Pony lay on her back in the tall grass in the clearing near the entrance to the derelict that was once The Kennedy Space Center’s main building. Keen on getting inside, she stared up at the bowl-shaped sky, counted her lucky stars, and waited for her chance. She’d managed to get the entire weekend off from the Aerospace Institute just for this little jaunt.
While she waited for the doors to open, Pony reveled in daydreams about her childhood and the distant past when rockets blasted off into space from this abandoned station. She’d heard stories about the cape from her Grandma June, whose father had once gotten an autographed photo of Buzz Aldrin, after meeting a descendant of the man himself in a Nevada coffeehouse.
“Pioneers they were,” Grandma June had said one day. “The early astronauts.”
Pony remembered how her grandmother’s wrinkled brow had crinkled, how her bespectacled eyes had lit up with pride, and how her shock of white hair had seemed to gleam in the light of the midday sun. They’d been seated on the steps of the old summer house. Pony had been seated one step lower so that Grandma June could plait her hair.
Grandma June’s fingers had been quick as she worked out the kinks and neatly gathered up a lock of Pony’s hair. Pony remembered listening intently and biting into a tart jimbilin star, her mouth puckering and eyes squeezing shut as the sour juice struck her taste buds with a vengeance.
Grandma June had chuckled. “Those guys an’ gals raced to the moon an’ Mars, strapped to one point five megaton bombs, Pony. You better believe it!”
It was a story she’d told Pony before, about the days long before the extraterritorial Nazca Two, that massive man-made island in the Pacific had become the new stage for the race to space.
“In the old days, though, there were no luxury liners hoppin’ an’ skippin’ back an’ forth from Jupiter to Nazca Two,” Grandma June had sighed, running her comb through Pony’s hair. “There was no colony on the moon either. Back then, Earth was just a lonely planet full of dreamers wantin’ to reach up an’ touch the stars.”
After that, Grandma June had read to Pony enough of Icarus and about men like Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci to fill her up with a heart-wrenching kind of understanding. It had made some quiet engine start somewhere deep down inside and Pony had started yearning for the stars. Pony had decided then, at ten-years-old that she was going to be an astronaut.
The sound of approaching footsteps stirring up the grass yanked the Astronautics major back to the here and now.
At nineteen, Pony had deep brown skin, full lips and the curves of a pin-up girl. She sported an awesome afro. She wore a tank top with retro pumpkin-legged shorts. She’d taken off her boots and shed her jacket.
Cape Canaveral’s self-declared caretaker stared down at Pony, unsmiling and unimpressed by her fashion forward getup.
“You’re back,” said the dark, skinny young man in the hooded shirt.
“Yup,” chirped Pony. “This time, I’m not leaving until you let me have a look around inside. I even got a permit. For the next forty-eight hours, at least.” Her head tilted cajolingly, “oh come on, let me in. What’s the harm?”
The toe of one worn-out sandal ground down into the dirt. He looked to be about four or five years older than Pony. He looked down at her. For a fraction of an instant, his eyes focused on Pony with a curious sort of intensity. Then he blinked and all that was left was annoyance.
“A permit huh? They don’t give those out to just anyone.” He bit down on his lower lip, considering. “Who exactly are you?” He finally asked.
“You can call me Pony,” she said, fully aware that her failure to fully explain her presence might piss him off.
Fallen into disrepair, the cape had been deemed off-limits to the public for over a century. Recently, legislation had changed and regular people were now allowed to explore the abandoned rocket launch complex, as long as they secured a permit.
Overrun by wildflowers, sweet grass, palmettos, and cabbage palms, Cape Canaveral was partially swallowed up by mangroves. There’d been a crack in the earth fifteen years earlier, Banana River and the ocean come pouring in. Now hordes of alligators lurked and pods of dolphins cavorted in the brackish water that submerged half of the old complex. Only hardcore astronautics geeks like Pony and the occasional ecologist would be interested in a swampy old relic like this.
Pony got to her feet. She slipped her boots back on, bent to tie her laces, then picked up and slipped on her heavy backpack with ease. The caretaker stepped back to give her space and his hood fell off, revealing a mess of knotty hair. The left side of his face was bruised. The bruise had turned that ugly black and blue color. She wondered if he’d recently been in a fight. His glower told her it was better not to ask.
She inclined her head toward the building before her. “So, are you living here or something?”
