Sandra sat in her cabin, studying the hologram layout of Xelpha-9’s dome structures–or tried to. She could never get the lighting quite right. Either too bright or too dim, and the shadows shrunk and grew with every adjustment she made. And she’d complain, but didn’t want to trouble the captain; after all, the captain was risking a trip to the Out Worlds on her and several other scientists’ behalf.
But the light was unbearable.
Even wearing shades didn’t help, and only became worse. It was like the damn sun was in here.
Brighter and brighter and–
Pitch black darkness. Had a fuse gone out? Dammit. What was going on?
She was jerked off her feet, knees cracked against the floor. Anything that wasn’t bolted down went flying overhead. The comm came on, but the voice was warped beyond recognition.
Cold pressure. Nerves on fire. Sick sensation in her stomach, as if something reached into her very soul and torn a piece off.
She squeezed her eyes shut against the pain, prayed. Please God make it stop. Make. It. Stop.
It might have been five minutes or an eternity when the red emergency light appeared. What a blessing! She could feel her limbs again; still a little nausea, but alive and well.
“Dr. Anderson, are you all right?” said the ship’s computer, pleasant yet concerned. “Do you need any assistance?”
“I’m fine,” she said, and had to breathe deeply. Must be more tired than she thought. “What was that?”
“A space rift. It sprang on us before we could renavigate. But there appears to be no damage.”
A space rift could be the nastiest thing on this side of the galaxy, shredding ships to pieces. Or it might just disorient everyone on board. You never knew, but you never wanted to take the chance.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything, Dr. Anderson?”
“Yeah, I’m good. Thanks.”
The nausea was already wearing off. She sat up, slowly got to her feet. Oh, her muscles were sore. She looked down at the mess and–
No, no. This couldn’t be right. Everything else cast a shadow but herself. She lifted her foot, but nothing changed.
This had to be a trick, residual effect from the space rift. She hadn’t really lost her shadow–
“Uhh, computer,” she said.
“Yes, Dr. Anderson?”
No, she couldn’t seriously ask the computer to locate her shadow. But what about the others? Were they experiencing this too?
“Could we perhaps schedule a meeting?” she said.
“Oh! I was just about to tell you the captain wants a mandatory meeting in one hour .”
“One hour? Okay.”
They avoided each other’s gaze. Shadows, of all trivial things. Yet the absence made them appear alien, like they were hollow and light was passing through them.
When the captain came in, they all took their seats. Sandra sat on the far end, next to Dr. Christian Saun. He was an easy going guy, specialized in medtech, good to be around when things were lousy. He gave her an uneasy smile, and she tried to return the gesture, though it felt like her mouth couldn’t bend without breaking.
The captain cleared her throat, flicked her braided hair over her shoulder. “Good news is we’re alive. Bad news…”
Everyone held their breath.
“…Well, guess I don’t need to tell you that.”
Dr. Paul Rivera jumped out of his seat. “What are we going to do?”
“Look, it’s just a shadow,” the captain said, “it’ll probably come back.”
“And if it doesn’t?” voiced another.
“Why is everyone so concerned about a shadow?” said Jet, her co-engineer. “Are you really gonna miss it?”
“Maybe some of us liked our shadows,” said Dr. Andrea Hans.
The voices rose up, from angry yells to cries of hysteria. Sandra put her head down on the table, a headache edging around her eardrums. A nice quiet nap sounded wonderful right about now.
Christian leaned over and whispered in her ear, “This is ridiculous.”
“Missing shadows is ridiculous.” She slapped the tabletop. “Let’s all hope we’re delusional idiots.”
The wall speakers blared and everyone shut up.
“Thank you, computer,” the captain said, then continued: “All right folks, the only thing I was supposed to do was take you to Xelpha-9 Colony. That’s it. You want a solution to this, put your science brains together and come up with something.” She mumbled something else, probably an order to the computer.
“Meeting adjourned!” the computer said cheerfully.
Some grumbled, others left quickly.
“At least it was quick,” Christian said.
Sandra sat up, brushed her bangs back. “Yeah, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the captain thinks about throwing us out.”
“If she does, I’m calling dibs on the lifesuit.”
She chuckled, weak and forced. When Christian frowned, she quickly said, “Sorry, I’m just tired.”
He waved it off. “It’s fine. I’m tired as well. Not every day you survive a space rift, right?”
“Um, yeah…” But it seemed like something hadn’t made it through.
In the final days of the journey, no one put their ‘science brains’ together — since that would require cooperation, which was impossible. Just as well. Most of them were intolerable. So it was with relief that Sandra set foot on Xelpha-9, a cold desert world accentuated by crystal spires, stabbing up through the ground and into a grey-blue sky. The sun’s presence was weak, like a cloudy day. Hard to notice her shadow’s absence when the whole dome structure and everyone in it barely had one.
