Seeing Stars
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"Man is not a sea race.
"Man has none of the things that a swimmer make.
"The ones who enter the sea do not usually come back.
"The ones who come back are usually no longer men."

- Anonymous

The stewardess came down the aisle with one of those awkward space-saving trolly-carts, filled with small glasses of dark liquid. The small book I had bought said it was tradition to take a sip of mead before one enters the sea. Now, I wasn't sure how much is lore and how much is marketing, and really the express difference between the two, but I wasn't about to complain about alcohol. I downed it, but didn't feel much better. Didn't taste like anything I've had before. The giant transport ship (I suppose it was a ship, the book called it a crawler) was lumbering down the beach, out of Portland, and into the Atlantic. I looked through the overhead porthole as the sky got washed away by the waves sluicing over the machine's great grey back. The stars winked out one by one; the moonlight shimmered faintly in the churning water. Then, the stewardess turned off the lights, and I was tumbling through darkness into sleep.

I woke up in the middle of a dream where I was nothing and everything was black. We had about an hour before we reached port. My legs were cramped and my stomach felt like it was falling from one of those parachute carnival rides. Fun at first, but it gets tiresome, and eventually nauseating. I kept waiting for some sort of refreshment, but it never came. Not even peanuts.

When the chief put this assignment on my desk, I thought it was a joke. At first a literal joke, and then one of those jokes that isn't funny because it's actually happening to you. But someone got lost in the darkness, so it's up to Inspector Davies to find them. I asked him why the hell they couldn't do it, and he said he didn't know. I suppose one should always look on the bright side, but that's a little difficult when there's no light.

As we pulled in, I couldn't see anything of the settlement from my window. We entered a large black tunnel that turned into a depot platform. The seatbelt sign went off. Funny, I hadn't even realized there were seatbelts. Getting out of my seat, I bumped my head on the luggage bins, and almost tripped into the lap of the man across the aisle. I whispered a quick apology and stumbled off the ship. Immediately a salmony, salty smell assaulted my nose. It was all I could do not to gag. I walked onto the platform of the depot, and waited for my suitcase to come off the conveyer. After what felt like slightly more time than what was reasonable, the bag rolled out of the gate, and I headed towards the exit. Over the portal, in big, faded blockprint, a sign said "Welcome to Haven."

The street was nearly deserted. Around were squat, industrial, practical looking buildings, nearly identical, and made of concrete and plastic, with similarly looking people. They weren't dirty with dirt, but it was as though the thing that made them dirty was something you couldn't see. Something that one wouldn't be able to wash out with all the water of the Atlantic, because in a way it was the Atlantic.

The roofs cut a hard line between flaky grey stone and the deadly blackness above. Protecting the settlement from the world was a great glass dome, with lines steel running along it. Small lights dangled from the skeleton, giving faint illumination to the world. A massive supporting column rose from behind the buildings in front of me and met the dome at its center. Covering the column were faded nautical flags, the only color I could see besides the odd person's clothes. The column also served as a clocktower, with four great faces inlaid amongst the flags. I slipped a piece of paper out of my trench coat and followed it to my hotel, down perfectly straight nearly-empty boulevards. Only a small neon sign denoted the lodging from the buildings surrounding it. "No Vacancy."

The plastic door squeaked as I pushed it open. The room was dark, and the fishy smell, which I thought I had gotten used to, was doubly concentrated. The air felt like powder. To the left was a bare coatrack, and in the back of the room was a desk and a door. Behind the desk was a cabinet of room keys and an elderly receptionist. She was reading a newspaper in a language I couldn't read, and didn't look up until I had rung the service bell.

"Yes?"

"Excuse me, is this The Catfish Inn?"

"Uh huh. You checking in?"

"Yes."

"Name?"

"Ronald Davies."

"Right, one sec."
The clerk clicked a few buttons on a computer, and then without looking, reached behind her and grabbed a room key.
"Here ya go. Room 1A."

"1A, got it, thanks."

"Now, will that be cash or card?"

I almost laughed at that.
"Card."
I handed her my business-issued credit card, which took a few swipes to work. I hadn't carried cash on me since I was a little kid. I tried to remember who was on the one dollar bill. Lincoln? No idea. I hung up my coat and brushed my teeth. I didn't want a shower. If anything, I wanted a nice long sit in the sun. Even though I was dry as a bone, I felt damp. Wearing ill-fitting pajamas, I collapsed into bed. Tomorrow I would have to get to work, but tonight I could dream.