“Man,” he scowled. “What do I look like to you?” But he averted his gaze, which made Pony think that he’d likely crashed there before, more often than just once or twice. Somehow, he reminded her of a jumpy spider.
Pony pulled a set of maps of Cape Canaveral from back in its glory days out of her backpack. She’d shelled out the extra cash for a handful of them when she secured her permit to explore.
The caretaker’s breath hitched.
“What?” She demanded, wondering what the matter was now.
He seemed to mull it over for a while before deciding to speak. “You know,” he said quietly, inclining his head toward the maps. “You’re not going to find anything interesting by looking at those.”
Pony frowned. “Come again?”
He grunted. “I guess it depends on what you came here to see.”
He walked away without another word, making a beeline for the double doors ahead. She got the distinct impression that he expected her to follow. It was annoying, to say the least, but her curiosity was piqued. She trotted after him.
“Hey,” she called after him. “Your name? You have one, right? What do I call you?”
He stopped. “Hugh,” he answered after giving the matter some thought. “You?”
“I already told you,” her brows furrowed. “It’s Pony.”
“For real?” He chuckled. “I thought you were making that up.”
He was sort of sweet-looking when he smiled. Pony thought it best to keep that bit to herself. She didn’t want him getting all hostile on her again.
The doors to the building they entered had been secured with a chain at some point but the chain had been broken. The rust caking the broken links suggested that whatever it was had happened a long time ago. The doors swung shut behind them. It was dark inside. Pony rummaged around in her backpack for her flashlight and turned it on. Hugh just kept going with surefooted steps which suggested he’d been in this part of the complex many times before.
Pony followed him through the dark, descending deeper down with each turn but after the fifth or sixth corridor, her patience was starting to wear thin. They rounded yet another dark corner. She stopped in her tracks.
“Okay, you need to stop messing around,” she stated flatly. “Is there something down here or not?”
Hugh stopped and turned around. “There’s something here, alright.”
She dug her heels in. “Just tell me what it is.”
Hugh raised one hand, shielding his eyes from the glare of her flashlight. “There’s no point in me telling you. Besides, I wouldn’t even know what to say. This is something you have to see to believe.”
“Fine,” she grumbled. “I was the one who wanted to come down here in the first place.”
The building’s old bones creaked as they settled around the pair. The air vents breathed countless sighs through the empty hallways. The two explorers walked on in silence until they came upon an elevator shaft. The doors were missing. In fact, so was the entire car. A knotted rope hung from a bent metal column on the left side of the entrance. Pony inched closer to the edge and pointed her flashlight downward. The bottom was an awfully long way down.
Pony kicked at a knot in the makeshift rope ladder. “You made this?” She asked.
“Uh huh,” Hugh nodded.
She eyed the knots. They’d been made with the kind of efficiency you’d expect from someone who’d gone through some kind of military training.
She turned to him again, flashlight raised high. “Who are you, Hugh?”
He held up a hand to shield his eyes from the blinding onslaught of brilliance. “Would you stop that?”
“Answer my question,” Pony challenged.
“I’m just a guy searching for the truth,” he insisted.
“What truth?” She pressed.
He chewed on his bottom lip. After a while, he gave her a what-the-hell shrug. “Alright, you know how this complex was used as a research facility after it was decommissioned as a launch site?”
“Uh huh.” Where exactly was he going with this?
“Well, rumor has it that when they closed the labs down years ago, something got left behind.”
There was a timely clunk from somewhere deep in the belly of the darkness.
Pony shivered. “What rumors? Rumors from where?”
“The dark net and shit.”
Pony sneered at that crazy claim. “The dark net hasn’t even existed for the last seventy-five years.”
“That’s just what the government says. We both know that doesn’t mean much.” He grabbed on to the rope and swung his legs over the edge of the elevator shaft.
“You coming?” He demanded when Pony made no move to follow.
“I’m having second thoughts about trusting some “dark net” conspiracy whack job with my life down here.”
He chuckled and started his descent. “I’d only be a whack job if I hadn’t found something.” he vanished into the darkness. “Come on down!” He called out as he reached the bottom.
“Fine,” Pony grumbled.
She grabbed hold of the rope with one hand, turned her flashlight sideways, in order to clamp onto it with her teeth. Lord, it was unnerving, descending down into the dark. She swung her body over the edge and held on for dear life, inching her way down. Her heart threatened to thump right out of her chest. Her blood roared in her ears.
A sudden tug on the rope from below made her yelp.
