The hub of the ship was the social space. It was a kitchen, a dining room, a conference room, and an entertainment center. The bridge was one short corridor away, and the crew quarters branched off in four directions – four above, four below. Right now they were well understaffed, which seemed to suit everyone fine, since the group they’d put together was already well-versed in getting on each other’s nerves.
Mara sat next to Arlen, who was tapping through pages he’d stored in his tablet. Knowing him, it was probably news, as up to date as he could get it. She never quite understood his constant need to know what was going on all the time. Marco had to, he was the captain, but everyone else could just hang out and collect and let the system sort itself out on its own.
Leane had joined them from the cargo hold. She was filthy and looked exhausted, but her eyes jumped from person to person as Mara laid out what she had seen on the Osiris, and she knew that Leane wouldn’t miss a thing.
Ken kept looking from Marco to his computer and back again, and every time he looked at his files, his brow furrowed. The fact that he was nervous was bad enough, but he seemed to be making Marco nervous, and that wouldn’t do at all. You didn’t captain a crew like theirs for as long as he had by being nervous, and it seemed an alien look on him.
“The problem we have,” Marco said when she’d finished her story, “is that one of the passengers on the ship is – or most likely was – the daughter of none other than Donovan Starling.”
That got Arlen’s attention. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “She’s been missing for months!”
Marco nodded. “And there’s a reward for her return, alive or dead. But it seems like there’s going to be a hitch. Ken?”
He spun the computer around to face the group. Mara instantly recognized the face on the screen – Carter Artega, captain of the Osiris The dead man, and probably the one who’d murdered every other living soul on the ship. “This is one of the files that was on the chip Mara bought over,” he said. “Among the others was a cute little executable that probably would have set off the Osiris‘ self-destruct, so good call there.”
Mara tipped the hat she wasn’t wearing, and then let him continue.
“There’s also a copy of the manifests – crew, cargo, and passengers. Starling’s daughter is listed there by name, and she’s tied to those crates of miscellany they have in their hold.”
“Which contain what?” Leane asked.
Ken held up a hand. “Don’t get ahead of me,” he said. “Terra Starling boarded about a week before this video was recorded.” He gestured at the screen. “The video itself was recorded about three months ago.” He reached over, clicked play, and they watched Captain Artega speak.
It… is vital that I say this, he said from the screen. His face looked drawn and haggard, unshaven. His eyes kept moving from one place to another. Even if no one ever hears it, I have to say it. I think that if I say it out loud, then maybe… maybe it’ll sound as crazy out loud as it does in my head. And if I can just get a second opinion, then I can put all this behind me. He looked down at something below the camera’s field of view. But probably not.
He took a deep breath. There are ghosts on my ship. He let the breath out and looked from left to right and back again. His shoulders slumped, but he went on. They’re not… It’s not like I’m seeing my grandfather or my dead wife or anything, you understand. It’s just… He leaned in a little closer. I know they’re there. Things. Spirits. Entities, something. They started about a week ago, right after we left Laraea colony. Mara looked over at Ken, and he nodded.
I have no idea what they are, but I know where they are. The captain’s voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. They’re always just out of sight. Shadows. Malingerers in the corners, hiding in that spot right where your eyes don’t go and doing… He ran a hand down his face, and the hand was blood red. It left streaks across his skin. Around the table, Mara and the crew didn’t look at each other, or say anything. They kept their eyes on the screen, but Mara knew. Even veterans of the spaceways would look at this and get a little uneasy.
On-screen, Artega looked at his hand as though he hadn’t seen it before. Then he looked up at the camera and grinned. A skewed grin that made him look like he used to be a troublemaking teenager. I think I may have gone a little off the rails, he said. He blinked his eyes clear and tried to compose himself. There are things on this ship, and I don’t know who or what they are. He held up a bloodied hand. I’ve already begun my investigations, but so far – no luck. And I suspect that if there’s no one on the ship anymore, the ghosts won’t have anyone to haunt. So there’s a few more people to take care of, and then I’ve got a full bottle of painkillers from the infirmary waiting for me.
His expression shifted a bit, a flash of guilt. If you’re watching this, then I’m sorry. I can’t let you go, or the ghosts will just follow you, and I will have done… I will have done all this for nothing. As soon as this message ends, the Osiris will self-destruct. He looked like he was about to cry. I’m so sorry. He reached out, and the screen went blank.
Arlen stood up slowly. “Um,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” Ken said. “I’ve got the video unhooked from the executable, and even if I didn’t, the ess-dee codes from the Osiris wouldn’t work here.” He glanced over at Marco. “Right?”
Marco nodded. “Right. Goqui doesn’t even have it set up.”
“Okay,” Arlen said. He sat back down. Leane smirked at him, and he returned the favor.
“Assuming the captain’s got his timeline right,” Marco began.
“A big assumption,” Mara said. “The guy was nuts.”
Marco nodded. “True, he was, but if he had his time right, then we know that the ‘ghosts’ started to show up right after he picked up Terra Starling and her miscellany.” He took the computer from Ken and tabbed over to the manifest. “No idea what’s in these crates,” he said, “but they should at least be treated as suspicious.”
“What?” Leane said. “What could be in those boxes that’d make him murder everyone on the ship?”