At the police station I had to pick up a crawler to take outside. I wasn't expecting much, but the thing they gave me wouldn't fit a ten year old, and stank so bad I had to stuff cotton in my nose. Behind the police station, there was a small watergate. I drove the little machine into the dark tunnel, and then out of Haven. As I left, heavy steel doors slammed behind me. I was all alone.

I was looking for a lost miner's crawler, and two people. Gone and never came back. Pretty typical-sounding case. I didn't expect to find them.

After four hours of nothing searching, something pinged on the sonar. A small dot, on the edge of the range. If I was where my digital map said I was, which I had already deemed not likely, then the ping was way off any recorded route to or from the mine. I adjusted the heading, and waited some more, watching the little light get closer and closer to the center of the green panel.
Eventually, I reached it. The crawler fit half of the description exactly. The tail section with the engine and ore tank was still mostly intact, but the crew compartment was completely gone. I maneuvered the little crawler around the mining vessel, and took some pictures with the outboard camera, and recorded my coordinates.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of light. Just for a moment, and then gone. I reached for the signal manual and clumsily signaled "Warning" with the searchlight. No response. I waited a few more minutes, staring at the darkness. I checked the sonar: nothing, and then began to turn the crawler back towards Haven. Suddenly, there was another flash, and then again. A longer one this time. And then a single fixed point, like Polaris far off the starboard bow. Thinking it was just a miner off course, or some prankster, I signaled "Police" and "Keep Away," but the light stayed. And then there was another. And another. Soon the darkness was filling with points of light, and I couldn't help looking at them like stars. And then, they started to move, and to shift. They danced and they spun, slowly transforming the sky into brilliant white. I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing, but my stomach told me it wasn't good. And then the stars seemed to be getting closer. I checked the map: still a few nautical miles to Haven, still a while more.

The next half-hour was tense. I had shut off the searchlight, and was driving on instruments. I watched as stars started to fall from the heavens, and approach the crawler. They moved fluidly, like fish, but as they got closer, they got brighter. So bright they couldn't be any fish. They began to form constellations. Ursa Major, Minor, Orion, Cancer. All the patterns from my childhood telescope. But then they started to form other shapes. First just blobs, that wobbled and shimmied. And then they morphed into letters, random at first, and then a few letter repeated over and over.
E
T
O
U
T
G
E
T
O
Then I think I blacked out.

It was nighttime, I think, when I got back to Haven. The sky never changes there, but people still need to be on a clock. If the streets were deserted before, now not even the air seemed to be present. Even the smell had subsided (or perhaps it was the relief of getting out of that crawler). I walked stiffly to the police office, at which only one of the five police officers was present, and sent the chief my final report. Immediately he called on the landline, but I didn't pick up. I didn't want to spend another night underwater, but all of my stuff was at the hotel, and the transports didn't run until morning. So I stayed one more sleepless night, staring at the ceiling and looking at stars.

The next day I took the first transport (7:00) out of Haven. As the engines rumbled to life, I realized my clothes still smelled of fish. (I never was able to wash the smell out.) As the crawler broke the surface, I saw a sharp winter day above me, featureless, and I might have smiled, but I didn't.

The day I got back to the station I turned in my badge, moved to Kansas, and I've never been anywhere near the ocean in twenty years. Every night I stare up at the stars, as if expecting them to move. I don't really know what to expect.

There have been reports of missing persons in the news for a while now. People vanished inexplicably in the darkness. About thirty people had disappeared. Haven is even more of a ghost town than it was back then.

I don't know why I was spared. Hell, I don't know when they ever learned English, or saw the real stars that they copied.

No one seems to know what's going on, no one knows what happened to these people. But I know. It was the Stars.

"Location: Haven, New Virginia
Date: November 4th, 2076
Report: Vehicle found totaled at coordinates 38.859694N by 71.354421W. Missing persons not found. Suspected system malfunction. Salvage not recommended. Further inspection not recommended.
Status: Closed"

-Case Report by Inspector Ronald Davies.

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