“Relax,” Hugh’s voice came from just below. “There’s a piece of broken metal about two inches to the left. You’ll have one hell of a bruise if it gets you.”
“Wait,” she twisted around after her feet finally touched the ground. “You can see in the dark?”
“AGR contacts, baby.” He grinned.
“But those aren’t even on the market anymore,” she complained.
She knew. She’d looked into it thoroughly, in search of something more high-spec than her AGR spectacles but learned that the Augmented Reality contacts had been banned decades earlier because of a defect that resulted in severe ocular damage to some users.
“You managed to get hold of something like that.” Her envy knew no bounds. “Really, who are you?”
“Come on,” he deftly dodged her question again. “This way.”
Left of the elevators and two more corridors deeper down, they came upon another massive pair of doors. There was power down here for some reason. A fluorescent light flickered above the doorway. Hugh punched series of numbers into the keypad to the right. The doors slid open.
“A kindergartener could have hacked that,” Pony scoffed at his triumphant smile.
They crossed the threshold. The space widened into a massive warehouse. The first thing that Pony saw took her breath away. It had been dismantled, parts laid out like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but Pony had pored over the specs of old rockets and probes often and long enough to recognize the reflector segments and the dented and pitted beryllium outer case anywhere. This was Voyager One. Supposedly, having breached the heliopause back in 2012, never to be heard from again. There was no way it should be there then. There was just no way.
Pony bent to touch the dust laden surface of a fuel assembly sphere laid bare. “This is impossible,” she murmured. “There’s no way this should be here.”
There were people who didn’t believe that the ancient craft had really managed to escape the solar system. Destroyed by cosmic debris, they said. Just a stupid publicity stunt, they said. People doubted that Voyager’s jaunt into the unknown had really happened much in the same way people had doubted that the first moon landing had really taken place back in the 21st Century. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she’d always hoped that lost probes like Voyager One and Pioneer were still out there floating across the cosmos. Pony had always believed, had always been stirred by this kind of dream.
Why was it here, all dented and busted up and laid out in pieces, in the dark, in some forgotten warehouse? Had the conspiracy nuts been right all along?
“Here’s the thing,” Hugh said. “This is nothing. Now I’m going to show you the really weird shit.”
Pony dug her heels in, curiosity be damned. “You can’t show me something like this and expect me to just move along like it’s nothing.”
“It’s worth seeing, Pony,” Hugh said. “What I have to show you.”
She suddenly remembered the old lesson about talking to strangers, let alone following a weird one into the bowels of some dark building. Still, Hugh didn’t seem to have any hostile intent. He shoved his hands into his pockets and regarded Pony owlishly.
“This is important,” he said. “And you strike me as a clever sort. I feel like if you understand my problem, you’ll know what to do.”
He went through the next set of doors. Pony followed. Her heart lurched when she entered the room. A sickening feeling twisted in her gut. The body was seated in a webbed chair, slumped over at a worktable. By now, she could easily recognize those old-fashioned cargo shorts, the hooded shirt, even the sandals housing the bones of his desiccated toes. She stood where she was, numb and rooted to the floor, staring down at the skeletal remains. Hugh was dead. Long dead. It made no sense.
“I was just with him!” She whispered, mind reeling. “I was just…”
Hugh was wearing a webbed helmet with wires that trailed to the ground and across the room. Whatever the wires led to was hidden behind storm shutters. At each seat, on the table were flat black squares. Pre AGR tech, if she remembered correctly. The one in front of the corpse was open, somehow still connected to a power source. She read the words on the screen and frowned.
Open storm shutters? Y/N
Pony hesitated. She thought about leaving, but there was Hugh right before her and there was Voyager One in pieces in the next room. How long had his body been down here like this, waiting to be found? Just who had led her down into the belly of this building then? Pony didn’t believe in ghosts, after all. Her gaze shifted back to the skeleton, to the wires spilling from the helmet it was wearing to the shutters where they led. What was behind those shutters? She needed to know.
Pony leaned over and pressed the “Y” key on the flat device, then “Enter” and she waited. The shutters creaked as they slowly opened, revealing a wall of glass. It took her a few seconds to realize that she was looking inside a massive aquarium. There was a flurry of movement within the murky water. Pony drew closer. Something was alive inside!
A large shadow emerged from the murk. There was a loud thump, and then it pressed up against the glass.