“Magnetic pulse generators,” Arlen said. Everyone looked over at him, and he seemed surprised that they were waiting for him to finish his thought. “What?” he said. “It’s well known that a focused magnetic pulse can create hallucinations. Maybe she brought a bunch over, switched them on and…”
“And they only affected the captain?” Mara said. “How would that even work?”
Arlen shrugged. “Maybe there’s something in his genetics…”
“And where would a girl like Terra Starling even get magnetic pulse generators?” Ken asked. “You’ve seen her in the news, Arlen, she’s an idiot. She wouldn’t know how to get off a planet unless you strapped a pair of shoes to a rocket.” That got a chuckle.
“Maybe she didn’t know what was in them either,” Arlen said. “Maybe someone gave them to her? Told her they were vintage handbags?”
Leane snorted. “Very nice,” she said. “Shoes and handbags. Original, Arlen.”
“What, haven’t you seen her?” He grabbed his tabled and started poking at the screen. “The girl is a complete flake, look at this…”
They were cut off when Marco slapped the tabletop. The silence was complete. Leana sat back down. Arlen put his tablet on the table carefully.
“We blow it up,” Marco said.
Everybody looked at him, and it was a full ten seconds before Ken said, “What?”
“We blow it up,” Marco said again. “I don’t know what happened on that ship, and I don’t think I want to know. We go in, copy over all the logs and computer files, and then we scatter Osiris to the stars.” He looked over at Leane. “Cargo and all.” She took a quick breath that hissed through her teeth. But she didn’t disagree with him.
After a few moments, Mara said, “We can use the file on the chip to set off the self-destruct.” She looked across at Ken. “Can you re-jigger it to give us time to get out?” He nodded. “Okay then,” she said. “Let me know what you want off that ship. Me and Leane can go get it.”
Leane raised an eyebrow. “Me?” she said. “Why me?”
“Because you’re organized and efficient,” Mara said. “And I think the guys’ll probably pass out when they see the blood.” There was another chuckle around the table. Leane reached out for a fist bump.
“Okay,” Marco said. “We’ll start putting together what we need. Then we sleep.” He looked at the blank screen of Ken’s computer. “Tomorrow we bid farewell to the Osiris.”
To Be Continued… but I need to do some planning first. Hang in there.
Mara wasn’t an expert on communications or computers, at least not beyond what everybody had to know to operate the ship. Her job was security and threat assessment, a job that seemed a little ridiculous on a salvage ship with a crew of five. The biggest threat she had to deal with on any given day was Ken trying to cheat Arlen at cards, which he did with such regularity that no one really knew why Arlen kept playing. She wanted to ask, but the mystery seemed more interesting. As long as they didn’t kill each other, it wasn’t really her business.
The only time she was really called upon to act in her official capacity was moments like this – dealing with derelict ships, investigating distress calls and emergency beacons. What with all the illegal mining ships, passenger scows, and homebrew space tubs out there, they did surprisingly brisk business. Marco had brought them together to make some money and enjoy the wide-open, and that’s what they did.
This ship, however, was a whole other story.
She didn’t have the leverage to pull the axe out of the comm console, so she just left it there. “Marco, are you seeing?”
“I’m seeing,” he said. “Ken’s here too. Ken?”
A moment’s pause, and then Ken’s familiar reedy tones. “Hey Mara,” he said. “What’ve you gone and done now?”
“Not in the mood, Ken. This place is creeping me out.” She brought herself closer to the console and the axe. “What do you make of this? And tell me quick – there’s a dead guy floating behind me, and if the fics are any indication he should be grabbing my ankle any moment now.”
Ken chuckled into the mic. “C’mon, Mara. Space zombies almost never happen. Now let’s see…”
There was a brief silence. What she’d told Ken was no lie – she could feel the dead man behind her. He was floating, he was naked, and he was covered in blood. She wanted to turn around, to look at him and make sure he was still there, still unmoving. But she had to keep the helmet-cam centered on the console. She wondered where he could grab her – leg? Shoulder? And when she spun around to scream, what would she see? The bloody maw of a mouth, ravaged by some terrible exovirus? The dead black eyes of a predator that would devour her whole? Something utterly unfathomable and alien that entranced her while it unmade her? Every moment that she stared at that stupid console with that stupid axe was a moment that he could take to reach over from where he was -
“Looks like the axe missed the best parts,” Ken said, and Mara jumped. She wasn’t sure if she made noise in that tiny white space of terror, but if she did, Ken didn’t mention it. “Say again?” she said.
Ken cleared his throat. “That console looks like government standard, and the axe pretty much just went through the monitor and the speaker. The actual processing equipment is about two feet down in the cabinet, so it should probably be fine.”
“So… it’s nothing?” Mara asked.
“Well, it’s an axe where an axe shouldn’t be,” Ken said, and she could hear his smirk. “I’d say that’s something.”
“Fine,” Mara said. “We’ll add that to the mystery board. I’m gonna check out the dead man.”
She wasn’t sure if it would be better to turn around with her eyes open and have that bloody monster lurch into her field of vision – or worse, to turn and see that it had disappeared – or to close her eyes and find out that way. But when she turned around, and let out the breath she’d been holding, the dead man was still there. Still floating. Still, as far as she could tell, dead.
“Wow,” Ken said. “That’s a mess.”
