Ennelrion had been circling this little adventurer for a while now. The poor thing – tracking through the mountains, dragging gods know what in that sack behind it and looking for… what was it these two-legged monkey things wanted. Adventure? Gold? The brief ecstasy of notoriety? It’s like they don’t even know, the dragon thought to itself.
Two huge black wolves leaped from behind a boulder to ravage the adventurer, and Ennelrion was sure that he would end up a bloody stain on the snow. But much to its surprise, the bundled-up creature extended a hand and a great bolt of lightning blossomed forth, striking one of the wolves dead instantly. The other got in a good bite, and then it too was killed. The wind whipped at the mountainside, but Ennelrion was fairly sure it could smell burnt wolf hair even up as high as it was.
So. The two-legged mayfly knew a trick. Probably more than one, given how these things worked. The dragon twitched the tips of its wings and started the long circle down to the snow. At least it would be an entertaining way to pass a few minutes. Sooner or later, someone would have to give him a fight, and it wasn’t impossible that this little guy could do it.
Then again, Ennelrion had thought the same about the other dozen or some adventurers it had devoured over the years.
As it dove, it screamed, a harsh, wordless howl that pushed the snow out in front of it along an expanding shockwave. The adventurer looked up, and suddenly had a sword in its hand, one that dripped a fine mist from its edge. Ennelrion lifted its wings and dropped to the snow right in front of the two-legs. It thought about introducing itself, but really – why bother? It would no sooner introduce itself to any other brief and crunchy snack it was about to devour.
Instead, Ennelrion coughed forth a great gout of flame at the adventurer, who held up its arms as if the heavy armor it was wearing would do more than just cook it from the inside. The wave of fire rolled over the figure and then continued down the hillside, flashing snow into steam instantly and charring the winter grass beneath it. Odds are, there would be nothing left.
When the flame died down, the figure was still standing. Now the hand that had called forth lightning was glowing a pale white-blue, like the sword. The figure – Ennelrion was pretty sure it was male, unless females had started growing fur on their faces for some reason – looked up at the dragon, lifted a hand and shouted.
Oh, hell, the dragon thought as it felt the ice crackle on its wings and the cold seep into its bones. One of those.
Ennelrion raked at the hero with its claws and then launched itself up into the sky. A bolt of incredible cold flew by the dragon’s head, missing thanks only to quick reflexes. This is insane, the dragon thought. There’s plenty of other humans to eat, to terrify – I should just leave this one alone. It looked down, and the human was digging through the pack it had been carrying on its back. Somehow, it managed to pull a staff that was nearly as tall as it was out of a backpack. The hell? the dragon thought. Another blast of searing cold flew by it, worse than the first.
Ennelrion started making for the great double peak where it rested, but then thought again. Was it really going to let an insect like that drive it away? A creature that needed to arm itself with magic and metal, cover itself in fur and leather because it was too weak to survive on its own? Was Ennelrion the great, the immortal, the terrifying, going to fly away from one little “hero” with some tricks?
Like hell it was.
The dragon circled around again, blasting fire as it did. Snow was blasted away, and the hero staggered, but held firm. The dragon thumped to the ground right in front of him and snapped at him with his teeth, somehow managing not to bite him in half completely.
Ennelrion reared back and felt the complex chemical reactions build up in its stomach for a gout of fire that would melt steel, when the hero held up a hand and said, “WAIT! Wait!”
The dragon, somehow, waited. It held back the fire with some effort, and didn’t really know why, but it waited.
“Thanks,” the hero said. He was smiling. Smiling!
The little ape-thing turned its back on Ennelrion and started digging through the sack again, pulling tiny red bottles out one at a time. Once he had about ten of them, he uncorked one and chugged it down. “Whoo!” he said to the dragon. “You got me close there!” He tossed the bottle over his shoulder and popped open the second. “How’re you holding up?” he said.
The dragon could feel the fire churning in its belly, and wanted nothing more than to reduce this creature to a stain on the hillside. But it… it couldn’t. Ennelrion opened its mouth and said, “I’ve been better.”
The human nodded. “Yeah, I can tell.” He was on bottle number four now, and the burns and cuts were fading from his skin. “Let me say, I’m glad to see you.”