The aquarium’s occupant was grayish blue with the blunt nose and freakishly wide, smiley mouth of a pilot whale. The body was human-like, down to the torso which narrowed into a snakelike coil, punctuated by a fluttery fish-like tail. Two of its eyes were bright green, irises red, the third eye’s sclera was golden, iris an inky black. A tangled mess of wires trailed out from the middle of the forehead, just above the third eye, and flowed out behind the creature. The creature stared down at Pony, like an elephant staring down at a mouse.
Pony wanted to run. She couldn’t. She couldn’t even fathom why she couldn’t. A weird sound whooshed out of her mouth. The creature’s enormous hands pressed up against the glass. Pony heard a crack. The glass splintered. Beads of water welled up into the cracks in the glass. There was another loud thud. The glass shattered. A deluge of cold water came spewing out, dousing Pony from head to toe. The creature’s tail writhed and twisted as it crept out of the broken enclosure. Pony retreated, backing up against the table as the creature drew near.
“You!” Pony’s voice reached a high note, trembled. “What are you?”
The creature leaned in closer. It studied Pony at length. Pony stared back, trapped within that gravid silence. Her eyes shifted to the corpse which had been knocked sideways and now lay partially submerged in the water.
“D-did you kill him?” She swallowed hard and tried again. “Why?”
Her questions were met with a long, icy stare.
“He was unsuitable,” the monster answered.
The creature didn’t actually speak, yet somehow, its words rattled around inside Pony’s skull. What was that? Telepathy?
“You tricked me into coming down here,” Pony whispered.
Every instinct signaled that she needed to flee but Pony didn’t. She couldn’t. They stared at each other in frozen silence, Pony and the giant that could have easily been The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It bent forward. Wet, scaly palms cradled Pony’s cheeks. A hot barrage of images speared into the young woman’s mind.
She saw stars and the vast spaces between them. She saw galaxies upon galaxies, upon galaxies. She saw a massive green jewel of a planet. She saw swarms of ships escaping the orbit of an exploding star. She saw the familiar glimmer of a battered reflector. Dimly, Pony began to understand. Voyager One had gone out into deep space, had been found and returned. It hadn’t been sent back alone.
The creature that came back with Voyager One had been quarantined but attempts to communicate with it had failed. The creature had been abandoned. Years later, Hugh had come. Even though his attempt to use the device that he discovered had resulted in his untimely death, the creature had managed to capture his memories. It had then been able to project his appearance and behavior but the creature’s telepathic range was limited to just beyond ground level. Pony had simply gotten too close.
“Why can I hear you without the wires?” Pony wondered.
“You are suitable,” it simply said.
Somehow, Pony managed to slip out of the creature’s grasp. She twisted away, tripped over her own feet, and fell on her butt. Water sloshed everywhere as she desperately scrambled for the exit. Slim tendrils snaked out lashing around her neck. The creature dragged her up back onto her feet and leaned in closer, head tilted to the side as if considering. The pressure increased and kept increasing until Pony saw red.
“We are not so different,” the hollow words came spearing into Pony’s mind. “Your kind. My kind.”
It stank strongly of dirty fish water and somewhat of sulfur. The stench made Pony gag. She heard the sound of running water, the hiss of electrical wires shorting out, and the sound of the wind worming its way through the cavernous building. She felt the stab of something hard and sharp burrowing through the bone of her skull. She screamed. Through the haze of pain, she saw the creature’s mouth open, revealing double rows of long, spiky teeth.
Dr. Nestor Marley shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. A slender Natty Dread, he wore a silver tunic and rode a gravity-defying disc across the brackish water. He made a beeline for the building partially swallowed up by the mangroves.
“You’re back,” called out a voice from the thick of the greenery.
“Yes, I’ve got questions,” the scientist answered, bringing the disc to an abrupt stop.
“I suppose I’ve got answers,” came the silvery voice again.
She didn’t look a day over twenty, the petite woman who sat in the canopy of the mangroves. She had deep brown skin, full lips and generous curves. Her hair fanned out, framing her head into twisted, black halo. Barefoot, she wore a faded tank top with old-fashioned pumpkin-legged shorts. Her feet, from her toes to the crooks of her knees and her hands, from her fingers to her shoulders were scaly and blue. Her sclerae were golden, irises an inky black.
“Let’s start with who you are and where you came from,” Nestor started but then he shook his head, “actually, let’s just start with your name.”
“You can call me Pony,” the hybrid leaned forward and grinned, revealing double rows of long, spiky teeth. “That used to be my name.”