“You didn’t see the rest of it,” she said. “I’m going to take a closer look.” A light tap on the floor and she drifted upwards and forward towards the dead man. When she got close, she touched the low ceiling of the bridge and stopped herself.
There was no sign of injury on him, but lots of blood. “I’m gonna guess that he did it,” she said.
“Good guess.” Marco was back online.
She looked him over, head to toe. There was a tattoo on his shoulder – an eagle with a dagger in its mouth – and she made sure to get a good picture of it. Around his wrist was a thin blue band, from which dangled a small memory chip in a plastic case. She reached out, bringing her gloved fingers within inches of him.
Did his hand twitch?
She took his wrist gently, and it moved as she moved it. A thin utility blade popped out of the other glove’s thumb-tip and she sliced through the plastic band with ease. The chip floated free. She snatched it out of the air. “This might tell us something,” she said.
“Bring it aboard,” Marco said. “Ken can take a look and make sure there’s nothing malicious on it.”
“Good idea,” Mara said. “I’m still waiting for the horror movie to start, and a booby-trapped chip would be a good way to start it.” She pushed away towards the other door leading off the bridge. The schematic map said that it should be the captain’s office.
It was small and narrow, but neat. There were glass-fronted cabinets with small knickknacks in them, all of which were floating in disarray. The desk was bolted to the floor. Inside one of the drawers was the ship’s commission papers and a printed-out crew manifest. “Got it,” she said. She thumbed through the commission papers. “The ship is the Osiris, captained by Carter Artega. You know him, Marco?”
“Never heard of him,” Marco said. “But space is big. I’m sure we can find something.”
The manifest listed only twenty-five passengers and crew, which was something of a relief. It was still a bloodbath, but not quite the bloodbath it could have been. And there was cargo in the hold. Food and water, of course. Passengers’ personal goods, crates of replacement machine parts, computer consoles, some clothing… And four crates of “miscellaneous.”
“Huh,” she said.
“You know,” Marco said, “it’s never good when you say that.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” she said. “There’s some mystery cargo in the hold. I want to take a look.”
“Umm…” That got her attention. Marco wasn’t a man known for indecision. “Come on in first,” he said. “I want a look at whatever was on that chip. If there’s a message from the captain that says, ‘For the love of god, don’t look in those crates,’ I’d really like to see it first.”
Mara shrugged. “You’re the boss,” she said. And it did make sense. Clearly something horrible had happened, and while there was no guarantee those crates of miscellaneous had anything good, there was also no guarantee they were dangerous. Besides, the Osiris wasn’t going anywhere. “On my way,” Mara said. She’d have to go through those blood-soaked corridors again. Maybe if she went faster, it would’t be so bad.
It wasn’t, though she nearly broke her arm trying to go too fast in zero-g. When she got back on the ship, back in the familiar embrace of artificial gravity, Arlen was at the airlock to receive her. “What the hell’s going on?” he asked, taking parts of the spacesuit as she shed them. “Ken and Marco are gossiping like girls up there and won’t let us know what’s going on.”
“Like girls?” Mara said, arching an eyebrow. “Better not let Leane hear you say that.”
Arlen smirked. “Like you two have anything to gossip about.”
She took the chip from the pocket of her glove and handed the glove to Arlen, who turned it over in his hands. “What’s all this brown dust?” he asked. “Something rusting in there?”
“Something like that,” she said. “Excuse me.” She shouldered past him and pulled herself up the ladder to the bridge deck The crew area of the ship was small, with the much larger part being given over to cargo and storage. Anything they could haul away from a salvage claim was theirs to profit from, and if Mara knew him as well as she thought she did, Marco already had his claim registered. He was right – the Osiris was theirs, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
When she reached the bridge, Marco and Ken were waiting for her. The two men could have looked more different, but they’d have to try. Marco’s deep olive complexion and short black hair contrasted with Ken’s paleness in hair and skin. Marco was whip-thin, and if she hadn’t seen him eat she would have sworn he was starving. Ken looked like he’d been a boxer before he got deep into computers and spacefaring technology. They sat easily next to each other, as if they were each a part of some greater person that hadn’t shown up yet.
“Welcome back, Mara,” Marco said. Ken nodded at her by way of greeting.
Mara dropped into the copilot’s chair and held the chip out to Ken. “Here you are,” she said, draping a leg over the armrest. “Do your magic.”
Ken looked at it carefully, then reached behind him for his ever-present black bag. No one knew what he really had in there – he carried it with him at all times, and never let anyone look inside. The most anyone could figure was that it was full of black-market tech that he thought they would disapprove of. No one knew why.
He pulled out a small computer and a card reader. Once everything was attached, he slid the chip into the reader and began tapping keys. His face had that blank look that he got when he was totally absorbed in something, and he didn’t blink for what seemed like way too long.
A few moments later, he looked up, from Marco to Mara and back again. “I think we’re in trouble,” he said.
To Be Continued! (Seriously? Really? Okay…)
Mara hated how her breathing sounded inside the spacesuit. Her helmet amplified everything – the slow draw of the inhale, with that ever-so-faint squeak at the end. A leftover from the asthma she’d had as a child. The exhale that whooshed out and echoed in her ears, a hollow, close sound that made her feel like she’d been buried alive. It would have been worse if the visor had fogged up, but the thermal plastic kept that from happening. A small blessing. With her own hollow breath in her ears, she turned on her helmet camera and keyed in the override for the airlock.
