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“Depth of Perception” by D.A. D’Amico

The rifling on eighteen-twelve veered sharply downward, losing the bilateral symmetry of the main corridors. Cetus noticed too late, sliding through the unexpected incline. He landed upside down in a tight spherical chamber filled with stalactites of formed metal and plastic. The protrusions covered the compartment in clumps, a scattering of glowing ovals that seemed to converge into a single object. He reached forward, fingers slipping neatly through the rings, like putting on a second set of gauntlets.

A corkscrew of silver metal pierced his chest, nailing him in place. He screamed, jerking back as poisonous atmosphere hissed into his suit.

“Talk to me, sweetheart. Do you need assistance?” The thin female voice tickled his inner ear. He tried to speak, but acid seared his esophagus. “We need that intel. Only two days until lights out.”

His skin boiled along the edges of the gash. He spat against the inside of his visor, struggling to breathe, drawing shallow gasps through the tight agony in his chest. The foul stench of the heavily chlorinated atmosphere coated his tongue, burning his eyes. He cursed himself. The information they sought would have to wait.

“Cetus, you there?”

He gurgled blood and foam, vision blurring, fingers numb as he fumbled the slender metal tabs on his helmet. He wished he had more time. He was onto something. If he could just figure it out, he’d be able to return to Earth, to his wife, and to his memory.

He popped the clasps simultaneously. The wailing shriek of a breach alarm joined the sizzle of high pressure chlorine entering his airway. He vomited, fighting instinct to keep sucking in mouthfuls of searing toxic fumes.

***

Cetus jerked. He clutched his throat, tensing at remembered panic, fighting for breath even as cool fresh air poured into his lungs. The long chamber seeped into focus. Flattened yellow plates, like the enormous scales of a snake turned inside-out, coated the high walls and reflected the honey-colored light.

“Take it easy, honey.” The familiar voice seemed to come from everywhere. The sweet citrus smell of oranges fought through his short-circuiting senses, soothing and at the same time alarming. “I have you.”

“Dilenia?” He called his wife’s name.

A tall man, dark and very thin, stared down at him. A puckered pink scar in the shape of a wolf’s head disfigured his right cheek, giving his face a lop-sided, melted look. “How about me, will I do?”

“Mo?” Cetus blinked. Images like cartoon ghosts floated before his eyes. Then he noticed Kassandra, and tried to relax.

“Remember where you are. Take your time. It’s ok, I have you.” She smiled and winked, her oval face coming into focus as Cetus concentrated on quelling the panic he should have left behind with his corpse somewhere within the bowels of the ship.

He slid his hands across the rough fabric of his jumpsuit, the garment he’d originally been recorded in, the only clothes continually replicated along with his body. His pockets bulged, filled with things they thought they could get away with reproducing using the meager power available. He wished they’d thought to bring something other than emergency rations, but nobody could guess they’d be stranded.

“You didn’t think you’d made it home, did you?” Mozart Fisher unfolded his long legs, leaping across the room like a grasshopper. He knelt beside the slender raised displacer ring, hanging like a gargoyle on what they thought might be a piece of oudjji furniture.

For a brief moment, Cetus had thought he’d been back on Earth, his mind whole, his wife by his side and the nightmare puzzle of the alien ship nothing but a bad dream.

“Pay attention to me, sweetheart.” Kassandra shined a bright blue light in his eyes, checking for signs of rapid degeneration, inspecting him for hidden damage.

He didn’t like the way she called him sweetheart. It implied a sense of intimacy he couldn’t remember. To Cetus, she was just the mission’s leader. She’d been replacing his body for as long as his defective memory could recall, about ten days. His thoughts before that had been eaten away, destroyed piecemeal by the replication process. They needed control of the ship to get back to Earth before the whole thing shut down, or before displacer degradation ate the rest of their minds.

***

“Not bad, not bad.” Arreyo stood at the end of the long chamber, wrinkled brown hands on his hips, his small frame seeming to take up more room than he needed. The wolf’s head scar on his right cheek mirrored Mozart’s. Both Marines comprised the muscle on this expedition. Cetus received no such badge. Rank was for soldiers. Leaders received rings, but grunts got nothing.

