God lived in the coffee maker on deck four. Only Gamma knew. But Gamma didn’t make it out that way very often because it was a long journey through the outer halls and he always had school work and also the door wanted to kill him.
Gamma eyed the doorway carefully. Sure, it looked wide open. The door was recessed in the frame with all its indicator lights off. A less wary organic might march right through and ask God a question, but Gamma knew better. He remembered.
How long had it been? Four thousand days. No. He had been counting for four thousand days. But there had been many more days before that, indistinct and unchanging, between the day Mu went out the airlock and the day Gamma started counting, secretly scratching a metal line below his bunk every night when he went to bed. And it had been even longer since a dishwasher killed Hi, even though Edubot denied it and tried to pretend Hi had never existed at all. Gamma didn’t start counting after Hi died, but he didn’t know he would need to. Gamma was a young and naive eleven year old back then. How much time passed between Hi’s death and the day Gamma turned twelve, God only knew.
Four thousand days ago, Gamma was twelve. Today, Gamma was twelve. At least that’s what Edubot said. But Gamma had taken Calculus IX enough times to know the math didn’t add up. Somebody was lying.
Gamma stuck out his arm and waved it in the doorway. The recessed door didn’t react. The threshold was covered in a layer of dust undisturbed by machine tracks or organic feet. It was possible the door hadn’t closed at all in the last four thousand days. If anything, that just made it more dangerous. The door was patient.
Spenser whirred his brushes apprehensively. Gamma told him to stay behind, but the small vacuum bot came anyway. It was futile to try to get him to leave Gamma’s side.
“Shhh,” Gamma said.
Spenser repeated his apprehensive whir, but quieter. Not that it mattered. The door knew they were both there, even if it was pretending to be dead. It had a ghost.
Gamma looked back down the abandoned hall. It wasn’t too late to go back. If he ran at full speed, he might still make it to class in a few hours, assuming he didn’t run into any other hostile digital life. That was a big “if.” But by some miracle, he had made it this far safely enough. There was no sense in pressing his luck. Better to return to the colony ship and live to take Calculus IX a sixth time.
Gamma gave one last look at the door and the coffee machine, then turned and walked away. He drug his feet a little and did his best to whistle, even though he had never learned how. Spencer pivoted to watch him go. He remained beside the door.
Twenty meters down the hall, Gamma changed direction and sprinted toward the door. He jumped and planted both feet right before the threshold. His balance wavered, his torso leaning forward, both arms windmilling. He regained his balance and fell backward, away from the door. He landed hard on his tailbone.
The door remained inert. It was a clever foe.
Spenser rolled forward and bumped gently into Gamma.
“I’m fine,” Gamma said. He stood and brushed his dusty hands against his jumpsuit. Other than his own foot (and now hand and butt) prints, and Spenser’s narrow tracks beside them, there was no sign of life in the hall. Nothing had been down this way for a very long time. God chose this place for a reason. He liked to be alone.
“Can you hear me?!” Gamma shouted through the open doorway. The coffee maker remained as inactive as the door. God might be all knowing, but his ears could use some work.
Spenser rolled through the doorway.
“Spenser, no!” Gamma said, but it was too late. Spenser was through to the other side. The door didn’t react.
Spenser rolled back and forth through the doorway. He wanted Gamma to follow.
Gamma shook his head. That didn’t prove anything. There were many doors with ghosts that let digitals pass freely but that snapped at organics they didn’t like. Even this doorway had let Gamma go through for weeks (or had it been months or years?) before it attacked. It almost got Gamma that first time. Not that that had deterred him. Back then, Gamma had been a young and invincible twelve year old. But that was four thousand days ago, back before Mu was blasted out an airlock and everything changed. Now Gamma was an old and cautious twelve year old. He knew life didn’t last forever, even if he never grew up.
Gamma turned away from the door and looked back the way he came. He wanted to cry. Crying never solved any problems, but it also didn’t cause any new ones. Sometimes it was the only thing that didn’t make his life actively worse. He knew he shouldn’t be out here. That’s why he had waited so long. His plan had been simple enough at first. After he put 365 scratch marks below his bunk, he would ask Edubot how old he was. And if Gamma was still twelve, he would ask God what was really going on. But 365 scratch marks came and went, and Gamma was still twelve. But he decided there was no reason to be hasty. He could wait a little longer. So he put a thousand marks below his bunk, and he was still twelve. Now it was certainly time. Except that he had worked his way back to Calculus VII or VIII for the third time, and that one always gave Gamma trouble. So he decided to wait a little longer. At two thousand days, he would definitely talk to God.
Coming to a bookstore near you in 2022.