I started playing ‘Alien: Isolation’ this week, which I think influenced this story, both aesthetically and emotionally. I’ve never been more enjoyably terrified with a controller in my hand than I have with ‘Isolation.’ Interactive experiences are the most effective, I think, at conveying dread. You and the protagonist are inseparable in those cases. It’s harder to achieve such a position with the written word – that kind of one-to-one experience. The gap is a much wider one to bridge.
Terror, in its real form, is a potent emotion, and one that most people in a country like Australia feel very little. Being trapped, though, is a far more relatable position.
Cold Dark Tank
Harriet swept her arclight over the back of the room.
This was it. The end.
“Nothing else back there?”
“No. This must be the belly of the beast,” Harriet called back to Parker, somewhere behind her. “Radio up, tell them we’ll take some pictures and get out of here.”
It was a square room, walls lined with high benches that probably once shone. It was unclear what it was used for, but Harriet’s heart continued to pound with the sickly ferment of discovery. She was full of questions, but all she had time to do now was try desperately to remember them for later.
“Parker, bring the camera.”
Harriet bristled. The ship was at least a hundred years old, discovered in the dunes of northern Africa. An old relic, long missing. A cursory sweep of the hull coding revealed it was probably a commercial freighter, one of the early sub-FTL trawlers, but the decaying data was too fragmented for a full analysis. The sand had worn down any physical markers as time marched freely on, grain by grain.
It was too intact to have crashed. If it had broken orbit accidentally, it would have snapped up, melted away upon re-entry. It had been left here, in the desert, old and useless, and allowed to fade away. Once, this had approached the stars. What a long way to fall, even deliberately.
This was the last room they could find hidden away in the hull, and it was quiet and uneventful. Harriet couldn’t wait to get back outside, look through the video and discuss it further with Parker, pick apart the readings line by line while they decided where to begin the salvage.
Parker wasn’t answering, presumably lost somewhere in the labyrinthine stairwells above. Harriet shook her head, and decided to house herself here in this moment, just for a beat. Felt the cool, old air envelop her.
Her eyes wandered around the oddly plain room. Smooth counters. Some old electronic equipment, long since shattered. And a wide, open floor, inset with four long slots arranged in a square, parallel with the walls. Each slot was a few metres long, a slightly raised groove in the steel. Some old fitting for a missing piece of equipment, no doubt.
Harriet let the arclight swing down by her side. She would go and find Parker. Not much to take pictures of in here, anyway.
She stepped back towards the hatch that lead to main hall, and eventually, after some climbing, the spacecraft’s old airlock. As she did, though, she heard a spark.
Her arclight flickered out, leaving Harriet alone in the deep dark blanket of intergalactic hull and four hundred feet of sand.
She shook the arclight. Nothing. Around her, pitch black. Her eyes had nothing to adjust to, so they lay helplessly in wait.
She tried the radio this time, the feint green glow of the hand-unit’s display the only light here at the bottom of the world. No answer on the radio, but they’d had trouble finding usable frequencies in this rusted shell. Where was she? Where, where –
Harriet slowed her breathing.
The craft wasn’t that big, its design not that complex. If she headed forward, she could feel her way along the hall back to the stairs, back to the airlock, and back to the carefully excavated shaft that lead to the light above. She would make it out, and quietly chastise Parker for breaking line of sight. And drink a beer, and lie in the sun.
Here, though, the dark was all enveloping, and her breathing fought back angrily against her brain’s manufactured calm.
She was at the back of the room. The door should be directly across from her. Harriet took a small, shuffling step, then another. Her confidence grew, her arms splayed out in front of her uselessly as a buffer. It took her a few seconds to realise that her eyes were squeezed shut.
Suddenly, she kicked something, and fell, hard, her face clashing on cold steel. It was one of the raised slots in the floor. At least she was heading the right way, back now in the middle of the room. She ran her leg over the length of the slot, trying to orient herself.
Harriet’s breathing stopped all together as her leg began to rise into the air.
She pulled it away, as she realised that something was rising out of the slot, fast and silent. Harriet leapt to her feet, directions escaping her, and turned and ran toward where she thought – hoped – that the exit lay. This time, her arms weren’t held up in deflection of the dark, though, and her nose smacked into a smooth, cool surface.
Was it glass? Was it still rising?
Harriet’s breathing sharply kicked as she felt around her. It was definitely a glass panel, rising from the slot in the floor in front of her. She used her hands to guide her trembling feet, trying to get around – but, as she reached the edge of the slot, she met a corner. Another pane of glass bending off at 90 degrees, sealed tight. She knew before she tried it, but sure enough, she soon discovered that she was surrounded by a glass tank, rising out of the four grooves in the floor, soaring above her to the roof. How high it went, she couldn’t know in this light – but it was high enough and slicked and smooth enough to prevent any kind of traversal.
“Parker! Parker, come quickly, something’s happening – ”
Harriet’s mind raced for useless answers. Maybe this was a medical brig, or a holding station, or a, or a research laboratory, or a—
Her thoughts clunked heavily to a stop as she felt water seep into her boots.
It was subtle at first, just a fraction of cool wetness, but soon she could feel her feet sloshing about, could hear the slapping of water on glass and steel.
The floor to the tank must have been porous, because it was now covered with slowly rising, freezing liquid.
By the time she’d worked that out, the water was above her ankles. Her knees would be next, then her waist, and soon her head, her eyes and her mouth and every part of her, drowning here in this cold dark tank that nobody had any use for anymore.
Harriet threw herself into the darkness, striking the glass in front of her, closer and sooner than she expected. She winced at the pain in her shoulder, before throwing herself forward again. The panels of the tank held firm.
The water was nearly up to her waist, and the effort to hurl herself into the glass was getting harder and harder, her chances of getting enough speed to do any damage rapidly decreasing.
Water lapped around her, crept under her armpits. Seeped through her belt loops, up her cuffs and into her body. It was freezing cold, a shattering liquid sheet swooping around her final bed. As the water rose to her chin, Harriet thought she could see lights somewhere off in the distance, deep within the slowly moving black. Maybe it was just bouncing around inside her skull, firing off the back of her retinas as the cold took hold.
As she started to float, she dragged her arms upward in the water, again holding off the unknown above. Soon, her hands touched the cold steel roof of the room, which now met the water, and it was clear that there was no getting out of here. Not today. Not until the ship that surrounded her pulled its long dead shell out from under the sand, and once again leapt up at the distant stars.
Harriet realised, amongst the burning of her lungs and the cold, sharp spikes of her forehead, that her eyes were squeezed shut.
She opened them, and through the soft focus of water, she did, this time, see a light, green and inviting.
It was Parker’s arclight. She was staring, yelling voicelessly at Harriet through the water. Harriet grinned, the gaps in her teeth filling with ice. She kicked, hard, at the slowly moving liquid tourniquet, and slid forward towards beautiful Parker.
Beauitful Parker and her beautiful light.
Harriet wondered whether she’d made the right choice.
She reached forward to grab onto the band of light, but all she felt was the smooth, unrelenting cold of glass.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.