“You mapped almost a hundred meters before doing something stupid, mi amigo.”

Cetus frowned. Arreyo had a way of handing out compliments nested within insults. “Thanks. How far did you get?”

The pebbled, garnet-colored mat beneath his feet quivered as if alive when he stepped away from the device. The oudjji built more organically than humans, choosing unsettling textures and materials. Behind him, the energy field collapsed, folding like molten plastic back into its diamond shaped pillars.

“Not far.” Arreyo lowered his eyes, feigning humility. “I got sidetracked by your body.”

“Me? You found my body up in the stack?” Cetus moved closer, eyes flicking through the room they’d called home since entering the alien ship. The displacer, although oudjji in manufacture, was the only system that functioned the way they expected things to. Everything else seemed damaged, abandoned. “What was I doing in eighteen-twelve?”

“Dunno.” Arreyo shrugged. A smirk crossed his thin lips. There was obviously bad blood between the two of them. Cetus couldn’t remember, but he took his cues from smaller man’s attitude, his body language and snide remarks.

“What was I doing up there?” Cetus took a few steps across the gently sloping floor in Kassandra’s direction. She hopped back, nearly spilling the make-shift liquid battery which kept a trickle of electricity flowing through the displacer controls. Without that steady current the system would shut down. They’d lose the ability to duplicate their bodies. They’d lose the ability to investigate the ship, learn its secrets, its systems, and its power – and without that, the whole thing would wind down, fizzling out like his memory. He’d never return home, never see Dilenia again.

“The stack is filthy. I thought we decided our best bet was the main trunk at thirteen-seven. We don’t have time for games.” He balled his fists, his knuckles cracking. “Why’d you send me up there?”

“Don’t forget who’s in charge.”

“How can I? You never give me a chance.” He surged forward.

Kassandra glanced quickly between Cetus and Arreyo. The shallow tub of juice sloshed beside her. Thin wires, salvaged from some ruined oudjji contraption, dipped into the ochre fluid and back out to an exposed panel from the displacer power grid. A nine-headed hydra rested just above the surface. The command cameo was part of the large ring used as the battery’s anode, thick yellow juice obscuring the gold coin that completed the circuit.

“It was weeks ago. Mo’d just mapped sixteen-three, the interstitial trunk. Radiation exposure had screwed up his feed, so I couldn’t replicate his memories from the recordings. I had to start over.”

“We needed you for that one job.” She looked away.

“Did I finish it?” He didn’t know why she kept so much from him.

Cetus crept back as Mo marched forward, his arms swinging as if disconnected from his body, loose, ready. Cetus couldn’t remember much about Mo. Instinct said they weren’t friends. “I died. You saw my body. That means I didn’t finish what I went there to do, doesn’t it?”

Kassandra turned her back, sliding her fingers across the dark glossy surface of the map. She flipped through a nightmare slideshow of alien chambers; rooms that seemed to serve no purpose, hallways that went nowhere, passages filled with exposed electronics.

According to Kassandra, their team had nearly been wiped out before she’d taken the drastic step of using the displacer to recreate their bodies. On human worlds, replication had been forbidden. Displacers moved people instantaneously between two points. The information created at one point was destroyed the moment confirmation was received from the destination. The oudjji apparently didn’t have a prohibition on duplication – or perhaps they never thought to use the device that way.

Cetus couldn’t remember how long they’d been aboard. The displacer had eaten that information from his mind, but even through his ten day window of thought it felt like forever. Kassandra wouldn’t tell. She’d promised that he’d get everything back when they completed mapping the ship; after they’d squeezed the secret of the oudjji power grid from the twisted debris. She teased him, holding his memory before him like the promise of sex.

“I feel like I missed something.” He grabbed a lime, and slunk to his corner.

Kassandra laughed. Her voice scraped at his memory like razors, drawing images of past quarrels, ancient arguments. He must have hated her once.