“Really?” Ennelrion started drumming its claws against the frozen ground. “You’d be surprised how few people say that to me.”
“I can imagine,” the human said. It had two more bottles to go. “But they aren’t tricked out the way I am. And they don’t need you as much as I do.”
Of all the odd things that were going on at this very moment, that one got Ennelrion’s attention. “Need me?” it asked. “Need me for what?”
The human finished off another bottle and dropped it to the snow. “Your soul,” he said. “I got that, and I’ll be able to charge myself right up.” He uncorked the last little red bottle and winked.
“And if I kill you instead?” the dragon said. It wasn’t going to eat this one. Oh no. Ennelrion envisioned strewn body parts all over the hillside.
The human shrugged. “I’ll try again.” He lifted the bottle and drained it. When he threw this one away, all traces of injury were gone. It was like Ennelrion hadn’t done anything at all. “Sooner or later, I’ll get you.”
The human was clearly insane. The flames inside Ennelrion’s belly were aching to escape, but it couldn’t bring itself to do it. The adventurer ran a crystal along the edge of his blade, and the sword was a deeper, colder blue. He pulled a small medallion from his pocket and put that on, then a new steel helmet to replace the iron one he had been wearing. The human shook out his limbs, hefted the sword a couple of times, and looked up at the dragon. “We ready?” he said.
Flames were already beginning to curl out from Ennelrion’s mouth. It cracked its jaws to respond, but a searing bar of flame erupted first. It enveloped the adventurer in a great cloud of fire and steam. The rocks below his feet were already glowing red and softening, and trees nearby burst into flame.
When the dragon closed its mouth again, the adventurer was still there. He held up a hand and that long staff, and Ennelrion felt a shock of cold run through its body, from nose to tail. The cold kept coming and kept coming, and no matter how the dragon tried to get up and fly away, it couldn’t. The ice was on its wings, cracking through its scales, eating its way through to the warm, infernal core of its being.
Ennelrion collapsed to the ground, trying to inhale with frozen lungs.
It was over. The dragon felt the fire within go out, and knew that there was no victory to be had here.
No victory for the dragon, anyway.
The cold stopped, and the adventurer took a few steps away.
“Human,” Ennelrion whispered. The cold was being replaced by a burning – not in its belly, but everywhere.
“Elf, actually,” the adventurer said. He took down his hood, revealing pale green skin and pointed ears.
The dragon wanted to sneer, but that would be wasting time. “There are more of us. Stronger. More terrible. More ruthless.” It tried to move, but its skin was sloughing off in great burning sheets. “We will hunt you to the end of your days.”
In the darkening tunnel of its vision, the dragon saw the adventurer smile.
Through the white noise of its own body burning and charring around it, the dragon heard the adventurer say, “I’m counting on it.”
When Bethany Higgins opened the door, her first thought was, Wow. Looks like someone knows how to use Photoshop.
The man in front of her didn’t have as much hair as he did in his picture. His jawline was a little softer, he looked puffier, and the benefits of taking a profile photo from above were clear. He was thicker around the middle than she’d thought he was. All told, they were tiny changes that added up to a big difference. He looked like his picture, only not quite so much.
Oh well, she thought. Beggars, choosers, all that. She had already put her wedding band into her pocket, so she was halfway committed already. She hoped that she hadn’t let her disappointment show, so she smiled broadly. “Hey there,” she said. “You must be Matt.”
He grinned back, and pulled a small bouquet of flowers from behind his back. “And you’re Beth, of course.” He handed the flowers over. They were a little scraggly, but nice in their own way. “Gosh, your picture didn’t half do you justice.”
“You, sir, are a flatterer.” Beth felt the blush rise. “And that means you get to come in.” She stepped aside and let him into the apartment.
It wasn’t a terribly big place, and she wished she’d done a better job of cleaning up. There were still dishes in the sink from breakfast, and she noticed too late that there was a pair of her fuzzy socks hanging over the back of the sofa. She put her arm around his waist and maneuvered him into the dining room. “You make yourself comfortable,” she said. “I’ll make us some coffee.” She winked, and his grin grew broader.
“So you manage a bookstore?” she called out from the kitchen.
