The Invisible Killer

Kestrel enters Atmosphere Station. It sits atop the planet’s atmosphere. The air is thick enough that its atoms brush against her now and again. Atmosphere Station is shockingly enclosed, with material in every direction. Great struts of matter stretch from one side to another. The technicians cling to the struts, save for one who gibbers in the corner, and one, named Billy, who glides towards her.

“Ah,” says Billy. “You must be the savant.”

She smiles to him. She eddies towards him. She shines across her identification.

“Honored,” he says.

“It’s overwhelming,” she says, looking around.

He grins at her. “Wait’ll you see the planet.”

She gulps. She can’t help it. “It’s real? I mean, people really . . . live . . . down there?”

“I’ve been down there myself,” he says, smugly.

She stares at him.

“You’re wondering,” he says, “how anyone could survive at the bottom of an atmosphere, right?”

“It’s got to be at least ten pounds per square inch,” she says. “You’d pop like a balloon!”

“Fifteen,” he says. “And that’s the least of the problems we’ve had to solve, here at the Planet Project.”

He leads her over to an enclosure. He gestures inwards. She hesitates.

“It’s all right,” he says. “You won’t be in there that long.”

So she floats in, and he seals the exits all around her.

“Strange,” she says. She taps on one wall.

“What we do,” he says, “is make a kind of . . . second skin . . . for you. Like clothing. Out of a thick layer of organic material.”

Small bits of matter begin to mist into the enclosure. Kestrel looks horrified.

“It’s okay,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like you’re surrounded. It feels . . . it feels like you’ve grown another epidermis. Does that make sense? Like a new layer made out of meat.”

She closes her eyes. She waits.

“I feel so heavy,” she says.

“It’s just beginning,” he says.

“I’m not going to fill out this whole enclosure, am I?” she says.

“‘Space suit,'” he says. He makes quote marks around the words. “It’s so your new skin can survive in the vacuum of space.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she says.

“Not at all.”

She gingerly opens one eye. She looks down. She stifles an outcry. “I’m huge.”

“Not really,” he says, judiciously. “Just thick.”

“So,” she says hesitantly. “Is it always this . . . this bad?”

“No,” says Billy. “Most people go nuts with fear the first few times through. You’re holding up admirably.”

“It’s not skin,” she says.

“It has to be,” he says. “Just think of it as an outer skin. Otherwise you’ll get sick.”

“Right,” she says. She braces herself. She thinks. “Um, . . .”

“Billy,” he says.

“Billy,” she says. “Am I going to have to wear this the whole time?”

“Sorry.”

“I see.” Her voice is faint. She looks down again. Counting the suit, she concludes, she’s at least six inches from front to back. She wiggles an arm. It moves sluggishly, like a tiny meteor. Thick bunches of organic material twitch and provide its motive force.

“And everyone does this,” she says, “down there?”

“Everyone,” he says. “Even Dr. Karpov.”

She takes a deep breath. She can feel her great matter-coated chest moving in and out. “It’s not so strange,” she tells herself. “It’s not so unusual.”

“Wow,” Billy says. “You really are a savant.”

“What?” she asks.

“Nevermind,” he says. “I’ll send you down.”

Descending through the atmosphere is a complicated process. Her new body is strong against pressure but still vulnerable to friction during the descent into the atmosphere. Billy escorts her, ‘space suit’ and all, to a large enclosed vehicle.

“It’s like I’m wearing layers,” she laughs. He looks a bit perturbed, then shrugs.

“Yes,” he says. Then the station lowers the vehicle slowly into the atmosphere.

She watches. It’s insanity-making, the watching. Outside the vehicle, she can see layers of air getting thicker and thicker as she falls.

“Surrounded,” she mumbles. “Everywhere, surrounded.”

She looks up at the sun.

“Hey,” she says, tuning in to Billy’s signal. “Hey. I can’t eat. I can’t eat.”

There’s an amused noise. “Everyone says that,” he answers. “It’s normal. Your body’s actually equipped to eat organic material and turn it into energy.”

“. . . Organic material?”

“Yup,” he says.

“Like my new skin?”

Horrific visions of a world of cannibals play through her head. She imagines Dr. Karpov leaping on her as she lands and somehow devouring her skin, leaving her naked against the monstrous pressure of the planet below.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “That’d be way too gross. We make special ‘hate food’.”

“Hate food?”

“It’s like your skin,” he says, “but it’s made out of icky evil things. Arthropods and grass and such. So it’s not like you!”

“Hm,” she says.

“They’re really icky,” he says. “I promise. We looked hard for the things that most deserved to be turned into energy.”

“Okay,” she says, relaxing.

