1.21 NINTH

4.023, FALL 2019

“Can you believe it used to be white? It reflected the sun.”

Third flinched, the small muscles in their face tightening into the shadow of a frown before they recognised the voice. Ninth watched them sweep virtual windows aside with curt gestures, until Third was looking directly at them. Their pupils contracted into concentrated pinholes.

“What did?”

“The moon.” Ninth gestured at the orange disk. It glowered at them from its perch on the horizon, sending weak beams through the windows. “Before it was habitable.”

“It still does reflect the sun. That is how we can see it. Optical physics.” Third’s goggles lit up faintly as they began projecting into her eyes. “Leave me. At present, I am occupied.” Ninth stared at them until it became clear that Third was not interested in the historical changes in the refraction index of the moon. Or in any other historical changes, as it seemed. They could see the faint spider-diagram of cavern networks tracing across Third’s eyes, which scanned from left to right as though reading. The Project. Always, always the Project. As Ninth turned to leave, disappointed, Third spoke again. Their voice was so soft Ninth hardly heard them. “You should not trouble yourself with questions of the lunar terraforming. It could displease the others.” Abrupt silence. “Please.”

Ninth nodded in acknowledgement, though they doubted Third could see them. The white noise of fabric rustling followed Ninth out of the room, until the sounds of Third’s interactions with the virtual world suddenly ceased when the door slid shut.

 

***

 

A message flared in Ninth’s peripheral vision, and they pulled it up. Their own glasses were shaped more like eyeglass frames, a thin wearable whose designers’ interests had leaned as far in the direction of style as basic utilitarianism had allowed. Third’s goggles, with access to a distributed computing network, and full sensory immersion tech, were a different beast entirely. Ninth also had a set of larger goggles. For what they were doing now, however, the glasses they wore now were completely sufficient.

A brilliant path was virtually projected onto the ground in front of them. It took a sharp 180-degree turn before tracing back up the corridor in the direction they had come from. Beside it, a brief legend detailed expected time of arrival, deadline for arrival, and a caption. It shimmered darkly.

Urgent.

Why the Twelve were called to meet was beyond them, but Ninth’s feet instinctively turned in the direction of the visual. They knew the way.

The corridor Ninth walked down was wide, and generally low. Wide enough that those distracted by displays would not be caught off guard by an unexpected wall. Corners were rounded off and gently curved for the same reason, at least at ground level. Not that it was strictly necessary, since proximity sensors and alarms were a standard safety feature in all wearables. Further above, mechs creeping across the ceilings had excavated crevasses in the ceiling, which stood in stark, jagged contrast to the primary concourse. Light alternately shone down from skylights and daylight simulators, forming soft patches of brightness on the ceramic floor. Everything was finished with white. The entire space gave off a diffuse glow that reminded Ninth of the translucence of porcelain. She had such a vase in her room, an antique. Hills and water, with a dragon arched overhead, were picked out in blue ink. Just as it had been the perfect canvas for ancient artists, the luminescent white formed an ideal backdrop for visual projections.

In Ninth’s own viewport, the words began to pulse, increasing in frequency as they approached the conference room.

There was no door separating the conference room from the adjoining spaces; there were no physical barriers. In another age, this would have seemed strange. Here and now, it permitted the biometric scanners placed in the middle of the room a sweeping view through the entire module. Before Ninth had reached the end of the corridor, a hundred micro-analyses had been performed on their features, gait, temperature, cerebral waves, embedded electronics, and pheromones. For a breath, Ninth’s eyes alighted on a set of tiny orifices in the wall. Together with the surveillance system, they comprised the conference room’s defences. Ninth had never seen them activated. When the need arose, however, the room would respond with surgical precision. A chill laced Ninth’s spine, and they directed their attention ahead.

 

***

 

The room was spacious, airy. It was Ninth’s second favourite place in the world. The high ceiling allowed sunlight to enter through a large oculus, cut into the roof and then glazed over to protect from the dust storms. Some evenings, a column of red light stood still in the centre of the room, frozen but for the minute particles which drifted in and out of it. The glow would filter down the many hallways that branched off into the depths of the compound. At night, they could see the stars through the hole. It also wasn’t quite what it seemed. Once – it had been greyish dawn – Ninth had climbed the spiral staircase that wandered up the walls of the room. The steps had gotten wider and shallower the higher they went up, until Ninth was walking across a platform as large as the floor area below. Around them was what looked like a copy of the same room. What Ninth had thought was the sky was merely a second atrium, increasingly bright with the rising sun. After a few minutes, the surfaces had reflected so strongly, Ninth had fled back down the staircase, away from the glare, afraid they might go blind. Since then, Ninth had only gone up there at night. The stars were easier to see from there. But now it was day, and there were no stars.

 

In front of Ninth, there were twelve chairs arranged in a large circle. These chairs were set on the exact boundaries of the stream of light from above, and would adjust their position as the sun moved. Three were empty. Ninth took one of the empty places, and waited quietly with the others.

 

The chairs had no backs, appearing to rise sinuously out of the floor and flaring to form a seat. They were not very comfortable. Ninth fidgeted slightly as the silence grew thicker, tapping against the smooth material with their fingers. Tap, tap.

 

Who was missing? As Ninth counted, Fourth and Twelfth made their way into the room. They came in a different entrance, but there were several to choose from. In itself, then, that was not too unusual. They probably came from the labs; Fourth’s skin was reddened from their gloves. Tap, tap. Everyone but Eighth, then. Tap tap tap.

 

Yet even as Ninth watched, Eighth’s chair sunk into the ground, and First stood. When they stepped forward, the column of light caught the gold of their hair and seemed to set it aflame. Everything else suddenly seemed a shade darker, a shade less pure.

 

“There has been an accident.”

 

“You mean we’ve been betrayed!” Seventh snapped. Ninth’s head whipped sideways to look at them. Seventh’s head was turned away from Ninth, looking at First. Their heavy curls shuddered with each word. The words bounced from the walls, echoing.

 

Betrayed. Ninth caught Third’s gaze. Behind Third’s goggles, Ninth could see that their eyes were wide and rimmed with white. What

 

“The mines have been destroyed.” First continued slowly. Destroyed

 

Betrayed?

 

Uneasily, Ninth eyed the vacant space between Seventh and themselves, where Eighth’s seat had stood.

 

Destroyed

 

“And Eighth,” First paused to take a deep breath, yet their whisper carried across the chamber. “Is no longer with us.”

 

This time, no echoes. Silence fell like a hammer, and First stepped out of the light.