All The Universe Has To Hold (Part IV)

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Please scroll to the very bottom of the page to see relevant trigger warnings for this story.

Previously on All The Universe Has To Hold… Part I and Part II and Part III

Casting the lantern around the corridor, it struck Connor he had only the faintest of guesses what direction would lead him back to the surface.

The only sense of direction Connor had left to him was the screaming, and he followed it deeper into the darkness, until he arrived at the first closed door. It was cast iron, rivetted, with a postbox sized window just far enough below eyelevel that it was uncomfortable to bend down and peer through it.

Once again, Connor’s helmet prevented him from getting close enough for a good view, but he could see clammy skin the colour of old bandages.

Something was thrashing around, sometimes obscured by shadows passing in front of it.
There was something wrong with the shadows. Connor could only glimpse a bit of them at a time, but as his brain tried to piece the bits together it rebelled. It was like trying to process that optical illusion with the tuning fork.

The screaming grew in desperation.

Taking a deep breathe, Connor clasped the doorhandle, pushed down, and pulled open the door.
First impressions collided with each other like clowns falling out of a tiny car.

First of all, there were the aliens. Creatures dressed in heavily patchworked, floor-length fishing smocks, each hunched over like a Frankenstein’s assistant. They had three bony, angular arms with varying numbers of elbows, erupting haphazardly from their back and flanks. From the hoods of each smock poked a circular, toothy mouth surrounded by fleshy petals scattered with tiny, black, shining eyes. Something about them chimed a deep note of “wrong” at Connor’s very core. He found himself reminded of pictures of tumours he’d seen with hair and teeth.

The second first impression was that this was clearly a torture chamber. The figures ignored Connor, as their attention was devoted to the flailing, screaming, and naked compatriot strapped down between them. The petals of their face were pinned back, their arms restrained behind them. The only free limbs were the three tapering flippers that trailed off their torso like a horrifying ball gown.

As the door creaked open, the flower-shaped face twisted towards Connor, and the screaming resumed, louder and more desperate than before.

Men in black types. A recurring theme, across several of the world’s the Fermi had visited, was that when a species encountered the wondrous, life-changing knowledge that they weren’t alone in the universe, there was inevitably a government agency or evil corporation that decided actually, they should control that knowledge.

So the third first impression that tripped over itself to get into Connor’s brain was that this poor, tortured soul was Armitage, and for speaking with Connor they’d earned themselves a visit from this world’s Spanish Inquisition.
Connor knew that, regardless of what he did next, in a couple of days Armitage, Armitage’s torturers, Armitage’s torturers’ friends, and all of the ocean’s woodlouse whales, would all be blasted to atoms by the wake of the Fermi’s Alcubierre drive.

He also knew that he was unarmed, a physical coward, outnumbered and out of contact with his much more capable and better-looking clone.

So once again, he couldn’t make much of an argument for his actions when he stepped into the torture chamber and, in his most assertive voice, shouted, “Hey there!”

“Death of Gods…” a voice whispered from Connor’s phone, the algorithm inflecting it so that it trembled with fear.

One of the torturers ducked down, raising their hands to cover their flower. The other two turned towards Connor. The one furthest away reached down to a metal tray covered in sharp implements, and picked up something like a long file.

They jammed it through the back of their own flower, then flopped over like a suddenly empty sock puppet.

The other joined in with Armitage’s screams, rising to a pitch every bit as desperate and hoarse. Then, they turned to the stone walls, and began flinging their flower petal head as hard at the wall as they could. Each impact sounded a wet crunch and left a dark smudge against the paint.

“Why?” cried a voice, and this one Connor recognised as Wentworth, who he deduced was the figure crouching with their face turned from the door.

“Why, you confounded, nefarious being, would you get out of the box?”

“I’m sorry…” Connor stuttered, but the phone’s translation struggled to be heard over the screaming and the regular thwack of the nearest alien’s head against the wall.

Wentworth’s head turned to the ceiling as they cried, “We tried to ease poor Armitage’s suffering after they witnessed your countenance. We did not blame you for the cruelty nature had wrought upon you. But to inflict yourself upon our sanity like this can only be aggression. Death of Gods!”

“No but…” Connor said, and took a step towards Wentworth, hands out placatingly.

Instinctively, Wentworth looked down at Connor. Somehow the translated whisper cut through the din.

“It’s worse than I imagined,” Wentworth said, and immediately began clawing at their own petals, trying to pluck the eyes from them.

Connor turned and ran.

While he wouldn’t admit it openly, Samson quite liked being left to guard the ship. Life aboard the Fermi didn’t grant one much in the way of alone time, and it was pleasant to be able to listen to the music he liked without hearing everyone else’s opinion of it, or read without being interrupted by others’ bickering.

So he had to confess, if only to himself, to a pang of disappointment as he glanced at the feed from Spider’s rear camera to see Connor hurtling back along the quay. Permitting himself a small sigh, Samson began making launch preparations.

“Do we need a quick take-off?” Samson asked into the radio as he heard the airlock start to cycle.

“Umm, no. No, nothing like that,” Connor said. “I’m not being chased.”

“But am I to trust we’re not about to get a large shipment of alien whale oil?”

“No,” Connor said.

“So what happened?”

Connor didn’t answer as he stepped through the inner airlock. With a click and a hiss he opened his suit’s hatch and ducked out through it.

Samson kept checking the ship’s cameras, but nobody and nothing approached.

Connor came to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, but still didn’t talk.

“Connor, what happened?” Samson repeated. “What did you see?”

On his way back to the ship, Connor had barrelled blindly from corridor to corridor, hoping against hope to blunder onto the surface of the planet. One corridor widened and sloped upwards to a large set of double doors. Connor tripped into them, swinging them apart, and choked at what he saw.

Like Dr Grant said, similar functions breed similar solutions. However strange these people looked, Connor instantly recognised that he was in a dinner hall. He seemed to have caught the busy period.

No matter what wonders or horrors Connor might behold on Fermi’s deadly journey through the universe, he would never forget what he’d felt as dozens of flower faces had twisted towards him.

The further adventures of the Fermi’s crew can be found at Scarlet Ferret and Amazon.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: All The Universe Has To Hold (Part IV) depicts body horror, violent suicide and violent self harm.