***

“I think I have it figured out, si.” Arreyo sauntered closer, the stench of his sweat like a blanket trailing behind. “It’s a training thing, you see. The oudjji, they use this as a test. Maybe for war. That’s why the displacer’s unpowered from this side. That’s why the ship only whispers, and only when we’re not paying attention. It’s why everything looks exploded, and nothing works like it should. They did it on purpose.”

“I don’t believe it.” Cetus marched away from the thin plastic partition, and from the frenzied clamor of Mozart and Kassandra making love. “I can’t believe they’d deliberately leave something like this without posting a warning.”

“We don’t know how they think. They might not care who finds it.”

“An intelligent species would care.” Cetus stuttered, his attention elsewhere as Kassandra shrieked, a tight moan of pleasure mixed with pain.

“It’s a matter of perception. We’re seeing through human eyes, and we’re biased by our physiology and culture.” Arreyo glanced quickly at the couple before looking back at Cetus, a smirk on his thin lips. “We can’t expect to work alien gadgets. They’re not built for us.”

Cetus nodded, distracted. He thought of his wife, how she’d looked the day he’d left, and found nothing but a hazy outline of a slender body. Kassandra had stolen her from him, murdered him countless times in the name of science, leaving crumbs of his mind behind.

The image of Kassandra reminded him of eighteen-twelve, and it was such a severe departure from where his thoughts had been headed that he froze. In his memory, the serpentine face of a caduceus appeared. A tattoo. It had the look of an official brand, a mark of rank like the hydra on the ring in the battery tank, or the pink wolf scars worn by Arreyo and Mozart. Why would Kassandra…

***

Cetus ducked and spun, twirling through the jungle of debris on eighteen-eleven with practiced ease. The long chamber resembled the prow of an old fishing boat, with a thin wedge at the bow and a wider stern section where Cetus had entered. The whole room slanted upward thirty degrees, as if cresting a wave. Layers of the oudjji gelatin-based electronics sat scattered through the room like barrels of fish, some pulsing with sharp yellow light.

“How you doing, Cetus?” Kassandra never left the displacer room anymore. She stayed as their anchor, the team’s memory. As the mission’s commander she had that right.

“Nothing to report.” His voice sounded impatient, tense, the pressure wearing him down. The ship would soon be a dark lifeless rock passing through space. They needed answers.

“You’re getting close to eighteen-twelve. Branch off, follow seventeen-six. Do you understand, honey?”

“Understood.” He passed under an arch of molten glass, the heat translating as warning flags on the HUD in his visor, its purpose beyond cryptic.

The flattened oval doorway to eighteen-twelve, with its thin pink frame and slanted red flooring beckoned like an opened mouth, teasing. There was something about the asymmetrical corridor, unlike the other hourglass-shaped rooms and galleries throughout the ship, that drew him in. It was unique among the kilometers of passageways, and although the oudjji were completely unlike humans, it still had to mean something.

But it was dirty with lethal radiation. If he died here, he’d lose more than his old memories, he’d lose every new thought and perception he’d gained since his last recording – the way they’d all lose when the ship powered down and the displacer went offline for good. A few cups of orange juice and a zinc command ring were fine for maintaining a Johannes Circuit, but it wouldn’t power a matter transmission device.

***

He crouched, moving carefully under a series of flattened cylinders that looked like an exposed ribcage, red and blue wires dangling suggestively. He had to see eighteen-twelve again. There was something down that shaft, some clue to help him unlock this puzzle. He could feel it like a tingling at the back of his mind.

The rifling didn’t fool him this time. The furrows, cut and polished like the steps and grooves of an ancient phonograph record, curved smoothly clockwise. They varied in depth and thickness, leading Cetus to believe they might actually serve a similar purpose.

He took the incline slowly, crawling on hands and knees into the tight spherical chamber. The light here was different, more diffuse. A clutter of spherical debris; metal rods, ceramic pyramids, and a material resembling bamboo, crowded the circular space like crystals at the center of a geode.

“I thought I told you to stay away from eighteen-twelve.”

He didn’t answer. Let her complain. If he could decipher the oudjji tech it would be worth it.

