Fiction Science Fiction Suspense

“We don’t go past the Hatch. Ever.”

I stand before Mal, hands shoved in the pockets of my worn jumpsuit, a sullen glower on my face. “Maybe if we did, we’d know why our world is falling apart.”

For as long as anyone can remember, we’ve lived here, in the Habitat Section. We don’t know where we came from, who put us here, or why they did it. And no one seems interested in finding out.

Mal scowls at me. “No one believes that, Wit. Our world is just fine. The Habitat Section has lasted this long; it will keep going. The Machines will see to that. Whatever’s wrong, they’ll fix it.”

The Machines. They’ve been around as long as anyone can remember, too. Squat metal boxes on wheels, sprouting armatures, they trundle up and down the corridors, poking and probing, doing Maintenance. Keeping things running, we’re assured. But every so often, a Machine stops moving. Sometimes other Machines come by, make it start moving again. Sometimes they don’t.

I shake my head. “It’s getting worse, Mal. Now, this noise has started, and we don’t know what it means.”

Mal’s frown deepens, and he opens his mouth, but before words can come out, the sound comes again. Tap, tap, tap. Tap… tap… tap. Tap, tap, tap. It seems to emanate from the very walls, a sharp, metallic sound, echoing and reverberating up and down the corridors.

Tap, tap, tap. Tap… tap… tap. Tap, tap, tap.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Mal snaps. “It’s just another noise. Like the air blowing through the vents, or the hum from the generators.”

I sigh. Mal is the First for this Term, elected by a full vote. He makes a good speaker; he knows what to say to keep people calm and content, he knows all the Regulations by heart, and he’s never questioned any of them.

Unlike me. I look around now, at the small crowd, clustered farther back up the Long Corridor, afraid to get too close to the Hatch. Afraid to get too close to me. Most of the five thousand or so people in the Habitat Section know about me. I’m the one who was caught poking around in one of the stopped Machines. I’m the one they found taking apart a System’s Maintenance panel when it’s lights stopped glowing and the Machines didn’t do anything about it. I’m the one who asked why we never go past the Hatch.

“This is different, Mal, and you know it,” I say, trying to sound reasonable. “It’s part of the problems. How many Machines have stopped, just in the last few Cycles? How many of the generators have stopped humming? How many of the agriplots have stopped producing food? We need to do something.”

“Wit, you need to stop thinking like this,” Mal says, his own voice taking on the warm, patronizing tones he typically uses as First. “Sure, a few Systems have stopped working like they used to. But most of them are doing just fine. We still have food. We still have heat, air, light.” He gives me a smile. “We’re fine.”

Tap, tap, tap. Tap… tap… tap. Tap, tap, tap.

It’s as if the noise is mocking his comforting words.

Mal’s smile goes a little fixed, making it more like a grimace. “We’re going to do what we always do, Wit. We’re going to follow the Regulations.” He turns and points at the sign on the Hatch, the one that’s always been there. It’s a little faded, a little worn, but still clear and easy to read.

No Unauthorized Access.

No one’s sure exactly what that means, but according to the Regulations, it means we’re not supposed to go past the Hatch.

So we don’t.

But the tapping is coming from past the Hatch, so someone must be out there.

So I know what I have to do.

“Okay, Mal,” I say, slipping a false grin onto my face. “You’re right. We’ll be fine. We’ll obey the Regulations. We won’t go past the Hatch.”


I wait till the dark half of the Cycle, when the lights automatically dim and people retreat to the common spaces or their cabins. I make my way down the Long Corridor, every step taking me closer to doing what might turn out to be the stupidest thing I’ve done yet. The Regulations exist for a reason; I know this. They tell us how to keep ourselves alive and safe. They’re what’s kept us going for so long. But things are changing.

And I must know what it means.

The Hatch isn’t guarded. It never has been. Everybody knows that nobody would be foolish enough to open it. Even Mal wouldn’t believe I could do what I’m about to do.

I step up to the panel beside the Hatch, with its glowing green light and many colored buttons, all faded and chipped, their labels so worn they’re hardly readable. Here I hesitate. Once I do this, there’s no going back. I have no idea what I’ll find on the other side. Maybe I’ll find out what happens when you break the Regulations. Or maybe I’ll actually find answers, and learn how to fix our world. My breath comes short and fast, and I feel hot and cold and prickly all at once. Should I do this? Can I do this?

Tap, tap, tap. Tap… tap… tap. Tap, tap, tap.

That decides me. I press the button labelled “Open.”

A series of metallic clanks rings out, frighteningly loud in the dim stillness. There’s hiss of air forced through a tight space, and, groaning and creaking, the massive Hatch swivels open.

With a last glance over my shoulder, I step through.


