Eldred Maxwell was a creature of simple tastes. As long as she was floating a metre off the floor, a drinking bulb in her hand, and wired tightly into a network like the queen spider at the centre of a vast and complicated web, she was a happy woman.
Which was precisely how she found herself, ten minutes after Decker had stomped off in a legendary mood. She could hardly blame him, she supposed. He was carrying the wrath of a vengeful empire on his scrawny shoulders.
But right now, it didn’t seem to matter. The sensory booth on level 211 was one of several, built around a stationary ring in the station’s lattice of layers, spin gravity mercifully a distant thought. It wasn’t much more than a broom closet, three by three meters, steel walls swimming with complex blue lighting and shifting symbols that painted its occupant in a ghostly light. The room was bare of furniture, a squat black cube embedded in the ceiling the only decoration. Two thick black cables protruded from this, into the visored helmet she was wearing. It pumped the station’s networks directly into her implants, and she navigated with her subdermal finger interfaces. Many had to pay the extra for manipulator gloves. Eldred was more heavily kitted out than most.
The drink was cooling against the bulb’s surface, and it drifted away from her, forgotten, as she lost herself.
Inside her head, he was with her. Pleasure before business was Eldred’s style.
Jeremiah Zakale was a hologram. That didn’t stop the ebony-skinned gilled humanoid being the most attractive male she had ever encountered. But then, she had programmed him.
He was lean, athletic, and bald. All of these elements assisted in making him the system champion in underwater jet-slingshotting. Eldred didn’t know the name of the genuine champion, and didn’t care. He could also breathe on land, despite the race he’d been based on living without oxygen. The gills rippled against her hand as she caressed his neck, fresh with sweat from their lovemaking. He had other useful humanoid features.
“Do you have to go?” His deep timbre tickled her ears deliciously as he reached across the bed, suspended on a hover-cushion above a gently waving pink sea that stretched to each horizon. She could smell the salt water, and the cooling remains of the meal of noodles and real beef that lay between them on the rumpled sheets.
“Eventually.” She smiled back at him, and brushed her sweaty dreads out of her face. He helped her with this, as always.
“I was thinking…” He began.
“Oh?” She laughed lightly. “Special occasion?”
He slapped her arm. “There’s a ceremony tomorrow night, in the city.”
“I don’t see a city.” She made a show of looking around her, at soft cumulus clouds, discharging a light rain that turned to mist before it reached the ocean.
“I want you there.” He said.
“I’m your trophy now?” She picked a crumb from the crease of his lip and ate it.
Jeremiah shook his head. “The opposite.” He patted his broad hairless chest, where his medals sat on a chain around his neck. They jangled like wind chimes on the gentle breeze. He sighed. “But I can’t help feeling that’s all I am to you, sometimes.”
The comment stung more than it should have. “I’ve been busy, Jer.” She came across harsher than she’d intended. “You just have to be patient.”
“There’s patient, and then there’s four months, elder.” His use of the pet name meant he wasn’t that angry. Yet.
“Space travel takes time.” She sighed. Perhaps she shouldn’t have programmed him quite so well. “Do you think I don’t miss you?”
“Not enough to visit me between stops…”
It was something she’d considered, once. But it was hard enough handling Decker’s clumsy overtures without bringing up the fact her boyfriend was made of photons. Jeremiah didn’t plan to use her for a notch on his bedpost, and she appreciated that. But she wasn’t ready to introduce him to the masculine hotpot of the crew. Bril was the only one that may have understood. It wasn’t unheard of, merely highly unusual.
“Look, the next one won’t be as long.” She said and curled in against him. “I think my crew-“
“Decker is a dead weight.” Jeremiah rolled away, presenting his back to her. The bed rocked gently. “And a liability.”
“What do you know about Decker?” Eldred asked, faintly amused.
“More than you think.” He sighed. “I have a lot of time in here. When the tournaments aren’t rolling, and the fans get bored.”
She was taken aback again at her programming skills. If Jeremiah was accessing local net, she’d taught him more than she thought.
“You’re jealous.” She realised.
He sighed again. “I’m-“
“You are!” She laughed and rolled on top of him, reaching down to tickle him. He made a token effort to fight her. He lost.