The interior of the derelict ship wasn’t what she’d expected. Darkness, dust, broken things – that was what every fiction she’d seen since childhood had prepared her for. It was a well-worn plot, after all: distress call, motionless ship, no answer. Followed by a throwaway character going in to explore and being devoured by something the filmmakers could barely afford to pay for.
Of course, no one had ever run into a horrible, carnivorous Monster from Beyond the Stars before, so Mara assured herself that she was perfectly safe. Right on the heels of that thought was the quiet whisper in the back of her mind that said, “But there’s always a first time.”
She wasn’t sure what bothered her more, that she might get eaten alive or that she might be a throwaway character. Neither was very appealing to think about.
The helmet radio crackled in her ear. “Mara, we’re seeing the airlock open. How does everything look?”
She gave herself a light push off the wall and drifted through the hatch. “All looks good, Marco,” she said. “The lights are on.” She checked the readout on her helmet display. “Atmosphere seems intact.” She reached out to the wall and let the ridged fingertips of her gloves drag her to a halt. “Gravity’s off, but otherwise…”
Otherwise it looked like someone should come around the corner any minute and ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing there. “Marco, what’s the stats on this ship?”
“Hold,” he said. A few loud breaths later, he was back. “Huh,” he said. “Looks like a Hermes-class, small diplomatic vessel. Uploading schematics now.” An orange icon blinked into life on her helmet screen, in the lower left. Mara held her gaze on it, and a detailed 3-D map of the ship blossomed before her eyes.
“Did the S.O.S. say anything about it being a diplomatic mission?” she asked.
“Not a thing,” Marco said. “And you’d think that might be the kind of information that’d be useful. But it was just a distress call, and nothing else. Automated, sent out to Any and All.”
“Nope. If I can get the ship’s ID code, Ken might able to dig something up. He said he did a database backup at our last station visit. Try the bridge, see what you can find.”
“Gotcha.” She glanced around the schematic until she found the bridge – three decks up and at the farthest point from where she was now. “Marco. Grab my helmet feed. Tell me if I’m missing anything.”
“Already done,” he said. “Off with you.” The persistent hiss of the open channel clicked off.
There was a lift about ten meters down the corridor. She thought about it, and then called up the schematics again to look for an access vent. Someplace where she would be slightly less trapped. She pulled a vent cover off and stuck her head inside. It would be close, but she could fit.
The trip along the vent was short and uneventful. She braced her back against the wall and pushed with her feet, popping the vent cover off and sending it bouncing off the opposite wall. When she looked out into the corridor, the first thing she did was curse. Loudly and well.
“Mara?” Marco’s voice cut through the mix of rage and fear that she found herself overwhelmed by. “Mara, is everything okay?”
Everything was most certainly not okay. The walls were covered with old, dried blood. There were splashes on the floor and ceiling alike, bloody handprints, and long, smeared drag marks. It was all a dark, iron brown, and there were tiny flecks of dried blood floating in the air like motes of dust in an abandoned house.
“Holy shit,” Marco said.
Mara swallowed hard. “My thoughts exactly.”
“What do you think happened?”
Mara was pretty sure she knew what happened. She figured Marco knew too, but the question still had to be asked. “Looks like we’re gonna have to find out,” she said. The blood trail led off to her right, which the schematics said was in the direction of the bridge. “I’ll follow this,” she said. She pulled herself out of the access vent and started floating along the corridor, following the blood.
There was more blood as she went along, and the bloody dust in the air seemed to be getting thicker. When she turned the first corner, it just got worse.
There was a head resting where the floor and wall met, and it was facing away from her. It was a small blessing, but the rest of the corridor looked like a slaughterhouse. The blood was now mixed with what was unmistakably flesh, and it caked the walls where it wasn’t floating through the air. “Marco,” she said. “How many people does a Hermes usually carry?”
There as a pause. When he spoke, Marco’s voice was quiet and hoarse. “Around fifty,” he said. “Maybe more, depending on the mission.”
“Jesus,” she said.
She checked the map. The bridge was just up the corridor, but she really, really didn’t want to find it. Whoever – and she couldn’t stop amending that to Whatever – had either come from or gone to the bridge. In a ship this size, there were plenty of places to hide, but everything pointed to Mara walking into a horror house.
The bridge door was covered with bloody handprints. Mara took a deep breath and thought about how lucky she was that she couldn’t smell anything. Her stomach lurched anyway, and she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. The suit had ways of handling puke in the helmet, but it was still horrible, and she’d never live it down.
The door opened at her approach.
Except for the floating naked corpse in the middle of the bridge, it all looked perfectly normal. the man was thin and very clearly dead. His throat had been cut, and he was hovering in a thick cloud of dried blood. The main screen was dark, as we’re most of the other consoles on the bridge. Mara moved from point to point, trying to get an idea of who this ship was.
There was an axe buried in the communications console.
To Be Continued… (I keep using that phrase… I do not think it means what I think it means…)
A man of inhuman proportions stepped around the corner into the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, stopped at the vegetables, and sat cross-legged on the floor. Waiting.