My first thought at seeing what lies beyond the Hatch is… disappointment.

This side looks a lot like what I just left behind. The Long Corridor just seems to continue. Sure, the lighting overhead is dim, a few of the glow panels flickering unsteadily, but that could just be because of the time of Cycle. It’s also a lot dirtier, dust lying thick on the floor, the walls streaked with the residue of leaked fluids and patches of rust. It’s clear that no one has been here in a long time.

I take a few tentative steps, moving away from the opening. A second later, the Hatch starts to close behind me. I have a moment of panic, worried that I won’t be able to get back. I even start to move, to throw myself through before it can close. All thoughts of discovery and exploration are nearly abandoned.

Tap, tap, tap. Tap… tap… tap. Tap, tap, tap.

The noise holds me back, roots me in place. I can’t give up so easily. I need to know.

So, I turn my back on the Hatch, and start walking.

The Long Corridor lives up to its name. It just seems to keep going and going. I realize that it must follow a curve; I can’t see the Hatch anymore, and I can’t see an end in sight. There’s nothing behind me but a trail of my footprints through the dust. It’s all very strange. What sort of a place is this?

Signs and markings adorn the walls, partially obscured by the dust and dried fluids, eaten away by the rust. I can read the words, but they don’t make sense. Secondary Life Support. Genetics Lab Alpha. Outer Ring Observatory. What do they mean?

There are more Hatchets. Lots of them. But they won’t open. No little green lights glow on the panels next to them. Most of them look as corroded as the walls; others are even worse. One is all bent, bulging out into the corridor, like something hit it from the inside, really hard. Another is dented and scraped all around the edges, reminding me of the time someone damaged their locker and tried to pry it open. As I pass one of the Hatches, I see the metal is covered with a layer of frost, the air around it so cold it steals my breath and makes my skin hurt. I don’t even want to know what’s beyond that one.

It feels like I’ve been walking for hours. Days. Forever, maybe. Just walking down this long, long corridor, past sealed Hatches and corroded walls, feet scuffing in the dust and echoing through the emptiness. Maybe everything is like this. Maybe there’s nothing to this place outside the Habitat Section. Maybe it’s all a dead, metal world except where we live. And maybe our part of it is just catching up to the rest of it, dying slowly.

I slow, then stop. Look back the way I came. Maybe I should just go home, listen to Mal, and hope that things get better again, even if I know they won’t. Maybe I should just let everything end.

Tap, tap, tap. Tap… tap… tap. Tap, tap, tap.

That noise. It’s like it knows where I am, what I’m thinking. Like it needs me to keep going.

So, I keep going.           

Finally, something changes. I see another Hatch, just coming visible around the gentle curve of the passageway. For a second, I don’t know what’s different about it. Then I see, on the panel beside it, a glowing red light, like a baleful eye peering through the gloom.

That’s different.

I step up to the panel, eyeing the red light warily. My hand reaches out, finger hovering over the Open button. What lies beyond this Hatch? Will I find what I’m looking for? Will it even open for me?

I press the button.

Nothing happens. No grinding or whirring. No crack and hiss of a parting seal. No opening.

I sigh, disappointment swelling. It looks like I came all this way, broke the Regulations, for nothing. My little exploration will end here, without any answers, without any way to know what’s going wrong with my world.

Then a soft beep sounds… and the light on the control panel goes from red to green.

The Hatch opens, groaning and squealing in protest, whatever mechanism powers and moves it clanking and grinding. It doesn’t make it all the way, seizing up with a loud thud and a sputter of sparks from the panel. But it’s open enough for me to slip through the gap.

I take a deep breath, and go through.


What I find on the other side is… not what I expected.

The walls and floor of the corridor are warped and blackened, many of the panels peeled away, showing wires and conduits behind them. Most of the glow panels are shattered, littering the scarred floor with shards of plastic. Frayed and broken wires spark and sputter, while damaged pipes and conduits spray jets of mist. There’s a constant hiss of escaping gases, and the air is thick with a haze of smoke, creating a foul, acrid stink that burns my throat. Something terrible has happened here.

For a long moment, all I can do is stand there, wondering anew if my quest has been a waste of time. How could anyone live through this? How can I find any answers here?

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…

It’s the same sound that drew me here, only different. Now it’s constant, just a continual tapping, echoing through the metal of the walls. I listen for a moment, then take a few tentative steps into the devastated corridor.

The tapping increases in speed, as if telling me I’m doing the right thing.

I follow it.

I wend my way through the destruction, crawling under or scrabbling over collapsed wall panels and buckled flooring sections. Carefully, I edge around sparking wires and jets of gas, some of which are very hot, others bitingly cold. In places, open flames dance across pools of spilled fluid, forcing me to leap over the flames. The smoke in the air gets thicker, making it ever harder to breath.

