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…)
Jani Morgan leaned back in the harness, tapped the glowing amber button and waited for the airlock to cycle through. She stared out the front windows at the far edge of the Phi Orionis beta transit station. It looked like every other space station she had been to. White, covered in bleached nanocarbon to keep the micrometeorites at bay. Great black wings jutting out, angled to catch every last photon of sunlight from the two great stars millions of miles away. Small craft like hers flew up to it and attached themselves like ticks to the side of the station, while others buzzed away and vanished into that other-space where Einstein’s finicky little laws weren’t quite so restrictive.
It looked like every other station, and the stars just looked like all the other stars. The cockpit of the Dutchman was grimy and worn, rigged with tech that she should have replaced a long time ago. She flipped the cover off her pad and started going through the docking checklist. Hatch seals secure.
Air filters at better than eighty percent.
Fuel cells at better than fifty percent.
Freshwater tanks at better than seventy percent.
Everything just like it was the last time?
You’ve made a terrible mistake and should have lived and died on Earth?
The monitor for the airlock pinged, and the display turned green. She slid the pad into the pocket on her leg, unbuckled the restraint harness, and stood. Her legs were tired from the trip, from days of sitting in that seat. Her back ached from leaning and twisting to get to those vital controls that were never designed for an operator without a minimum of three tentacles. Her eyes felt like lead balls in her head. Her head was cloudy and her thoughts were dim.
In space, things like “years” lost their meaning. Given the vast number of stars around which intelligent beings lived, and the ridiculous lengths people went to in order to get from one place to another without having to sire a legion of grandchildren, a system of timekeeping had been developed that was reliable, but baffling at the same time. It took into account where you were and how fast you were going, then fed you a “date” that you could be pretty sure was what everyone near you would agree on.
How it worked, no one knew. And no one cared, because it worked. The upshot of it was that Jani wasn’t able to figure out how long she had been in space. If she had been able to, she probably would have popped a hatch and happily suffocated in the interstellar medium.
Long enough for her to feel old, she knew that. For the glamour to wear off the whole enterprise. Now she could look at a new planet, and her initial thoughts were not, What a wonder this is, another whole world with a great and fabulous history of life and intelligence! They were more along the lines of, I hope these little bastards don’t try to pay me in local scrip again.
Jani pulled herself through the umbilical and into the station, where a weak gravity field had been established. An Octaran, in its patchwork blue armor and gurgling aquatic respirator, was holding a pad and barely serving as cover for a smaller, skinny being that was trying to hide. It wasn’t doing a good job.
The Octaran gurgled something, and Jani made the universal sign for “I don’t understand.” A it lifted a tentacle and slid it around on the pad. “Is this better?” it asked in heavily accented Standard.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” she said. “What’s the job?”
Another tentacle – she could count at least five – wrapped around the smaller being’s arm (upper appendage, anyway – no reason to be speciesist) and pulled the little one forward. “This one is to be transited to the settlement at Polaris B. Your account-” it tapped the pad again “-has been credited half the payment. Other half on delivery.”
Jani looked down at the little biped that stood between them, caught between terror and astonishment. It had two big eyes, spaced widely apart. The evolutionary marker of a prey species. True to its biology, it was balanced on its toes, eyeing the exits, while trying to watch both Jani and the Octaran at the same time.
“A child?” she asked the Octaran. It gurgled in the affirmative. “A child,” she said to herself, rubbing her eyes. She took her pad from a pocket and checked her bank balance. The money was there, as promised. Final payment would set her up for a while, maybe give her time to take a vacation.
“All right,” she said to it. She looked up at the Octaran. “Is there anyplace where I can get food here?” The guard checked his pad, and gurgled. “Good.” She put her hand on the child’s shoulder, and it flinched at her touch. “We’re gonna get some food while the ship resupplies. Okay?” The child blinked once, but otherwise didn’t respond. “Do you understand me?” she asked. The child blinked again.
“Great,” Jani said. She looked up at the Octaran, who adjusted his speakers and said something in a voice that sounded like great bamboo stalks clattering together in the wind. It made Jani think of home, and she fought the urge to scream.
The child looked at the Octaran, then at Jani. Then it started to cry.
“Well, shit,” Jani muttered. She looked to the Octaran for help, but there was none coming. It just said, “Vital data has been transmitted to your pad. Payment will be made upon safe arrival.” It made a complicated, tenticular salute, and then left the two of them alone.
The child continued to cry, the high, wailing noise that all scared and lonely children across the universe made.
Jani sighed, turned around, and walked back into her ship. Left alone, the child stopped crying and limited itself to worried sniffles. All it could hear was the sound of hatches being opened and then closed, and the tall biped occasionally saying something in that harsh voice it used. The child looked behind it. The door was closed. No way out. It started to cry quietly again.
In a few minutes, Jani came back and held out her hand. “Chocolate,” she said. “Take it.”
The child looked at her, then at her hand. Then at her again.
“Why’d that translator have to leave?” Jani asked. She broke off a small piece, put it in her mouth, and tried not to break down sobbing as memories came to her. Her mother, Easter Sunday, many Halloweens, the candy store on the way home from school, Chuck…
Spindly little fingers broke off a tiny, tiny piece. The child sniffed it a few times, then gave it a tentative lick. Then it popped the piece of chocolate in its mouth.
Jani watched. And waited.
The child chewed for a moment, then looked up at her and shrugged.
“Really?” Jani said. “The only piece of chocolate within a hundred parsecs and you shrug?” She carefully wrapped the remaining chocolate in a piece of foil. “Fine. At least you’re not crying.”
She went to the door that led into the station and held her pad up to the sensor. “Let’s get something to-” Before she could finish her sentence, the child darted past her, running with speed granted to her by thousands of successful generations of ancestors, and vanished into the crowd.
Jani didn’t waste a moment before running after the child, cursing in as many languages as she could remember.