She entered the dome with the others, through a series of chambers designed to equalize pressure and retain heat. She and Jet paired off to talk to the colonist’s engineer, who was more of a glorified plumber. The guy had bags under his eyes and kept looking past them as he explained various malfunctions. A couple times she even looked back to see what was so damn interesting. Nothing, apparently.
“Neurotic nutcase,” Jet said as they walked away.
She’d agree, but wasn’t about to say it out loud. Instead, she said, “Probably just nervous. We’re the big guys here, after all.”
“Didn’t you see him? Looked like he was about to drop. Should’ve told him to get some sleep.”
Then Jet yawned. She managed to stifle her own.
“Maybe he isn’t the only one,” she said, then regretted her words.
She shouldn’t be like this; she’d slept ten hours, for God’s sake! If anything, she should be raring to go. Maybe it was this omnipresent gloom sucking her energy. Playing with simulations wasn’t the same as experiencing the depressing landscape, the grey machinery on grey background, the soulless atmosphere of a prison ship. Even the colonists seemed out of it, as they shuffled instead of walking upright.
No wonder there were several psychologists on board the ship.
“Let’s just take some caffeine tabs and see what we can get done,” she said.
There wasn’t much distinction between night and day. Time drifted along like a lazy creature–which only made Sandra feel slow. She was tired, constantly. Didn’t matter how much sleep she got or how many stimulants she shot up. Jet wasn’t fairing much better. At this rate, it’d be a standard-earth month before they got to laying out the dome expansion.
So she met with Christian outside the colony clinic.
“Yeah, you aren’t the only one,” Christian said, rubbing his red-rimmed eyes. “Don’t know what to say, because there’s nothing wrong with us.”
“Except we’re missing shadows,” she said solemnly.
It shouldn’t have been a big deal, and even Christian frowned at her. But there was something unnerving about it.
This wasn’t like her, tired and scared. She worked hard, got some of the best paying gigs. Then she decided to go on an adventure and this happened. Crap. What if this was permanent?
She shook her head. “Sorry I brought it up.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s just…” He briefly squeezed his eyes shut, took in a breath.
“Yeah. Can barely get any work done.”
“I think this whole place is falling apart,” she said to herself.
“Huh, oh… nothing.” She wasn’t even sure why she said it in the first place.
“Hey, let’s try not to worry.” Christian placed a hand on her shoulder and gave her a weak smile. But all she could notice was the dark blotch on the side of his wrist.
He lifted his wrist to see. “No idea. Anyway…”
“Yeah, I gotta get going. I’ll see you at lunch.”
She made the slow walk back to her cracker box apartment for a quick nap.
Even before she opened her apartment’s door, she had a feeling someone was inside. Weapons weren’t allowed inside the dome, but she always carried a taser. The door slid back; she held the taser in front of herself.
The room was dark, containing only essential furniture: plush chair, foldable bed that was also a desk, rug. No sign of anyone–and there wasn’t room to hide–but the feeling didn’t leave.
“Lights, medium,” she said.
The wall panels warmed up to a soft glow.
And in the chair sat… what was it? A person?
She recoiled, almost firing the taser.
“Sandra, darling,” said the person in a rough feminine voice, not too different from her own. “Sorry to startle you, as I know this is a shock. I wasn’t sure how to introduce myself.”
She shook, unable to look away from the person who resembled a dark outline. “Who…?”
It stood, spread its arms, and she saw it had a female form. “I’m your shadow, of course.”
“No, it can’t–”
“Be possible?” And she imagined the shadow smirking. “Is it a really that unfathomable in a universe this big?”
“No, no, no.” She slowly sank to the floor. The lack of sleep had finally caught up: she was going crazy.
“Here, let me help you up.”
“No!” She tried to stand, but her legs wouldn’t bare the weight.
The shadow reached out to touch her. Solid. A fucking solid shadow. And warm, like a person.
“Trust me, I’m real. Remember when I was torn from you?”
She gulped, nodded. Couldn’t speak. Seemed like her body was shutting down.
“Let’s get you to bed, and after a rest, we can talk.”
Yes, sleep. She half-shut her eyes. Hopefully, when she woke up, the delusion would be gone.
It wasn’t gone. The shadow sat in front of vanity mirror, admiring itself, when Sandra woke up.
The shadow half-turned and waved. It was the same, yet–not as dark? Like there was a peach glow displacing the darkness, and its eyes, nose and mouth were distinct.
“Morning, how are you?” It said in a cheery tone.
“Ugh,” she muttered. Maybe a few more hours and this nightmare would be over.