Even sitting down, he was tall, taller than most of the men and women who had come to do their shopping. His leather greatcoat fanned out behind him on the floor, and he creaked and jingled when he moved, as though there were still more layers of metal and leather underneath. His face looked like it had been carved from volcanic rock, with a single livid scar that slashed across his nose from one cheek to the other. He had long, silver hair that was bound with a red leather cord, and looked like someone who had stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel.
The other Sunday shoppers didn’t seem to notice him at all. One middle-aged woman with two kids in a shopping cart stopped next to him, reached past his face, and took out a package of peas. Her littlest started at the man, and made to say something, but the child was soon distracted by its older brother, who smacked it with a package of snack cakes.
The man sat there, cross-legged, eyes closed, for hours as the shoppers went by. They guided their carts around him, never really noticing that he was there. Perhaps some of them wondered why it was they should suddenly want to veer left and look at the frozen pizzas. Some of the more sensitive of them may have noticed the faintest smell of woodsmoke curl up into the deep recesses of their brain, but they would have dismissed it as soon as they walked by. Only a few very young children seemed to see him, and none of their parents were interested in following up on the strange fantasies of their toddlers.
The day wore on. More people came in to shop for dinner or to get their groceries for the week. As the night came in, the tide of shoppers slowed, and by midnight the store was populated mostly by the skeleton crew of employees and college students looking to meet their immediate snack and soda needs. The supermarket was quiet, except for the constant hum of compressors and the quiet melodies of the overhead music.
At about one in the morning, the man opened his eyes. They were a deep, terra-cotta red set in black, and they seemed to be following the movements of something outside his own vision. A moment later, a girl walked around the corner. She looked like she had pulled her outfit together from the first items she’d laid hands on in a thrift shop, with oversized combat boots on her feet and a fez on her head. She stopped in front of the man on the floor and flashed a grin that was brilliant under the fluorescents. “Been here long?” she said. She planted her feet and crossed her arms, and somehow managed to look more solid than the giant in front of her.
The man leveled his gaze at her. “All day,” he said. “Where have you been?”
She shrugged and twirled a finger. “You know. Out. About. Doing things and stuff and things.”
He unfolded himself from where he’d been sitting and sighed as he stood. “I should have set the bargain for a dusk limit instead of dawn.” He looked down at her. “I was told that you were more reliable.”
That grin again. “You were told wrong, big man.”
The man sighed, and it was a rumble in his chest. “Shall we begin?” he asked.
“Yup. Let’s get this over with.”
The man reached into a pocket of the greatcoat and pulled out a small cloth bag. He held it up to his lips and whispered to it, words too quick and too soft for anyone to hear. Then he gestured to the girl, for her to move closer. She did. “In this place,” the man said, “this sanctuary, we have come here to make a bargain. In honesty and good faith.” He poured red sand out of the bag, making a half-circle around them. “Siorad of the Western Hills does so swear.” He took the bag in both hands and presented it to the girl with all the solemnity of ancient ritual.
She swiped it from his hands, rolling her eyes. “We’re here to make a deal,” she said. “Nobody tries anything, nobody gets hurt.” She poured the rest of the sand from the bag, but now it was blue. When she completed the circle, she stood up straight. “I’m Liryl of the Underground, and I approve this message.” She tossed the bag to Siorad, who caught it with a look of disapproval. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again they glowed the dull orange of old coals. He spoke a word, and the supermarket around him seemed to ripple and change. For a moment, it wasn’t a supermarket at all. It was a great meeting-hall, ancient and dangerous. A place where even blood enemies could meet and parley without fear of betrayal. It was the place it had always been, even when it had changed beyond all recognition.
The strange waves subsided, and Siorad looked a little more relaxed. Liryl, on the other hand, was shuffling her feet and never letting her gaze settle. She kept away from the sand circle.
“Very well,” Siorad rumbled. “Let’s begin.”
To Be Continued… at some point.
NOTE: The day count has been adjusted to the actual number of days, including the five slacktastic days I missed in January.
Sharon looked over from her tablet when the doctor cleared his throat a second time. “Oh,” she said. She sniffed, and noticed that the disinfectant smell of the delivery room had changed into something… meaty. “Are we done already?”
One of the nurses – they were all masked and wrapped up, so she couldn’t tell which one – approached the bed, holding a red, wriggling newborn baby boy. His head wobbled for a moment, and then he opened his mouth and started to howl. It was high and wordless and pure, a noise that had been passed down since the first generation of humans emerged.
Sharon winced. “Any way to, y’know, turn it down?” she said.
The nurse carried the baby boy to the incubator that had been prepared and laid it gently on a blanket. When she closed the cover, there was a small hiss as the incubator pressurized, and the sound was cut off mid-wail.
“Thank god for that,” Sharon said, returning to her book.
The doctor cleared his throat again. “Ms. Ramsey,” he said. “There are still some procedures that have to be taken care of, and I’m afraid we have to do them now.” He stripped off his gloves while one of the nurses took his place beyond the curtain they had erected at Sharon’s midsection. Another nurse handed him a tablet. “Could you… could you put that down please?”
With the put-out sigh of a girl ten years her junior, Sharon thumbed the standby button and put the tablet on the bed beside her. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”
The doctor pulled his mask down. He was handsome enough, she supposed, and if she was going to have another baby, she might ask him to donate for her. It’d be expensive, though. She’d passed up buying a house to get the underwear model’s sperm that she used for this one, and even that had been a compromise. The guy had been a redhead, after all.
