beyond the walls of CD Station.
But Omega couldn't put the lives of anyone else at risk. In the ten days locked in the observation room they hadn't thought to talk to anyone else; and now that blood was on their hands. 1200 people, reduced to Nothing. Enough was enough.
He looked at Brightman. Brightman nodded absently, the lingering scientist in him still reluctant to let The Device go, but the human in him knowing it was the only way.
But it was only when C.O. Max Omega unlocked the safety lid and laid his hand on the airlock manual switch, and had already pulled that switch down past the point of no return that something dawned on him. And as the oxygen hissed out from that other side and the specter of not-Nick vanished like a dust mote into the nethers of dead space, Omega's body trembled with the possibility.
What if it wasn't everyone else the Nothing had swallowed?