The shadow stood and walked to the bed. “I had to tell your nice friend Christian that you couldn’t make it–”
“Lunch!” She shot straight up in bed. Oh crap, how could she?
“It’s quite all right, he understood. His shadow came back as well.”
She cocked her head. Was she hearing this right?
“So,” she said, “it’s not just me?”
The shadow chuckled. “Of course not.”
She sighed. What a relief. Maybe she wasn’t losing her mind, after all. “So you’re really my shadow?”
“I resemble your form, don’t I?” It twirled a hand for emphasis.
She supposed. It had a huge ass, and shoulders broader than its hips. Wasn’t the sort of body just anyone would have.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“A shadow always follows.”
She supposed that was right. “How did you get here? And in 3D?”
“I was torn from the 2D and brought into the 3D.” It sat on the edge of her bed. “As I drifted, I witnessed the true nature of the universe, collapsing and folding in on its dark self. It was… magnificent.” Its voice sounded far away. “But I was constantly being pulled. Here to this planet, back to you. Isn’t that amusing?”
“And my apartment?”
“Well I’m part of you, aren’t I? I knew your code back when you received it on the ship.”
Sandra thought her shadow smiled, but couldn’t tell in this light.
“Light, medium,” she said.
The room lit up, pained her eyes. She rubbed them and got those stupid specks in her vision.
Her shadow stood. “How about I get you something to eat, darling?”
“No, no. I’m fine.” No more excuses for staying in bed.
She put her feet on the floor, and slowly, joints popping, she stood. A wave of dizziness struck her. Would have fallen had her shadow not caught her. God, why was she so weak?
“Get your rest, dear,” it said, placing her back in bed as if she were a little child.
She gripped her sheets like she wanted to tear them. This was pathetic. And she didn’t do pathetic.
She’d get to her feet, even if it made her sick as hell. She’d rather puke out her guts than sit in bed all day.
When her shadow tried to help, she shook it off and said, “I’m going to work, and that’s final.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Warning: Oxygen levels at thirty-percent.”
Sandra jerked up. Angry red message piercing her vision. She thumped the side of her helmet, and the message quit.
She stretched, joints cracking. Had she fallen asleep? She was alone, still buckled in the seat of the rover, facing a flat greyness. No mining vehicles in the distance–which was odd: that was the planet’s main income. They should be mining non-stop.
Maybe they were like Jet, and took the day off. Everyone seemed to be doing it lately.
Another wasted day she sighed to herself, and turned the rover around.
Once inside the dome, she took off her helmet. Breathed in stale air. She frowned . The air recycler must be on the fritz again. Wasn’t her job to fix it but–eck! She had half a mind to.
She went in search for the systems engineer, first at his office, then at the government building. No one there either, except for a secretary slumped over her desk, completely out. The bar was closed as were most of the trader shops. Was there a holiday she didn’t know about?
She headed back to the apartment, one dragging step at a time. From the corner of her eye, she caught a shadow darting between plastic columns. She stopped to take a closer look. The columns’ shadows were wavering as though the light source spun around and around. But there weren’t any bright lights. Just the dull everyday glow from the dome’s ceiling beams.
Sandra entered her apartment, found the shadow at the vanity mirror again, applying different foundations on its arm. Make-up? She sure as hell didn’t own any make-up.
“Why hello,” the shadow said, still looking into the mirror. “Didn’t expect you back so early.”
Sandra marched up behind the shadow, indicated the foundation. “Where did you get that?”
“Oh, I went to the store.”
“Wait–how? It was closed.”
The shadow remained silent as it applied a peach fuzz to its chin.
“You broke into the store, didn’t you?” she said, and a chill passed through her.
“For a convenience store, it was rather inconvenient of them to be closed.”
“So you think it’s okay to break in and steal? Like some–”
“I left a note of apology, explaining the circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” Her voice rose. “You broke in to steal some stupid make-up!”
The shadow cocked its head in an innocent manner. “Isn’t it human nature to take what you need?”
“But you don’t–”
Wait–what was that? On her neck. She pulled her hair back and leaned close to the mirror. Underneath her left ear, stretching down to the jawline, was a dark blotch; similar to what she’d seen on Christian. She stretched the skin, turned up the lights. No trick of the eyes, it was definitely there. Crap. What was it?
The shadow offered her a jar of foundation. “Here. This should be your color.”
The next time she saw Christian he was sitting on a bench, bent over, head between his hands. He looked feeble, a shadow of a man. Pale skin covered in dark blotches, thin hair, loss of muscle mass.
“Christian,” she called, and walked over to him.
He lifted his head, eyes lit up as she approached, but he couldn’t quite work up a smile. She sagged down next to him and breathed in deep, closed her eyes briefly, but resisted the urge to sleep.
“Well, we got what we wanted,” he finally said.