“There are forms to be filled out before we can let you home with him,” the doctor said. He uncapped the stylus and clicked it. “The boy’s name?”
That’s right. Name. “What’s your name?” she asked.
He blinked and looked to the nurses, who were all busy. “Um. Mitchell,” he said.
Her face scrunched up. “Ew. No.” She brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and wondered if her boy’s hair would be dark like hers, or if she’d have to start dying the red away. She couldn’t see him really well from where she was lying, but she thought he might have had some red hair. “I dunno,” she said. Then it came to her. “Got it,” she said. “Willard.”
“Willard?” the doctor said, his eyebrows crawling up towards his hairline.
“Yup.” Sharon tapped on the darkened pad. “I was just reading an article about that basketball player, Willard Jennings? He’s kinda hot, so you know…”
The doctor shrugged and entered the name. “Okay,” he said. “Willard Ramsey.” He spent a moment entering his vitals – height, weight, blood test results, the usual – and then said, “I see on your application form that you’re a…” He tapped the screen to hilight the term she’d entered. “A post-hereditary wealth distribution analyst?” He looked over at her, puzzled. Sharon was grinning.
“Yeah,” she said, twisting a lock of hair. “Isn’t that good?”
“I suppose it would be, Ms. Ramsey. But… What exactly is it you do?”
She looked around and beckoned him closer. He leaned in, and she whispered loudly into his ear. “I’m an heiress,” she said. “My father is Nicolas Ramsey? He owns Ramsey Media Worldwide?” She grinned like someone who’d just found the secret sale item at her favorite boutique. “My job is to spend his money.” Sharon winked.
“Um.” The doctor cleared his throat again and tapped a nurse on the shoulder. She looked at the screen, nodded, and left the room.
“Ms. Ramsey,” he said. “Are you aware of the regulations regarding childbirth? Specifically the one that says you must have a reliable source of employment?”
She laughed, and it sounded strung out. Maybe the drugs were finally kicking in the way they were supposed to. “I don’t need a job,” she said. “I just made that stuff up so I could get the approval.” She crooked her fingers into air quotes. “Post-hereditary wealth distribution analyst, right?” That cackle again. “My friend Becky came up with that. She went to law school and everything.”
“That’s all well and good, Ms. Ramsey,” the doctor said. “But you do not, in fact have a job?”
Amusement was slowly fading into annoyance. He father could probably buy this guy if she wanted. Buy him and make him clean her toilets. “Look,” she said. “I got the approval. I got the sperm up in there, and I got the baby.” She put her hands behind her head, and noticed how his eyes flickered to her chest for the briefest moment. Never failed. “So why don’t we just get on with this, give me the kid, and I can be out of here.”
Two women came into the delivery room and stood in the doorway. They were dressed in the same scrubs as everyone else, but their expressions were hard. Not that constantly worried yet capable look that the nurses always had, as though they were trying to juggle a dozen different thoughts at once. These women had exactly one thing to do, and their faces said that they knew exactly what it was. The doctor looked over his shoulder.
“Who are they?” Sharon asked.
The doctor reached out to her, like he was trying to comfort her, but Sharon would have none of it. She pulled away from his touch. “No,” she said. She didn’t like the two women. She couldn’t say why, but something about them set her teeth on edge. “Who are they? Why are they here?”
“Ms. Ramsey,” the doctor said, “the laws are very clear on this subject. And not only do you not have a job, but you’ve perjured yourself on a federal document.” His expression of worry never changed, but she suspected he wanted to smile. His voice was too nice. “I’m afraid we have to keep the boy. He’ll be reassigned to a state facility.”
“No!” Sharon yelled. She tried to get up, but everything below her waist was dead, and the best she could do was twist her arms to lift herself up on the bed. “No,” she yelled again, “you can’t have him!” She tried to crawl, and a couple of the nurses held her back. There was no way she was going to walk anywhere, but there was a real chance of falling on the floor. “I paid for him, dammit, you can’t have him!”
“I’m very sorry,” the doctor said. “But those are the regulations. And we can’t expose the hospital to that kind of liability.” He tapped on the tablet again. “You can apply to reclaim him within six months, or wait a year to have another one.” He turned to the two women in the doorway and nodded. They nodded back, then each took one side of the incubator and they started to roll it out of the room.
Sharon ended up falling out of the bed after all, naked and bloody below the waist but not caring. She screamed that she had a lawyer, that she had a hundred lawyers, and that her father would have them all fired. She got as far as promising to have her boyfriend show up at the hospital with a shotgun before one of the nurses managed to tranquilize her.
When she was quiet, they lifted her back into her bed. The doctor shook his head and closed out the documentation on the tablet. “Maybe next time,” he said.
“Some people look into the future,” the man said, “and they see a vista of wondrous opportunity. Great branching paths laid out before them that will take them to lands unknown and accomplishments the likes of which they never imagined.” He took a drag off his cigarette and the wind whipped the smoke away as soon as it left his mouth.
“Is that so?” Devin asked, He hugged his arms for warmth and wished he’d brought a jacket or a sweater or something. Or that there was something he could do to speed this up. He’d only been listening to this guy for fifteen minutes or so, and they were fifteen minutes too many.
