This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet‘s Wednesday Write-In were:
handful :: deadline :: birdsong :: headache :: resonate
The Dead Line
‘There’s only a handful of them left, now,’ said Winter, her voice obscured a little by the hiss from her oxygen mask. ‘We call them the ‘deadline,’ but that’s just a joke, really.’ She entered her access code into the security lock, the anonymous beepbeepbeep sounding loud and out of control in this dark, hermetic space.
‘Because they’re dead, technically,’ replied Stanhope. ‘I get it. Funny.’
‘Not really,’ she replied, looking back over her shoulder to smile at him. ‘But thanks for saying so.’ He shrugged, flashing her a grin, as the airlock whirred open to admit them. They stepped through, Stanhope doing his best not to stare into the vast chamber beyond. Be cool, he told himself. All in good time. Quickly, they got into their protective suits, making sure every joint and seal was secure. Stanhope took a few breaths inside his helmet and flexed his gloved fingers.
‘Okay. So, do you feel all right? Enough air?’ Her voice jolted him out of his thoughts.
‘Oh – yeah. Sure.’ He adjusted his heads-up readout, trying to look competent and calm.
‘If you start to get a headache, or anything, you tell me straight away, right? That can be a really bad sign, particularly in here.’
‘Sure, sure. I’m fine, honestly.’ He turned to face her, swallowing back a sudden sense of nausea. ‘I’m just excited, I guess. Honoured to be here.’ Her only reply was another smile, and Stanhope shuddered away a stab of guilt.
Then, a green light flashed above their heads.
‘Airlock’s done,’ said Winter, strengthening her stance. She shook out her shoulders and rolled her head around. ‘Won’t be long, now.’
‘Sure,’ he said. A trickle of cold sweat, like the finger of a corpse, ran down the centre of his back.
Then, the door opened, and they were sucked through.
All Stanhope could see were stars, at first, stars everywhere, jostling for space, whirling and roaring and sweeping past his head. They grew, changed colour, changed shape as he watched, dragging tendrils of burning light across his retinas.
‘It’s not going to hurt you!’ he heard Winter yelling, from ten million light years away. ‘Just breathe easy, and go with it.’ Right, he thought. Go with the flow. He gritted his teeth as the lightshow faded out and oceans of world-bending sound started to pound through his ears. His head felt like a metal bowl, resonating and echoing with the weird screams and trills that were coming from somewhere deep inside this gigantic cavern, where the ancient gods were.
Then, he heard something that sounded like birdsong – except no bird in creation ever sounded like this. The sound was so full and rapid and loud that he felt his brain start to cave in as he listened.
‘What’s going on?’ he called, forcing his eyes open. His heads-up display showed his vitals, which were elevated, and the ambient temperature, which was dropping faster than he could believe. ‘Winter? You there?’
‘The gods are singing,’ she said, her voice like a rush of cold air across the surface of a glacier.
‘Singing? What are you talking about?’ He felt a clutching pain in his chest, like a vacuum grabbing at his heart.
‘Do you know why they call us the Dead Line?’ said Winter, in a voice that was not hers.
‘W-Winter? What’s happening?’ Stanhope coughed, a bubbling agony working its way up his body. He coughed again, and a mouthful of his hot blood spattered across his heads-up display. He moaned, knowing it was already too late.
‘Do you know why they call us the Dead Line?’ repeated Winter – or, the thing using her voice.
‘Please!’ Stanhope gasped. ‘Spare me!’
‘You came here with a device inside your body,’ replied a voice that sounded like ten million Winters, all speaking at once. ‘A device you wished to use to kill us. Why should we spare you?’
‘I was wrong. I – I am sorry. Please.’ Stanhope’s vision was darkening. ‘I was following orders – doing the work of those who believe you should be destroyed. We –‘ Stanhope gasped as a wracking pain twisted him in half. ‘We no longer need gods!’ He tasted his own blood on his tongue as he spoke.
‘No man needs us now more than you do,’ said the gods.
‘Yes,’ said Stanhope, and died.
‘Do you know why they call us the Dead Line?’ the gods asked, but there was nobody to answer them, so they answered themselves.
Because our bodies are dead, and nothing lies beyond us.