The vehicle thumps into the ground. She is shocked to discover that she does not bounce from the floor—her new body, she concludes, must have a weight measurable in dozens of pounds.

The enclosure opens. She walks out onto the planet.

“You must be Kestrel,” says a man. She thinks he’s a man. It’s hard to tell, with his meat body and all.

“Kestrel!” shouts another. He leaps on her. She shrinks back, but he is only touching her hand, her head, her leg. There is a shock of recognition.

“Ember?” she says.

“Ha!” says Ember. He holds out his hand to the other man. “I told you she’d guess.”

The other man, like someone grumpily paying off a wager, hands over an object.

“Ember?”

“It’s me, Kestrel.” He grins. “I heard they were sending you. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t think I’d get to see you again for years.”

She touches his hand. She touches his head. “I . . .” She frowns. “There’s no way to kiss in these things, is there.”

“Nope,” he says. “Not in an atmosphere.”

“Or . . .”

He laughs. “You get used to it,” he says. “Kestrel, Kestrel, Kestrel, this is Dr. Karpov. He’s leading the project.”

She looks Dr. Karpov over. He is thick and meaty, like herself and Ember. He has some kind of black growth on his face, and strange spots all over his skin.

“Dr. Karpov,” she says.

He smiles at her. She can tell. It’s a smile.

“Yes,” he says. “You are indeed a savant. To adjust so quickly.”

She laughs. Then she frowns.

“Your skin has dots,” she says. “Mine and Ember don’t.”

“It’s the invisible killer,” he says. “Come. I will take you to my sunbathing spot. We will speak of it.”

“Sunbathing?” she says.

He does not answer. He simply leads her towards the settlement. She reaches its edge and looks down and gasps.

“It goes down,” she says. “Forever!”

“Psychologically,” says Dr. Karpov, “we depend on the sun and on its radiation. That’s why we need a deep city like this.”

The city of the Planet Project was a great deeps like a crater carved into the planet’s crust. Its edges were smooth and gentle, but Kestrel judges that its center is at least three hundred feet down. Line walkways and bubble buildings spread across the crater in a giant web, carefully positioned to ensure that no place in the entire deeps is entirely hidden from the sun.

“But,” she says. “The planet’s rotation . . .”

“It is slow,” says Dr. Karpov. “We must move between different deeps as the planet turns, ensuring that we are always in the sun. Incidentally, you may remove the space suit.”

“Ah!” she cries, in relief. She begins trying to escape the enclosure. Then she frowns.

“Wait,” she says. “How?”

Ember steps close. He pushes two indentations at the side of her suit, simultaneously. The enclosure falls apart. He touches her arm again.

“Welcome to the planet,” he says.

“So,” says Kestrel. “Tell me about this invisible killer.”

“It’s why you’re here,” says Dr. Karpov. He points at one hand, using the other. “Something in this world is poisoning us. Our biological bodies develop these strange spots, sicken, and die.”

“Just the bodies?” laughs Kestrel. “Just these second skins? That’s not much of a killer!”

Ember frowns at her. Dr. Karpov makes a wry face. He reclines back on the rock, looking up at the sun.

“One of our interns,” he says, “failed to recognize the body’s degeneration in time. He abandoned it too late, and could not reach Atmosphere Station in time.”

“Oh,” she says.

“We had Peskin studying the matter,” Dr. Karpov says. “Regrettably, he went mad.”

“Mad?”

“He threw his research to the bottom of the deeps,” says Dr. Karpov. “Then he retreated to Atmosphere Station, where he sits in the corner and gibbers. It is not productive.”

“Ah,” she says.

“That is why we need a savant,” says Dr. Karpov. “None of us can retrieve his research. It is simply . . . too deep.”

“Wait,” she says. “You want me to go to the . . . to the bottom of the deeps? The pressure must be . . .”

“Scarcely greater than the surface,” says Dr. Karpov, dismissively.

“That’s insane,” she says flatly.

“You are adaptable,” says Dr. Karpov. “Are you not? You are skilled at handling unusual situations and stressors. Are you not?”

Kestrel sighs. “So my psychological evaluation says.”

“Then,” says Dr. Karpov, “I recommend that you lay beside me on this rock, and gather in the light of the sun the strength you need to face the darkness.”

“Oh,” she says.

“That is sunbathing,” says Dr. Karpov.

“It’s too hot for me,” says Ember. “My biobody complains!”

“Ember,” laughs Kestrel. “You can’t possibly dislike the . . .”

“Too hot,” he says, stuffily. “I’ll just go get your deeps ropes ready.”

She rests there for a while, staring up at the sun. “It’s so far away.”

“We’re working on fixing that,” says Dr. Karpov. “Taking away the ozone in the atmosphere that keeps the best of the radiation at bay.”