“When I look into the future, do you know what I see?” the man asked.
“I can’t imagine.”
“I see a dark wood, tangled and overgrown. I see darkness and shadows in every corner, covering lurking danger that could strike at any moment. Fallen leaves cover pit traps that, with a single misstep, will leave you impaled on excrement-covered spikes as the people of this dark and unholy place gather round the shrinking circle of daylight and laugh as you die in agony.”
Devin didn’t say anything. He had to admit, that was a tough little speech to follow.
The man took another draw on his cigarette. “There is only one certain future. Only one course of action I can take whose outcome is in any way knowable.” He flicked the still-smoldering butt out into the air and it spiraled lazily down, down, ten floors down to the pavement below, lost in the wash of police cars and gawkers.
The wind whistled.
“So,” Devin said. “That’s it, huh?”
The man didn’t look at him. All of his attention seemed to be on the scene below, one step off the ledge. He looked like some kind of lower management drone, in khakis and a pressed white short, with an ID badge on a red lanyard dangling from his neck. Devin wondered idly if he took the stairs, but figured the guy wouldn’t really looking to lose any weight at this point. He’d been up on the roof for about half an hour now. Someone had seen him, called the police, and that was where Devin had come in.
The movies always made this look easier. He’d do a flying tackle, but the airbag was still on its way, and there was no way in God’s green earth that he was going to jump off the edge of a building, no matter what anyone said.
There was a click in his earpiece. “Guy’s name is Alexander Norris. Got his manager down here. Says he’s been having a rough quarter.”
Devin nodded, then cleared his throat. “Hey, Mister Norris,” he called out.
The got the man’s attention. Alexander turned to look behind him, and his face was strangely calm. The knots that had been wrapping themselves around Devin’s guts drew a little bit tighter, and he licked his lips as he spoke. “Listen, Mister Norris. I get that you’re not doing so good right now. But you know, there’s no reason things can’t get better, right?”
A grin cracked Alexander’s calm expression. “No reason,” he said. “Right.” He turned to look at the gathering crowd below.
Devin was the “suicide guy” mainly because no one else had wanted to be. The state had given towns money for specialty training in this kind of thing, and he was the one who got tapped for the position. So, a week of seminars and role-plays later, Devin was the go-to man whenever there was someone threatening to blow their head off or take a street dive, which didn’t seem to happen often enough to justify the money the state was putting out for it. But he figured it was kind of like a week off, and the food was free, so he came out on top.
At least, that’s what he thought when he wasn’t on a rooftop in the middle of winter, listening to a cube drone try to be philosophical.
“Mister Norris,” Devin said, “Why don’t you tell me what it is that got you here? Maybe we can figure something out together.” He took a couple of steps closer, something that was generally not advised when the subject was about to fling himself to his death.
The crowd below was getting noisier. The police on the scene were telling people to keep away, and some jackass tried to start a chant of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” before the rest of the crowd shouted him down. The wind was still cutting through Devin’s shirt, and he wondered why Norris wasn’t shivering hard enough to fall off.
After a long time, the man said something, but it was too faint to hear. “What?” Devin shouted.
Alexander turned around again. “It was a song,” he said.
That was new. Devin wasn’t quite sure what to say to that either, so he just waited and strained to hear the siren of the approaching fire truck. The trainer had said that once the subject got going, they would usually keep talking, probably because the negotiator was the first person who’d actually offered to listen.
“I borrowed my son’s old iPod to bring to work,” Alexander said, “and there was this one song…” His face flinched, the first genuine emotion he’d shown. “It was all about… making mistakes. About being in the wrong place and not knowing how to get out.” He looked down over the edge again. “I’ve worked here for fifteen years,” he said, “and I’ve never once felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.” He shuffled his feet and Devin’s heart leapt in his chest. “But what could I do? Pick up and start again?” He barked out a laugh, and then turned back again. Even a few yards away, Devin could see his eyes shining, the tears being pulled along by the wind.
“The song promised that someone would be there. Someone who would stand by me and help me and…” He gestured futilely at himself, at the building, at the world. “Someone who could fix me,” he said. “And all the wrong choices I’ve made.”
The moment of emotion seemed to grip him, and then, as quickly as it came, it passed. His face slipped back into the mask of indifference he’d been wearing the whole time he’d been on the roof. “But there’s no one,” he said. “My wife is off in her own little world, my kids just want to get out of the house and go to school.” He nodded down at the rooftop. “These people? They’re probably looking for someone who can do my job better and cheaper already.”
Devin took another step closer, and Alexander cocked his head in warning. He took a step back. “Don’t you have friends?” Devin asked. “People you can talk to?”
That mask cracked again, but only briefly. “No,” Alexander said. “I was never very good at that.” He took a deep breath and looked up, looking Devin in the eyes for the first time. “That’s the problem, officer,” he said. “People are unreliable. People lie. People say they’ll be there, but…”
“But they won’t,” Devin finished for him. Alexander nodded. “Well,” Devin said, taking a small step forward. “I’m here, Mister Norris,” he said. “That’s a start.”
