by Chloe Clark
At noon, we heard the siren.
Walking to the briefing-room, past the largest windows on the base, I imagined looking out and sunlight.
Outside, of course, it was only darkness.
In the briefing-room, Captain Khapour was already seated. She looked up, nodding at Katya and me when we walked in. We sat. So many empty seats.
“As you both obviously heard, we’ve had a siren triggered,” Khapour said.
I counted the seats. Thirteen. Unlucky to some.
“We’ll need to send one of you out to check on it.” Khapour frowned. “We have to follow protocol.”
I thought of the last person to go out. Alex. He’d been sweet, charming, volunteered for it, so as to let Katya and I stay inside. He didn’t question the protocol. None of us questioned it, at first, and then there came a time when questioning it’d seem disrespectful. And then there came a time when it was all we had to keep us going.
How long did he last out there? His vid only stayed, flickering in and out, on for a moment or two. Just long enough for us to see the darkness as it swallowed him. He’d yelled something. But we couldn’t hear it.
Katya’s heart beat hard enough that I could hear it. Thump thump thump.
I took a breath in. “I’ll do it.”
Katya looked down.
Khapour stared at me for a moment too long. As if committing my face to memory. Maybe she felt that that was her duty, the least she could do.
We’d been on the base for a year. At first it was normal. New planet, new experiments. Such excitement until the light disappeared. At first like sunny days when clouds pass across the sun. Then we woke up one morning and there was only dark outside the windows.
Then the sirens. Not every day. Sometimes once a week. Sometimes twice in one day. And someone would go outside. Protocol. No one came back. There were some of them whose names I don’t even remember.
In the bay, Katya helped me into my suit. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Protocol,” I responded.
“We’re beyond protocol!” She said.
“What if whatever triggered the siren is here to help us?”
Katya shook her head. “We’re beyond help.”
They’d sent us here to study the effects of the planet. What it would be like to settle here, make lives. We were scientists, raised on theories, ill prepared for the constancy of loss. The darkness crushed inward.
Katya hooked a new vid up for me. “Try to keep going as long as you can.”
The bay doors opened. I stepped into the darkness.
It was cool outside, but not cold. My little beam-light made almost no impact on the black swath. Stepping forward, the darkness crowded in around me. Something touched my back. I spun around. The light flickered. Nothing there.
My beam-light began to dim. The battery shouldn’t have worn down that quickly. The light went dull, then gone. The darkness was absolute.
I walked forward, relying on guesswork of where I should be headed. The siren’s trigger field was at the far right end of the base. In the dark, sounds began to gather. Whispering.
When there were still seven of us left, we’d drawn straws to see who’d go out for a siren. Alice, who had eyes the color of leaves, drew the short one. She’d stared at it for a moment while telling us about her sister, who as a child had gone blind. “But she still saw things in her head. I asked her once if it was just darkness, but it wasn’t, she saw rooms she’d known but they were always a little off. You know? Like the color would be wrong from what she remembered or the windows would be cracked or there’d be spiders crawling across the ceiling.”
And then Alice had went into the darkness. I wondered what she saw out in the black.
One step forward. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. It had shades, layers, depths. The whispering grew stronger.
In the darkness, I saw Alex, standing ten feet in front of me, perfectly still. “Alex!”
He didn’t turn, didn’t move.
I began to remember their names: Leah, Rose, Tom, Cesar, Kai, Dion, Alice, Harun, Paris, Gerta, Janine, Francis, Alex.
And in the darkness, I saw them. They stood so still, staring ahead. I walked forward.
“What are you most afraid of?” One of the search committee members had asked me at the interview.
“Not knowing things, I guess,” I’d replied.
“Don’t like being in the dark?” he’d said, with a smile.
“I’m not afraid of the dark.”
I looked at the siren trigger. Nothing was near it. Around me, the crew stood still. I could see so much in the dark. It wasn’t so bad, really, once accustomed to it.
The whispering was so loud.
“Are you scared?” Katya had whispered in my ear. Her voice shook.
“I’m unsure,” I’d said.
“Why didn’t we question it?”
“What?” I asked.
“Protocol. Sooner, I mean. Why didn’t we stop looking?”
“Because what if this time is the time. That’s the only thing keeping us going, isn’t it?”
“We could just hope instead,” she said.
She looked like she glowed with light. Maybe, that was just because I knew I’d be stepping into so much darkness.
I felt the darkness pulling the light out of me. It felt not unpleasant, like someone gently tugging off my clothes—not draining so much as lightening. Around me the darkness grew clearer. The others stared ahead, but I knew that they could feel it too. It’s easy to see in the dark, when part of it.
Soon, I’d touch the trigger to sound the siren and Katya would come out to us. Her light would help us shine, like the starless sky reflected in the deepest parts of the ocean.
Chloe N. Clark’s work appears in Apex, Gamut, Flash Fiction Online, Banshee, and more. She can be found online @PintsNCupcakes
Art by Issue 9 featured artist, Emily Truman
Emily has displayed work at various galleries, including “Nasty Women” in Philadelphia and “Vulvacular” in Chelsea, NYC. In addition to being in the process of becoming a teaching artist with South Central PaARTners through Millersville University, Emily holds a free monthly bring-your-own-everything collage workshop at Lancaster Art Studios, and teaches monthly workshops at The Candy Factory. Follow her on instagram at @collage__dropout.