We lost Jerry when he went out to feed the generator. At first, it just seemed like one of those sad, unfortunate things that comes with working in the Alterworld. We figured his lantern must have cut out. He’d stepped away from the safety line for just a moment, then realised he’d left his emergency flare back in the hut. With the door closed and the blackout shutters dropped all the way, there was no way he could have found his way back. Everyone knows that wandering off is the last thing you should do. Everyone knows that if worst comes to worst, you stay put, you wait for someone to come find you. But in practice, it’s hard. The total darkness, the total silence…it gets to you. Jerry wouldn’t have been the first to lose it, just walk off into the dark with his arms out in front of him like there was something to touch out there. But he didn’t. At least, not because of the dark.
They say there’s nothing alive out here in the third layer. They say that there’s not enough energy to support it. That the background ALICE is high enough the place is sterile. But none of us really believed it. They said the same thing about the second layer. And before anyone had actually broken through the ether, they’d said it about the first. If there’s one thing you can count on in the Alterworld, it’s that there’s always—always—something alive in the dark. That’s why none of us were surprised when we saw what Jerry had scrawled in the damp earth by the fuel store:
“He was seeing things,” Ernest had said. “You see those white patches when there’s no light at all. He panicked. He just panicked, that’s all.”
I didn’t say anything. Neither did Rupert.
“He just panicked,” Ernest said again, “and that’s it.” Not one of us believed it. Not even him.
Ernest left no message. Just a lantern, still lit and glowing brightly, half-submerged in the mud.
“He was here,” Rupert had said. “He was here just a moment ago. I just turned around and…he was gone.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but where?” All around us, the darkness was crushing. What little warmth there was rose from the ground. I looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the reflective seams on Ernest’s uniform, but spotting nothing more than the dimly-lit wall of our nearby hut, rippling faintly under the influence of the ALICE in the air.
Suddenly, I spotted something. Out beyond the generator, beyond even the capacitive gate leading inwards, to the second layer, there was a speck. It was only a glimmer, like a red star on the horizon: but there were no stars. There was no sky to hold them.
“It’s the flare. He lit the flare.” Rupert squinted out at the wavering dot of light, but didn’t move. I didn’t either. Ernest’s lantern was sitting upright. He had put it down. Nothing had carried him off, and that was the most unsettling thing.
“We have to get him back.” We both knew it was a question, not a fact. Neither of us knew what was out there. Neither of us knew if Ernest could even be saved.
“Yeah,” answered Rupert. “Yeah, we have to.”
Under any other circumstances, I would have felt proud. It was a tradition of this place that you never let a flare go ignored, because that way, if you ever found yourself out there and alone, you’d know your mates would do everything to find you. There was also an unspoken rule that you didn’t light your flare if whatever trouble you’d run into would get the rescue party killed. Unfortunately, that part wasn’t guaranteed to be observed.
“This probably isn’t the best time to mention this, but there’s something I’ve been wondering.”
“What’s that?” I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know, but the prospect of not knowing felt slightly worse.
“What Jerry wrote: ‘eyes.’ There’s no light here. There never has been. What kind of creature could he have possibly seen?”
I struggled to laugh. It didn’t sound as reassuring as I’d hoped. “It is quite strange. I suppose that’s why he bothered to mention it.”
The flare was closer than it had seemed at first. As we drew closer, not sure what to expect, I could even pick out the line of Ernest’s arm stretching back into the darkness, the seam of his sleeve lurid through the smoke. Then, the flare dropped. He turned and pressed further on into the dark.
“Ernest!” I called.
“Don’t shout, man!” Rupert hissed.
He was right. Ernest already knew we were here. Calling him would do no good.
“We should go back. I’ll put out the flare.”
I started back, fearful that Ernest’s lantern might cut out before we got back to the hut. I hadn’t got far when I heard Rupert swear. Immediately, there were shots. Drawing my own pistol, I rushed back towards the place I’d last seen him. He surprised me by suddenly appearing in my lantern’s light—his own switched off. I nearly shot him.
“Cut the light!” he shouted. “Cut the light!”
I fumbled for the switch, trying to manage it without letting go of my gun. Rupert grabbed the handle and shut it off himself. We stood there for a moment in the absolute darkness, utterly alone except for the thin iron handle we both clutched.
“What was that?” I whispered. Talking seemed dangerous, but as with all things in the Alterworld, not knowing was worse.
“I saw it,” Rupert breathed. “I…I saw the eyes.”
“Can it see, then? Can it see the light?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what?” I snapped, despite the danger. “Does it hunt by sound? By heat? What organs does it have? How does it move?” It bothered me that Rupert had suddenly become so useless. It scared me too.
He said nothing.
“Blast it all, I’m switching on the light!”
“No!” After a couple of false swipes, Rupert grabbed my wrist.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because the eyes…oh God, I can feel them on me now. I can feel them inside my head! But we’ll be safe as long as this darkness never ends.”
I cast a glance back towards the hut, Ernest’s lantern the only thing that could lead us back. “If we don’t find our way back to that light,” I said carefully, “we’ll die out here.”
Rupert finally saw sense. “Alright.” His voice was trembling. “But if you see something from the corner of your eye, don’t look at it. And if you look, don’t meet its gaze.”
We made our way back to the hut in darkness, the unlit lantern still held between us. As we passed the light Ernest had dropped, I picked it up, and we marched eyes-forward to the door, as though we were at the centre of some silent parade.