Alexander shook his head. “No, officer,” he said. “You’re here because it’s your job. Any other day and you wouldn’t give a damn about me.” He slid his foot back, and it was right on the edge. “Not that you’d have any reason to.”
“Wait, Mister Norris,” Devin said. “There’s still a lot you can do. There’s therapy, there’s -”
“No, thank you, officer,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath, and a look of peace came over him. By the time he said, “I’m done now,” and stepped backwards over the ledge, Devin was already lunging for him.
His hands grabbed nothing but air. He watched Alexander Norris slowly fall away through the air and vanish beyond the edge of the rooftop. He was aware that he’d started yelling.
There was a long, long moment of silence. Even the wind seemed to stop.
Then the airy WHOOMPH of Norris hitting the air cushion that had been set up on the ground below.
Devin sat down heavily on the rooftop. His hands were shaking as he took the radio from its belt clip. He took a deep breath, then pressed the button to talk. “You might have told me,” he said, “that there was a cushion set up.” Then he dropped the radio and put his head in his hands.
Fleet Commander Sohnys Ad’tai wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hot bath and then drop something heavy and electrical into it.
“Explain to me again, Front Commander,” she said, “how you managed to lose an entire communications center in a city that we had already captured.”
The Front Commander tried to stand up straight, but her wounds made it difficult. She was bleeding from several different wounds, and her battle armor was covered with clear plasma. There hadn’t been time enough to treat her before bringing her to the orbital command center hovering about the benighted blue planet they were meant to be conquering. She gurgled slightly before answering, a sure sign that she was on the verge of collapse. “We had cleared the city, Fleet Commander,” she said. “Our air support had destroyed past the city limits, had destroyed a major military base out towards the desert. The city was ours.”
“That’s right,” Ad’tai said, raising a single clawed finger. “And that forces me to ask again how this city, which was, as you say, ‘ours,’ was infiltrated and our communications hub destroyed.”
The Front Commander swayed, and a med-tech came over to hold her up. “Fleet Commander, she must get medical attention,” the med-tech said. He began prepping a hypospray.
“Not yet, medic,” Ad’tai said. “I’m still waiting for my answer.”
The Front Commander took a step forward, and one of her knees gave out. She slumped to the floor, followed closely by the med-tech. She shoved him away and looked up at the Fleet Commander. “The humans are insidious, Fleet Commander,” she said. “You turn your back for a moment, and they’ll crawl through any crack they can find.” Her eyes filmed over for a moment, and she passed out.
The med-tech looked up at Ad’tai. “She will sleep,” he said. The anger in his eyes was very nearly concealed, but not quite. “And she will likely not be able to return to active duty for some time.”
Ad’tai nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Get her out of here. Show me the charts of their population centers and prepare for my orders.” The command center burst into action again, and the Front Commander was carried away. A lieutenant produced a display reader with charts of human coastal cities.
“Here you are, Fleet Commander,” he said. “We have more than twenty of their major population centers occupied.”
Ad’tai grimaced. “And soon the humans will likely spread the word about how to take out our communications hubs.” She sighed, flicking through the charts with a swipe of her finger. She had hoped that a land invasion would demoralize the humans, send them scattering. Or at the very least cow them into submission. The advance intelligence the fleet had gotten had labeled humans as incorrigibly violent, but with weapons technologies far inferior to theirs.
“Do you remember the legend of Crons Ct’omor?” Ad’tai said to her lieutenant.
He nearly dropped the pad, but didn’t say anything. He knew.
“A single villager managed to kill the greatest warrior of the Ir’awa Empire with nothing but a stone and good aim,” she went on. “Ct’omor’s people celebrated her as their savior. Their deliverer.” She looked over at the lieutenant. “Do you remember what happened next?”
The lieutenant hesitated before nodding. “The Ir’awa burned the village to the ground. It and every other village within a day’s run.”
Ad’tai flicked to another map. “Right in the middle of their victory celebrations, no less,” she said. “Their ‘savior’ died just like the rest of them.” She tapped the pad and the maps winked out. “I’m pulling the plug on the ground invasion,” she said. She tapped the pad again and called up a comm-link.
“Fleet Command to all ground command. Initiating Operation Ir’awa in one hour. Have all ground troops cleared out by then.” A moment later, confirmation icons glowed green on her pad. Orders were being given. The ground troops would no doubt be confused, but they would follow orders.
She keyed in her authorization code, and a new screen appeared. She entered the command code, and a countdown began. The pad would give her several chances to abort the mission as the deadline grew nearer, so she kept it nearby. She checked the status of tugships, which were busy dragging the communications hubs away from the population centers.
“Fleet Commander,” the lieutenant said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Ad’tai’s brow ridge twitched, but he’d earned the question. “No,” she said, and sighed. “I’ll probably get dragged across a bed of hot nails for this by Home Command. But once I explain, I’m sure they’ll understand.” She checked the display. Plenty of time.
“After all,” she said, “we only need the water, not the cities. A fusion barrage will take care of our infestation, and then we can get the water at our leisure.” She grimaced. “Don’t know why no one thought of doing that in the first place,” she muttered.
The Earth spun slowly beneath the command center. Soon it would be pinpricked with dozens of points of nuclear fire, and they could go about their mission in peace.
And when she got home, Fleet Commander Ad’tai was going to have words with whichever nitwit bureaucrat thought this was a good idea.