“But I still wouldn’t be able to eat it,” she says.

“No,” he admits. “Just hate food. But you could leave it out to absorb the sun’s power.”

“Hm!” says Kestrel. “That sounds yummy.”

Dr. Karpov snorts.

A dreamy time passes. Then she rises to her body’s feet. “All right,” she says. “I’m ready.”

“Already?” he says.

Kestrel bangs her chest with one fist. “It’s my job, sir!”

He laughs. “Then go find Ember. He’ll connect you to a rope to lower you all the way.”

This is what it is like to descend into the deeps.

The first thing Kestrel notices are shadows. They are small. They are not like the shadows planets and moons cast through space. They are little shadows, cast by the struts and the bubbles of the deeps. They are strangely warm—not much colder than the air around her. But they make her shiver.

The second thing Kestrel notices as she descends is how much is around her. There are the walkways of the deeps on every side, but beyond that, walls of rock. There are no gaps. They loom great in every direction but up.

“They’re . . . a planet,” she says, to Ember far above.

“What?”

“I’m inside a planet. There’s a planet on every side.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “This is just a deeps.”

“But . . .”

Please, Kestrel.” Ember sounds nauseated. “It’s just a deeps. The walls are just enclosure. The planet is . . . up. Out. Not really here.”

“I guess,” she says.

She goes deeper. The crisscrossing shadows grow deeper.

Suddenly, she is enclosed on every side. She screams.

“What is it?” Ember asks.

“Ember!” she says. “There’s no . . . there’s no sky, just . . . just . . . stone!”

“There’s a sky,” he says. “See? You can talk to me. That means there’s a path for radiation to travel.”

“There’s no sky.”

“Can you see?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Can you see?”

“I guess,” she says.

“Then there’s sunlight.”

“But it’s so dark,” she says. “And there’s so much matter. I’m in matter.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “You’re my Kestrel.”

“Right,” she says. “Right.”

She goes deeper.

At the bottom of the deeps, she sees it. It is a data disk. It is wedged in a crack in the ground that, Kestrel thinks, must lead all the way to the center of the planet. She reaches for it.

“I’m hungry,” she says.

“Your body can’t be hungry yet.”

“Not it. Me,” she says. “I’m hungry.”

There is something burning in her, something yearning, something crying out for the sun. “I have to eat,” she whimpers.

“Do you see the disk?”

“I see it,” she says.

“Can you take it?” says Ember. “If you take it, then I can pull you back up.”

“I . . .”

She reaches for it. And in that moment, she understands.

“No,” she says. “No. I won’t.”

“What?”

“I won’t bring it back up,” she says. “You have to pull me up without it.”

“Don’t go nuts on me now, Kestrel,” Ember says. “Come on. You’ve made it this far.”

“I can’t,” Kestrel says. “I know what it says. I know what it has to say. I know why he went mad. Pull me up. I have to speak to him.”

So he reels her in. He bids her farewell with a touch. He sends her up to the station. She strips off her flesh until she is bare. Then she floats to Peskin.

“Peskin,” she says gently. “I have been to the deeps.”

Peskin gibbers.

“I know what you found out,” she says. “I know what it must have been.”

Peskin does not look up.

“It is not right,” she says. “But I think it must be this. That these second skins of ours. These organic bodies. They long for that deeps. They hunger for it like we hunger for the sun.”

Now there is silence.

“The sun is killing them, isn’t it?” she asks.

“No,” Peskin says. He shakes his head vigorously. “It’s impossible. It’s not a possible thing.”

“Radiation,” she says. “It’s somehow . . . getting into the biology. Messing it up.”

“Not possible,” says Peskin. “It’s like every angel in the stars was a devil now.”

“It’s all right,” she says. She touches him. “I won’t tell them.”

He looks up. He’s haunted.

“I’ll tell them to make something inorganic to keep around them,” she says. “To absorb the sun. And they’ll never need to know why.”

“You can’t keep this secret,” says Peskin. “It’s too big.”

“Just for a little while,” she says. “Just until . . . people get more used to the bodies. Until they can accept it.”

“Sunlight kills,” Peskin whimpers.

“We’ll figure something out,” Kestrel says. “We will!”

But Peskin is silent. He does not believe!

6 thoughts on “The Invisible Killer

  1. That’s the longest Hitherby I’ve yet to read, and it was among the most fantastic. Thank you.

    Of course, those organic-less beings must have been Russian, because it’s only in Soviet Russia that the sun eats you. ;)

  2. Very nice, I enjoyed this, very well written and engaging. One minor quibble, you used the phrase “pop like a balloon” at one point early in the story. it would really be implode like a balloon. Actually, would these characters have the balloon analogy at all?

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