And always, there’s the constant, insistent tapping.

When I come to a place where two corridors meet, I pause. I cough, eyes watering, trying to decide which way to go. I take a step to the left, but the tapping stops. So I turn the other way, and the tapping resumes.

Now I know something is watching me. Tracking me. It knows where I am, and where it wants me to go.

But do we want the same thing? Well, it’s not like I have a lot of options.

I follow the tapping.

I come to another Hatch, one that looks in better shape than any other I’ve seen. As I approach, it opens, just enough for me to slip through. I do so, gratefully, eager to escape the caustic air and heat of the damaged area.

On the other side, it looks a lot like home. Everything is neat and clean, the lights are working normally. The air is cool and fresh. The signs on the walls are clear and unobstructed. The one nearest me reads “Medical Facility.” I wonder what that is?

There’s only one way to go, so I go that way. Within a few feet, the corridor opens into a chamber, with strange Machines lining one wall, and a row of clean, neatly made beds on the other.

The tapping, steady up till now, grows even faster. Unconsciously, I move more swiftly forward. Whatever is making that sound is close by, and I’m eager to find it.

Around a gently curve, I come across a section of wall that’s made of clear plastic, revealing what lies on the other side. It’s the strangest thing I’ve seen yet. More of the strange Machines surround what looks like a bed, only it’s propped upright. Weirder yet, there’s someone in the bed, held in place by straps, wrapped in white sheets of fabric so that only the head, shoulders, and arms are visible. Tubes and wires connect the person to the Machines, which beep and hiss and tick as they do whatever they’re supposed to do.

Above the sheets, I see a face. It’s a person, an old woman. Soft brown eyes stare at me in something like wonder, and a smile forms on her lined face.

“Hi, there,” she says. “Oh, it’s so good to see another person after all this time.”

“Hi,” I say back. “Were you making that tapping noise?”

“Yes,” she says. One arm moves, drawing my gaze to a length of pipe, roughly broken off at one end, that she holds in her hand. “I’m glad you followed it. Comms are down after accident. I know members of the control group aren’t supposed to leave the Habitat, by I hoped someone would be curious enough—” She breaks off into a fit of coughing, body pressing against the restraints.

I frown. “Are you all right? Why did you need someone to come here?”

She draws a ragged breath. “Listen. There’s no time to explain everything. We’re on a… a space station.” She shakes her head, forestalling my next question. “I know you don’t know what that it. But we’re above Earth. The world our predecessors came from. They had to leave it centuries ago, while the Cleanup was carried out. Long story short, it’s finally ready. We’re in the last stage of the project. I’m it’s director; I’m supposed to handle the Resettlement.”

Strange words and strange ideas are coming at me faster than I can handle them. “I don’t understand.”

 “I know. But I just need you to listen, to do what I tell you. Can you do that?”

“I suppose,” I say with a shrug. “I guess I’m not the best person for just doing what I’m told, though.”

A fleeting smile crosses her face. “I picked up on that. See, I’ve been monitoring the Habitat for years. Making sure you were ready. Then the accident happened. My colleagues were all killed, and I was… well, you can see. So I’ve been trying to initiate the Resettlement remotely, only there’s been too much damage. That’s where you come in. I need you to do something for me.” She coughs again, and blood flecks the window between us.

“Okay. What?”

“I’ve encoded a new set of Regulations. Instructions. They’ll get the remaining Machines to start the Resettlement. And convince your fellow settlers that you’ve been right all along.” Her expression changes, becoming soft and apologetic, like she’s telling me something she’s not sure I’m ready to hear. “Everything is going to change, Wit. You’re going to go home, to your real home, and you’re going to have to start everything over. It will all be strange, a new experience. You’ll have to explore and discover, and it’ll probably take your whole life. But it will mean that future generations will have a better life. And maybe, just maybe, this time around we’ll get things right.”

I hear her words over and over again in my head. New experience. Explore. Discover. For the rest of my life.

I can honestly say I’ve never been more excited.

I meet her gaze, and smile. “Just tell me what I have to do.”

April 26, 2024 15:53

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Vid Weeks
10:24 May 08, 2024

Great read, the suspense was well done.


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David Michaux
13:46 May 03, 2024

Ian, this story is very compelling! You've done a good job creating suspense and instilling curiosity in the reader. While Wit is exploring the abandoned places, I had so many questions. The last scene - during the reveal - felt a bit rushed. There were some grammatical errors/typos. And it answered all the questions, which, in a story like this, was ironically a bit of a let down. Leave us curious and wanting more :) All in all, a great piece. I really enjoyed it.


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