“What?” She looked at him, but it was painful. He used to be so handsome. Then again, she wasn’t doing so well herself.
“Yeah, in the weirdest way possible.”
“Maybe those stories were right. Only the weird exists in the Out Worlds.”
“And we don’t belong.” She leaned back against the hard plastic of the building behind them. “Hoping those were the ghost stories of our age.”
“I use to like ghost stories,” he said, sadness seeping into his words. It broke her heart.
She straightened up. “Why don’t we get off this rock? Go back to Earth.”
“It’ll take years just for a pilot to agree to come.”
“The colony still has their landing ships.”
He sat up a little. “Hmm. So what’s the plan? I can’t fly a ship.”
She smiled, feeling good in… God knows how long. “Autopilot should handle the difficult stuff. Won’t get us far, but as long as we get out there–” she waved skyward, “we can send out a beacon and hope some feds will come give us a lift.”
“A lot of speculation in that plan.” He stretched, slipping his arm behind her back. “But I like it.”
Warmth flowed into her cheeks. A shadow walked by, and that cooled things off. It waved at them, all casual, as though its presence wasn’t out of place. Christian tensed up beside her.
“And what about those?” He gestured after the shadow.
Sandra went down to the level where the colony kept their ships and harvesters. It took some time, moving her sluggish body from one place to another. The elevator ride, with its soft hum of machinery, almost put her to sleep.
But she had to keep an eye open for her shadow.
It couldn’t know. None of them could know. It meant they’d have to leave behind the colonists… at least till they could come back with help–and force.
She rode the tram down one tunnel, where the map said there should be a couple of scout ships; and maybe there were, but these damn lights. Too dim. She stopped and got off, bringing out a flashlight.
The tram charged on ahead.
“Hey!” she yelled, attempted to chase after it. Just… didn’t have the energy. She collapsed, out of breath and out of patience. The stupid shit, must be automated. She’d have to find the control box and bring it back.
She stood on shaky legs, waving the flashlight back and forth. Shadows leapt and bounced in the light’s beam– Damn. Last thing she wanted to see.
Found a ship, at least. A two-seater short hopper. Wouldn’t get them far, but maybe far enough.
The tram rumbled down the track. Oh thank God–
There were two figures standing on the tram.
She stopped, said: “Hello?”
“Sandra, darling,” cooed the familiar voice.
No, no, no. It found her! Goddammit, it found her. She held her taser in one hand, and with the other, slowly lifted the flashlight’s beam.
The shock nearly sent her on her ass.
It was herself, in a sequin dress. Christian wore a suit. No, not her–her shadow. It looked exactly like her, down to the oval-shaped mole below her left eye. But its eyes were icy, hollow, even as it smiled brightly.
“Wonderful plan you have there,” it said. “It’ll work well for us. All of us.”
“How did you–”
“Know? Did you forget that I’m a part of you?” It took Christian’s arm and stepped off the tram.
“Christian, what are you doing with–with it?”
“It?” Her shadow cocked its head. “I’m clearly a woman, or can’t you see that?”
“You’re not. You’re a shadow.
The shadows approached, calm and orderly while she shook like mad.
“Oh, naive human,” said her shadow. “You never once thought your shadow could be a living being, forced to follow another in servitude.” Its voice dropped low, smile turned sour. “Nor did you care.”
“I–I… Christian?” She looked to him, but his expression was blank. “What did you do to him?”
Her shadow placed a hand on Christian’s chest. “Nothing. This is Christian.”
“No. No, it’s not.”
“Oh, well. You want the Christian that you know.” It motioned to the ground.
She lowered the flashlight. At Christian’s feet was a shadow; it jerked in spasms, clawing at nothing. Fake-Christian brought his foot down on the shadow, and it stopped moving.
She gasped, pointed the taser at them. “Stay back!”
“Oh, Sandra.” In one swift move her shadow had her by the arm. Her taser clattered away.
“Let go!” She jerked away–but its grip tightened.
“Sadly, you don’t have the strength,” it said, and shoved her to the ground.
Her back spasmed, lungs gasped, willpower drained away. Just lie here and melt into the ground… No! She couldn’t. Had to get up.
“I suppose I can’t blame you for not caring.” Her shadow stood over her. “After all, the universe is a cold, cold place. No one cares if a star collapses, or if a planet is wiped out of its life.” It crouched down, face to face. “Now lay there and be a good shadow.”
Then it closed her eyes.
“Zeitschatten” copyright © Siobhan Gallagher, 2014
Siobhan Gallagher is a wannabe zombie slayer, currently residing in south Texas. Her fiction has appeared in several publications, including AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, COSMOS Online, Abyss & Apex, Unidentified Funny Objects anthology, and DarkFuse’s Horror d’oeuvres.