“I do,” he said. “And I have to say, you have a nice collection in the living room out there.” Beth winced, but the damage was done. At this point, fuzzy socks probably weren’t going to be a deal-breaker.
“Glad you approve,” she said. “I love to read whenever I have free time.” She turned on the coffeemaker and stood in the doorway to the dining room. It was a good place to stand – arms up, hip cocked just so… she could practically see his mouth go dry. Beth had no illusions about her body – she’d never make it as a model or a cover girl, but she knew how to use what she had. And what she had seemed to be what Matt wanted, because it took him a few moments to speak.
“Um. Yeah,” he said. She counted to four before his eyes jumped up to meet hers, and he blushed a little. “Wow,” he said. “You really are something.”
“Why thank you,” she said with a smile. “You know just what to say, don’t you?” She could smell the coffee already. “Managing a bookstore must keep you busy,” she said. “Cataloging and shelving and all that.”
“Well,” he said, “that’s why I have employees. They do the heavy lifting, and I make sure we all get paid at the end of the week.” He glanced over at her bookshelves again. “You know, we have the new Paula Grant in. Maybe I can -”
He stopped when he turned around, because Beth had taken the opportunity to get in closer to him. Much closer. He was wearing a light cologne she hadn’t noticed before, and it did smell nice. Kind of a leather and citrus blend that reminded her of… school, for some reason. Matt found his face nearly buried in her chest, and had to back up a little to look her in the eye again. “Um,” he started.
“Matt,” she said. “I really hope you didn’t come here just to scope out my book collection.”
“Because if you did, then I may have to… correct you.” She ran a nail down the side of his face, from temple to jaw, and he shuddered almost imperceptibly. Beth wanted to glance down, but she was pretty sure she knew what was happening down there.
He squeaked slightly. “I don’t… I don’t think I need the coffee all that much,” he said.
“Me neither,” Beth said. She stepped back, and he started to stand. “Just one thing, Matt,” she said. He looked worried all of a sudden, and she tried to smile sweetly. “I did tell you that I’m married, right?”
Matt seemed to take those words into his mind and chew them around for a moment. The look of hunger on his face changed, almost perfectly reflecting the horrible argument that was going on between his sense of right and his need to get laid. Finally, he said, “Yeah. Yeah, you might have.”
“Good,” she said. “I’d hate for you to be surprised. My husband would be…” She grabbed his belt and pulled him close. “Awfully angry if he knew.” Their lips were just a breath apart.
“You’re right. I would.” They both looked over towards the living room. The man standing there was tall and heavy, and his dark face was set in a scowl. He wore what looked like medical scrubs under a winter topcoat, and it looked like there was a spot of blood on the front.
Matt backed away from Beth so fast that he fell over, repeating curses over and over again. Beth was able to call out, “Tim!” before he was on top of the other man. Tim yanked a stun gun out of his pocket and jammed it into Matt’s side. The other man yelled and jerked on the floor. Tim hit him again and again, until the man lay passed out on the floor, the whites of his eyes showing under half-closed lids.
Tim looked up at his wife, and then stood, pocketing the stun gun. “Bethany,” he said. His fingers were flexing into and out of a fist, and the scowl seemed to deepen as they stared at each other.
They stood there, staring at one another for a long time. Bethany was the first to break, with a long sigh that was halfway to being a laugh. “I didn’t think you were going to wait that long,” she said.
“I didn’t think you were going to play the part that well,” he muttered. He looked down at the unconscious man. “Whatever. We’ve got someone I can use, finally.” Beth went into the kitchen, which smelled of coffee, and took a capped hypodermic needle from the refrigerator. She handed it to Tim, who used it on Matt. “That ought to keep him out until I can get him to the lab.”
Beth grinned. “I love that. ‘The lab.’ It sounds so official.”
Tim shrugged and handed the needle back to her. “Would you rather I called it the rental box? Besides, I do experiments there.” He looked at Matt again. “Therefore it’s a lab.”
She pulled him close and kissed Tim hard on the lips. He wrapped his arms around her and relaxed for the first time since they’d put this plan together. “It’ll work,” she said when they pulled apart. “This time it’ll work.” She looked over at Matt and shook her head. “Pity,” she said. “He seemed like a nice guy.”
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.
“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.