Inside, things were calmer. There was no need to worry about the light in here, when we had four sturdy walls to hide us. I boiled the kettle for tea.
“It’s…fed now,” I said. “Or whatever it does. It’ll forget about us.”
“Not about me.” Rupert shook his head. His face was pale. His hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat. “Not about me. It’s still watching. I can still feel the eyes.”
For just a second, I thought I could feel them too. Then I looked around. At the dull concrete walls. At the blackout shutters, still buttoned down tight. “It can’t see in here. There’s no way.”
“It can.” Rupert shivered. “It can because I feel it. And because…I can see it too.”
It was the middle of the night when Rupert shook me awake. Or at least, I was mid-way through that day’s sleep. Time, like distance, was not the same in the Alterworld: it stretched more and more the farther outwards you went. When that had been discovered, they thought they’d found the fountain of youth. Then they’d discovered ALICE, and realised the fountain was poisoned.
“What is it?” I realised I should have been more concerned, but I was exhausted, and as far as I could tell there was nothing going on.
“I can’t take it anymore.” Rupert’s tone jolted me awake. “I have to get out of this place. I have to get where that thing can’t follow.”
“That’s desertion.” I pointed it out only to be sure: it sounded like Rupert already knew what he was saying. “There’ll be a patrol here soon. They’ll sort everything out. You’re trading a couple of weeks here for years in prison.”
Rupert laughed, or tried to. His attempt was even more pathetic than mine. “That’s an easy trade. I’ll never last two weeks.” He paused. “I’ll send help. They wouldn’t leave you here alone.”
I wasn’t so sure. But even so, I fancied my chances better with the creature outside than the command post on the second layer. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Then…you wouldn’t mind operating the gate?” Rupert’s eyes were wide and sunken. In this condition, I wouldn’t have trusted him with that apparatus even if he’d been trained to use it.
“I don’t really have a lot of choice.” I smiled, trying to make it sound light-hearted. “At the very least I’d have to shut the thing down once you’re through.”
I made my way to the gate while he made sure the generator had enough fuel to keep running while it primed. He called softly to let me know the generator was okay. The gate, however, was not. I stared at the row of conspicuous rectangular holes in the base. We had spares for maybe half of them. We needed them all. Ernest had done this, or possibly Jerry. If we were lucky, they’d done it before they’d walked out into the black. It was hard to imagine it happening any other way, but here in the Alterworld, here in the third layer, I couldn’t rule anything out.
Rupert came to stare at the gate too. All of a sudden, he was unusually calm. “Could you…hang onto this for me?” He held out his emergency flare.
“What are you going to do?”
His mouth twisted into an apologetic grimace. “It’s the eyes. If I can’t get away…” he unfastened the strap on the sheath knife at his belt, “I’ll stop them.”
I didn’t move, though I was well aware that the thing was out here with us in the darkness, that it could appear at any time.
Rupert shoved the flare into my hand. “Best get inside now, eh? You haven’t seen it. You can still just wait this out, hold on for the patrol.”
I opened the blackout shutters a crack half an hour later. The lantern was still there, but Rupert was gone.
I woke gradually, thinking that I could hear one of the others getting dressed, preparing a meal, perhaps fiddling with the radio that never made a sound. It took me a minute to remember that I was the last one left. It took me a minute longer to realise that, nevertheless, there was still a noise. I switched on my lantern—the generator had long ago run down to empty, and so the light overhead would not work—and stepped into the centre of the room, turning around slowly to determine the source of the sound. With a creeping dread, I realised it was the blackout shutters. The bottom-right corner—where Jerry had accidentally knocked through the glass with the back of a shovel—was rattling, as though probed from outside.
Breathing heavily, I took the revolver from beside my bed and cocked it. The shadows from the single lantern exaggerated the tiny movement of the shutters, and the backdrop of total silence made the noise seem deafening, like the entire window could explode inwards at any moment.
“Rupert?” I whispered. “Is that you?”
I knew it wasn’t, but I couldn’t shoot unless I made absolutely sure.
No response. I knew where the creature was. A hail of bullets could end this here.
The rattling stopped. My chance was gone.
Suddenly, I was gripped by what I could only assume was the same fear I had observed in Rupert. The thing outside had not forgotten. It would not forget. And now it was trying to find a way inside. It would be almost two weeks before the patrol arrived. To think how many more hours I would have to sleep in that time, how many hours the creature would have to work its way inside the hut…
I could bear it no more. Hardly pausing to listen at the door, I tore outside and into the fuel store. We may not have had a complete set of fuses, but we had plenty of wire: I could short the connections of any I could not replace. A can of fuel in one hand and a bag of scrap in the other, I turned.
And there it was.
The creature’s face was not a face. It was shiny and pitted, like the hard shell of a very black beetle, yet at the same time it was not quite opaque, so that there seemed to be a vast space behind the…behind the…and that was the strangest thing. Despite what Jerry had written, despite Rupert’s fevered raving, there were no eyes. As I continued to stare, I began to see the white blotches that Ernest had mentioned, as though, despite the light of the lantern, my eyes were still in dark.
After a minute or so—perhaps longer, for time is strange in the Alterworld—the creature slunk away. I dropped my lantern. I dropped the bag of scrap. Still the creature’s gaze formed spots of white within my brain. Still the touch of its sight lingered inside my head. Because that was its nature, beauteous and terrible: it had no eyes to meet, and so I could never look away.