His helmet display showed minimal radiation, even this deep in the chamber. Kassandra’s readings must have been off. This area seemed safe. A dark shape hung at the edge of his vision. He tried to ignore it. If his body was here, hanging like a cured piece of meat, he could live without the experience.

“You were warned!”

The voice took him by surprise. He spun. A pipe struck his helmet, knocking him back. He tumbled. It struck again, cracking his visor, leaving a ring-shaped haze of crushed resinglass. Chlorine fizzled around the edges, and he smelled the stinging tang of bleach. Dizziness hit him like a fist. He staggered back against a serrated block of steel, vision blurring.

Then he saw it. The image resolved from the jumbled debris, arc-white in the jaundiced atmosphere. He’d mistaken the sculpture time and again as a scattering of pale cones and rods jammed into the upper tier of the far wall, but from his pinched perspective it appeared like a model of one of the alien beings.

***

He flailed, struggling against the searing agony that belonged to another body. Rough hands assaulted him as he screamed. Mo’s elbow dug into his larynx, cutting off his air, suffocating him from behind. Arreyo slapped the displacer grid, and the energy barrier collapsed, dropping like oily rain back into the pillars.

“Let me go!” Cetus shoved. They both fell, landing in a stack of limes, soft and moldy, cool and wet. The sour tang of tainted fruit burned his nostrils as Cetus scrambled away, sliding on the gooey swill.

“What the hell were you doing back there?”

Arreyo knelt to help him up. Cetus slapped the offered hand away. He wasn’t sure which of the men had murdered him, and it pissed him off. His mind was already Swiss cheese. He didn’t need to lose more of it to stupid games.

Kassandra moved forward, getting down on her hands and knees in front of him. She shined a blue LED light in his eyes, and then turned toward Arreyo. “No more, ok.”

Arreyo held his arms out, gesturing toward Mozart. The dark man smiled.

Kassandra growled, her eyes narrowing. “No more, either of you. Get it!”

Cetus pulled himself up, backing toward the wall.

“Relax. They’ll leave you alone if they know what’s good for them.” Kassandra slipped her arms around him, her long fingers caressing his lower back with a smug familiarity. He couldn’t understand why she went out of her way to humiliate him.

He pushed her away with more force than he should have. She crumpled, her body skidding across the floor. Her tank top slid aside, and he caught a glimpse of the caduceus tattoo.

Memories shot into his mind like a needle jammed behind his right ear; Kassandra as his lover, their breakup, her anger and vows to get even.

“It’s about revenge?” He couldn’t believe it. “We’re in the middle of the biggest encounter in human history, and you risked it all just to get back at me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, sweetheart. It’s not always about you.” She spit on the floor in front of him. “You were a means to an end. I used you, just like you used me.”

Mozart lunged. Cetus ducked, but the big man was quicker, hammering blows into Cetus’ face, crushing his nose, tearing his lips, shattering teeth. Cetus fell to the ground. He covered his head as a boot slammed his chest. He grabbed, twisting. Mo spun, sliding backward. Cetus rolled. He knifed his fingers up under Mo’s chin and into his larynx. The man snapped back, wheezing, gagging and beating at his windpipe.

“Enough!” Kassandra held a small weapon. Her hands shook, and thin streamers of rotten fruit trickled down her arms like mucus. “Step away.”

It was too late. Mozart lay dead, his long face swollen and pale, eyes wide and accusing. Cetus panted, his face a bloody wreck. He couldn’t understand how things had gotten out of control so fast. Spots of his memory had returned, but not enough. Too much was still missing.

“What else are you hiding from me?” He spit a gob of blood onto the ground, wiping his mouth with his left hand.

“You know, don’t you?” She threw her head back and laughed. “I should have guessed I couldn’t lock it away forever.”

He nodded. “I’m in Command. This is my mission, isn’t it? The ring linked to the battery, that’s mine too. You took it from me after I died, and then did something to my mind.”

Kassandra jerked the gun in his direction. “Stay back!”

“How’d you convince me to follow you?”

