Jim knew he was somewhere beyond tired, ranging into exhaustion and the peculiar drunken twilight of sleep psychosis, but he was certain he would have remembered the camera. He stared down at it, right there in the center of his desk, for a long moment before turning carefully away, looking at the coffeepot instead. It was empty. Of course it was. There were no coffee fairies on station with him, or anyone else, for that matter. He was, he was fairly certain although doubt was creeping in on kitten feet, alone.
Coffee was something he could do on autopilot. The mystery of the camera, on the other hand. He didn’t dare sit down. He couldn’t stand off watch for… he checked the clock. Another ninety minutes, until the safety interlocks kicked in, and he was allowed sleep. It wasn’t a frequent thing, this suprawatch, but when it happened… he shook his head, to clear the cobwebs and to reorient his wandering thoughts. It was kicking his ass.
The camera, he verified, leaning in close and squinting slightly, was not one of his. He had three. One was for work, and mounted on a gimbal in the lab. The other was his personal camera and sealed into his locker for the time he’d finally be relieved and get home. The third was an antique, and it wasn’t really his. This one was all silver and black plastic and looked like the camera in the cabin he didn’t go into. There wasn’t a rule against it. You just didn’t. His trainers hadn’t said ‘don’t.’ They had told him the story.
Some things, you don’t ask for an explanation. You just nod, file it away, and skirt carefully from there on out. Like this one: a man had disappeared without a trace. In a place that was more heavily monitored than any other in human history. Simply there one second, gone the next. Jim looked from the camera up to the corner of the office at one of the cameras there. They were part of the job. Annoying, but necessary. He’d come to understand that after he’d been told about the guy who’d stood this watch before him.
It was Jim’s third suprawatch. He knew the routine. There had to be a human to give the orders. Humans were expensive, so the Company only sent one. His trainers had scoffed at that, quietly, while they had taken their coffee mugs into the drilling chambers where no one could hear what they said to one another and care was taken to watch the drills biting into the asteroidal rock and not at the cameras in case of lip readers. Humans were a sop to keep the public from fearing artificial intelligence run amuck. That’s not how that works. That’s not how any of this works. But here was Jim, calmly on camera broadcast to a frightened world below, swinging over their heads doing his job.
Camera. He picked it up now, hefting it. So much more mass than his personal multi-lens. Camera technology had progressed so much from the days of massy glass lenses. But this one was old. Jim peered at it again. Maybe it was the camera from the cabin. Hard to tell. He could compare them, though.
Carrying it in his hand, he headed through the corridor in the direction of the empty room. Behind him, the coffee maker burbled cheerfully and he could smell the roasted beans waking up in the hot water. His heart raced. Too much coffee, he decided. This would be the last cup. He only needed to stay alert a little longer now.
Jim stopped in the open door of the small cabin, reluctant to go in further, although he could not have said why. He looked at the narrow bunk, made up crisply although no one had slept on it in years. The camera had been in the middle of that bunk, on the olive drab blanket. He knew it had been. Now, there was only a depression in the mattress. Barely visible.
Jim lifted the camera at arm’s length. He must have come in here. He didn’t remember it. He couldn’t think why he would have wanted to get the camera. Had there been something he had seen? Something he wanted to make a record of? A faint beeping from down the hall brought him back to reality with a jolt. His coffee was done. Still holding the camera, he turned around.
On a whim, he lifted the camera to his face and looked through the viewfinder. This camera didn’t have a screen to display the framed shot. You had to press your eye to the little window, and close your other eye. He looked through the camera at the long hall, oddly distorted through this lens. There was a shadow of motion. He lowered the camera, and blinked. The hallway looked much shorter to the naked eye, and the cold glare of the lights was utterly still.
He could smell the coffee. But he lifted the camera, one more time, and looked through the lens again. A shadow flashed across the hall. Jim froze. He couldn’t move. His chest hurt. He forgot to breathe. The shadow flickered again, this time even closer… Reflexively, Jim pressed the shutter.
This was my weekly prompt challenge for Odd Prompts. I was challenged by Bob Mueller with ‘there’s a camera on your desk that you’ve never seen before’ and I challenged Brena Brock with ‘as the ash falls down all around.’ I have to add a special mention of my brother-in-law, who gave me a bit more spark to my prompt that made the story come to life in my head. Thanks, Matt!
If you’d like to take part in this coming week’s prompt challenge, drop a prompt in the email to firstname.lastname@example.org and check out the blog for instructions on what to expect. There’s no wordcount, heck, you can even write non-fiction! Jump on in, it’s fun!