I startled awake.
Body next to me did not startle with me though it was warm. I shuddered experimentally. So did she. I recalled that her name was Marti and that Owen called her a spy.
I opened my eyes, expecting black-dark. My eyes adjusted. A purple glowed right next to me?
The spy’s facemask had patches of tiny luminescent, lavender fungi growing in and under the eye hollow nearest to me, and in the corner of the groove masquerading as a mouth. Not a good look. I shuddered away from her.
When I had a tiny gap between us, I had time to concentrate on a sound I’d been hearing that seemed to be coming nearer. A whisper, like a soft hissing. Might it be someone dreaming aloud? Sleepwalking? I stared over the spy into the cylindrical space in the middle of the … the … silo. That was it, SILO 23.
The central space was filled with a lavender ambience. Meaning there were more places where the fungus grew? Movement. Something rose over the foot-end of the bunk. I closed my eyes again, slowly, to tiny cracks, because eyeballs glisten in the semi-dark. The hissing came with the thing.
A pair of eyes rose higher and higher. They blinked without let-up. My feet were beside the spy’s knees, with nowhere else to put them unless I drew up my knees. Way too late for that. The eyes, in what I now saw were greenish leathery sockets, busily looked everywhere, always blinking.
The eyes grew from the toe-part of a dark boot-shaped thing. It swayed toward Marti’s knees and my feet. Hovered there while the eyes looked us over.
The thing rose higher above the bunk. It had tiny wings that moved faster than a hummingbird’s either side of the heel, level with about where a human ankle would fit into the boot.
I didn’t stop my staring from behind my eyelids, looking it over. Like it was made of mouldy old leather with purple fungi growing in its wear-creases. A flying boot? Really?
The terrible gaze flicked over my features. Be still. Stay silent. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. My hair earned me a couple of side-to-side passes. The thing hissed. A pair of reptilian membranes slid slowly across moss green pupils from the inner corners of the eyes. I couldn’t see a mouth or breathing holes anywhere.
Just before I exploded—that’s what I felt like—it swayed forward. Four long white appendages, like threads, hung from where shoelaces normally looped. I forced myself to not to press into the corner, away from those whispering, paper-dry tentacles as they passed over the spy’s mask. The mushroom caps by the corner of her mouth expanded and unfolded.
Marti relaxed against me as if she’d been tensely asleep, maybe dreaming a nightmare, and now slid into unconsciousness. The boot continued its progress over us as slowly as a snail. Its back was shaped like an upside-down boot-ankle.
As it passed over me, I saw a warty toad-skinned something writhing within the shadowed interior. Do not shudder! The boot rose, to allow it to pass over the next bunk in the spiral?
Remembering that I was a couple beds lower down from Jack and the others, I gathered my feet under me—mustn’t touch the spy mustn’t touch the spy—and threw myself over onto the walkway. Thud.
The steel catwalk vibrated up and down its length while I rolled almost to the edge. Could the boot hear? Had it heard me? I stared down into the hollow core of the silo.
Everywhere down where the boot had already been was a purple glow, beaded with hotspots such as the spy.
Hurry. Hurry. I crouch-ran past the thing swaying thoughtfully over the person in the next bunk up. Where’s Jack? There. His blue bandanna. The boot seemed to pick up speed. Had it felt the wind of my passage?
Jack was still with Owen. Both hopefully only slept. I pulled them off the bunk. Thump. Thud. Jack on top. “Wha ...?”
I clamped both my hands over Owen’s mouth, crying my fear tears on him. “Be quiet. There’s a thing. Trailing tentacles.”
Jack gripped my wrists. Whispered. “Let him up, he’s awake.”
“We’ve got to get the others before the boot gets to them.” I tried to whisper too. “Trailing poison.” I shook like a bunch of vibrating guitar strings.
“The damned data-waver,” Owen said. “You kids get Bene. I’ll get Pallas.”
With two of us we easily rolled Bene from her bunk. Jack clamped his hand over her mouth the second she would’ve cried out. “The data-waver,” he hissed in her ear.
She made the white-cockatoo sign for OK.
The others crawled to join us. Then the spy also. She’d shed her mushroomy mask.
“So you do this regularly?” I asked.
“I’m undercover,” she said. “Just like you. Only I have a place with the crew.”
I didn’t say anything about Jack’s, mine and Bene’s lack of undercoveredness.
“Who do you work for?” Owen said. “Other than the freight company?”
Marti laughed. “That’d be telling, wouldn’t it? We should get out of the way of the data-waver. It seems unhappy as it is.”
We all looked at where the boot swayed over the bunk where Bene had been. Its wraithy white tentacles tip-touched the folds and ridges of Bene’s shape in the thin mattress. Now I shuddered. It made like it recorded Bene’s absence.
The boot sped to the next bed. Jack pushed me. “Go already.” He followed me into the airlock between the hold and the command centre.
The data-waver hesitated over Pallas’s missing shape. The tone of its hissing changed. SSSS-ssss!! It swayed toward us.
“It knows something isn’t right. Lie down. Hide your faces,” Marti said.
Why was she helping us survive the data-waver?
The boot hovered over the catwalk near the airlock door, seeming to hesitate about coming in. I peered from under my arm. It swayed to and fro, to and fro. Oh. I see what it was doing. Swaying, the tentacles swung out. They weren’t long enough to reach us.
But what if it came lower and into the airlock? After the longest time, the data-waver swayed toward the central space and twirled down with its tentacles swaying outward like streamers on a merry-go-round.
Marti rose and pressed a keypad by the door we came in, and which then irised shut.
Jack did the same on a keypad adjacent to the further door. “Just like an elevator, really,” he said. That door slid open.
“Bene, Kosi, come on,” Pallas said. We stumbled through. Hope flared in me when I saw computer input desks which seemed to promise kinds of possibilities.
Marti closed the door by a keypad this side, seeming to fumble over the input. Why? She didn’t the first time.
Pallas pulled me into the five-hug of the EMBers and Jack and me. I suppose we’d gained a kind of safety. Felt churlish thinking it.
But … Marti, not in the hug, wandered around the command centre. She laughed. “First time ever I’m relaxed in here. The captain is a virago, you know?”
As if that was going to relax me about her. I frowned at Owen. “So what is the story? Why are we here?”