“You didn’t need convincing.” She shrugged, leering. “You were mine, sweetheart. One too many slips in the stack, and you just forgot. I lead you anywhere I wanted, by the hand and by the balls.”

He couldn’t imagine touching her. Her thin face and stringy, over-muscular body did nothing to turn him on. She repulsed him, a bitter contrast to his wife back on Earth.

Dilenia was everything Kassandra wasn’t; soft, feminine, and beautiful in a shy kind of way. Cetus could see her clearly in his mind, smiling, her brown eyes shining – but they were no longer Dilenia’s eyes. Why hadn’t he noticed that? His memory of her mouth seemed wrong as well, too thin.

Then he knew. His wife, his ideal woman… it had all been a lie. Kassandra had messed with his perception. The woman he’d dreamt of returning to was nothing more than a puppet constructed from wishful thinking and need. They’d used the fantasy of Dilenia as a carrot, as bait to lure him through the maze of the ship. How could he have been so stupid?

He dived, catching Arreyo by the knees as Kassandra fired. The first projectile slammed into Arreyo’s back, killing him. Cetus leapt into the back store room. The dozen or so small chambers held crates and boxes, supplies they’d brought from Earth as well as cataloged oudjji instruments and devices.

“Come back! You found something out there, something important. That’s why you went back again and again, even though I pulled eighteen-twelve from your mind each time.” Her voice sounded clear, very close. “Let’s talk.”

“What do you want to talk about?” He’d stopped. She had him trapped. “Not killing me again, I hope.”

“Maybe. I just want to know what you saw there. Why’d you fight each time? Were you afraid we’d find out what you’d discovered? It wasn’t my idea to kill you in the stack. That was Mozart.”

“I bet. I’m sure it was his idea to follow me and beat me to death with a pipe. How many times have you killed me?”

She laughed. “It was a regular war up there. I wanted you up in the stack alone, using your skills, but the others didn’t trust you. I think Arreyo was just afraid of being left out. Mozart thought you might someday return with a weapon.”

She moved closer. He couldn’t stop her, not unarmed. If she wanted to kill him, she would. He eased himself under a low shelf, hoping for time to think. He didn’t know what she’d do to him after she killed him, but she wouldn’t bring him back unless she thought she could control him.

He searched his pockets. They were full of the items recorded with his displacer image; an orange, two limes, a torn sheet of blank smartpaper with its video capacity ripped out, a pencil and the gold coin that was a gift from his mother. He toyed with the idea of lobbing the fruit at Kassandra, but that would only get him killed again.

He dropped a lime. It rolled behind a low corrugated partition. When he reached for it, he noticed how the thin serrated mounds seemed to line up. When sandwiched together by perspective, they seemed to form a smooth sloping arc of blue metal. The structure resembled a power storage module similar to the nearly intact examples they’d found in the displacer chamber.

He wondered why the aliens would’ve left it in the middle of the corridor, and why they’d so carefully lined up the components. Then he remembered the oudjji statue. It too had been a jumble of parts, a tiny puzzle within the endless enigma of the abandoned vessel. It seemed as if everything in the ship had been divided into bits and pieces, peeled back until they were unrecognizable.

“Sweetheart. Come to me and we’ll solve this mystery together. No more killing, no more mind games. I promise.”

He didn’t believe her for a moment. She’d flayed away his knowledge, and reconstructed him with an artificial awareness, bogus memories, an imaginary wife – he could still smell Dilenia’s perfume – setting her poisoned thoughts down over his mind in layers like the skin of an onion.

***

All the pieces fell into place as he thought of that image.

The group of objects he’d been staring at jumped into sharp focus, complete and intact, miscellaneous segments flowing together in his mind to form a perfect whole, a single item.

They’d been looking at the ship through human eyes, with a limited perspective. He’d known they needed to open their perceptions, but hadn’t realized it would take thinking in slices.

He stood, turning slowly, trying to see things the way the occupants of the craft would have. His fingers tingled, and he suddenly couldn’t get enough air, breathing in rapid shallow gulps like a dying man.

The aliens were so fundamentally different that mankind could never hope to see things the way they did. The oudjji could see patterns over a much wider field than humans. The sculpture proved that, but they could also adapt those patterns and utilize them in real time. It was the only thing that explained the nightmare of scattered components, devices that worked even in a disassembled state. Distance was as meaningless as the density of air to the oudjji.

Cetus tried, but couldn’t match the oudjji ability to sense the whole from the jumble of pieces. He tried to imagine what the room would look like compressed, pulled together. Oddly, he found that by closing one eye, sacrificing his binocular vision, he could start to see relationships between objects he hadn’t thought connected.

He remembered a toy his mother had given him when he was very young, a series of paintings on glass called “magic eye” images. They appeared to be a jumbled mass of random pixels, but by relaxing his vision, his subconscious mind picked out relationships and a coherent image emerged. It often seemed holographic, fooling the senses into adding a third dimension. He tried that technique now.

Archaic debris coalesced in his tunnel vision. The scattered wreckage of something they once thought might be a broken bed frame became solid panel. It shielded a gelatin-based electronic structure and fitted neatly against the exposed layers of laminate resin. The video terminal, thin and elegant, appeared complete when viewed from this angle and perception.

***

“Don’t move, sweetheart.”

Kassandra had closed in on him while he’d been distracted. She stood at the tight intersecting corridor that branched back into the displacer room, aiming her weapon at his heart.

“I see it.” He trembled, scanning the compartment for something to use to illustrate his point. “Distance and duration are aspects of the same sense to the oudjji. Their perception treats time and space as a single unit, one dimension.”

Kassandra, wary at his new boldness, took a quick step back. She blurred against the edges of his vision, her movements through the compartment jerky and compressed. He wondered how the oudjji would have seen her.

“Take this.” He snatched the pencil and smartpaper from his pocket, driving the pencil through the paper’s center. “The paper represents a two dimensional view. A creature with this perspective would see the pencil as a disk, a circle within a circle. We see it as a three-dimensional object, a cylinder.”

Flatland.”

“Right, but the oudjji have a wider perspective than us. To them the pencil, the paper, my hand and quite possibly the floor beneath me are all one unit. They all share the same spacial relationship. If you took a photograph and stripped out the holographic qualities until it appeared as a flattened static sheet, you’d see the world pretty much the way I think the oudjji see it.”

“But forcing perspective down narrows viewpoint, not enlarges it.” Her voice sounded softer than he’d ever remembered having heard it. She might be crazy, but she was still a scientist.

“It’s the time element that gives them the advantage. The oudjji can intuitively sense how these things fit together.” He moved the paper back and forth, sliding the pencil out as he spoke. “Their reflexes must be astounding. They see in time-space like we see in color. It’s just another shade to them, something like the pattern on that orange.”

He gestured. Her attention wavered, but it was enough. He slammed the pencil into her hand. She screamed. The gun jerked, and a projectile roared into the far wall. He twisted her arm, breaking it. He slammed her head against the bulkhead until she collapsed. She might be dead, or not. It didn’t matter.

That trick wouldn’t have worked on the oudjji. They would’ve seen the gun, the pencil, Kassandra as she faltered, his body tensing – everything – as an interconnected matrix, a gestalt in motion.

***

He reached his hand into the center of an oudjji panel and twisted, resetting the power coupling, making the connection none of them had seen before. Around him, the displacer hummed, sparks like tiny silver fireflies manifesting in the energy field. He kicked the small tray holding the liquid battery, spilling the sticky juice onto the pebbled flooring. The hydra ring tumbled against Kassandra’s prone body. He could see the caduceus tattoo wrapped around her left shoulder. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? Had he been so eager to be fooled?

The sparks died down, but the low throbbing hum remained. He could access the full power of the displacer, go home if he chose. It was only a first step. The oudjji ship was complex and confusing, and even with an insight into their perceptions it would be difficult, but he was on the right track now. He knew that in time he could learn to see things their way.

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About the Author

D.A. D’Amico spends much of his time trapped within the imaginary worlds flowing through his head. Writing gives his life color and depth, an extra dimension that brings the mundane into perspective and helps him to see beyond the every day.

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