Half an hour later, with a pleasant burning across her thighs, she tried to reach him again.
“Things need to change, El.” Jeremiah ran a meaty thumb across her forehead. “I have needs too.”
She felt a jab of fear below her sternum. Her crew would have said it was ridiculous, a hologram hinting that it wanted to break up. Shen was of the mind that anything synthetic had no rights. They usually kept him below deck as a result. But he’d filled a great void in her life when she’d created him in a long stopover on a salvage hauler, a year and a half ago. And her heart ached as no-one corporeal had managed. Not since-
“Was there meant to be a storm?” She said, flinching as hard droplets of rain the size of pinheads stung her bare chest. The rosy sky had begun to darken to a deep crimson, and dark clouds were bunching above them, laced with jets of yellow lightning, like angry veins.
“Who cares?” Jeremiah pouted, waving a large hand at the clouds. “We were talking about-“
But now she was afraid. This was her program. Eldred hated storms. Always had, since that night. Her dynamic weather program didn’t encompass the extremes.
“This isn’t right.” He voice was wavering as she leant in towards Jeremiah. The bed was starting to rock violently on violent swells, making her stomach lurch. The bed between them was already soaked.
“You’re telling me,” Jeremiah grumbled. He hadn’t moved, despite waves breaking over his legs. She had the uneasy suggestion this wasn’t happening in his world, as if it was a dimension only she could see. As she watched, his skin began to flicker in and out of phase. She saw a long jagged spear of lightning strike the surf, two kilometres away, through the place his head had occupied a second earlier. She clutched at him as the boom of the thunder rocked her teeth, but her fingers closed on air.
A wind leapt up suddenly, tearing at her throat as she cried out to him. Tiny grains of salt blasted against her skin, and her hair blew about her face as she tried to gather him up in her arms. He looked at her once, before he finally disappeared, and the sorrow in his eyes made her shudder even as the chilled air screamed around her naked body.
“364 Abort!” Eldred screamed the name of her booth into the storm’s air. If a worm had gotten into her software, she’d have to be fast. A hacker with half her talent could do irreparable damage if she couldn’t fight them off in time. Jeremiah may not survive. Inside her helmet, the floating figure’s mouth opened in a wordless shout. Her legs kicked uselessly in the null gravity. The room stayed silent.
“Abort!” She yelled again, battering at her head in the virtual environment in a vain effort to remove the helmet. The bed rocked under her again, and she had to grip the edge to avoid being tossed into the waves. She could smell burning, and the thin layer of salt had fallen across her body in a shower. It felt hard and gritty, more akin to sand than anything. She might have stumbled over these incongruities, but she was suddenly distracted.
By a monstrous wall of water, forty metres high, approaching from the far horizon. She could already hear its roar. There were supposed to be safety redundancies in the suites, safeguards against physical or psychological damage. But it had already gone wrong once. And it wasn’t shutting down.
She scrambled on the bed, legs twisting in the sodden bedsheets that had ensnared them into a mermaid’s tail. Her throat was sore from shouting, and she couldn’t hear herself anymore.
She told herself she wouldn’t look. Her lips still moved in the requested abort code, but she screwed her eyes tightly shut as the wave bore down on her. The smell of burning was overpowering now, and the wind was howling in her ears. She failed at the last second.
She looked into the swell when it was just a few metres away, blotting out the angry sky in a deep curve. She could feel its power. There were chunks of metal and concrete in the swell, something that may have been a ship. It was as if an asteroid had holed her virtual planet and she was witnessing the apocalypse. She held her breath, as if that would make a difference. Then the bed was hit by a titanic fist, and she felt her breath punched out of her. Her mind disconnected.
Inside the booth, the suspended figure stopped its jerking. Eldred’s heart rate flatlined for a fraction of a second, almost enough to trip the automatic alarm and bring in a medical team. But just before the immersion cables, flexing with power they weren’t designed for, cut away from her and sent the signal, she opened her eyes.
She was falling. The wind was still shrieking, tearing at her with icy fingers. It stung her eyes and battered at her limbs as she plunged through clouds of water vapour, particles of ice hitting her skin like tiny meteorites. She couldn’t get her breath to scream. Her ears popped as the clouds thinned around her, deep purple-black faded to a dismal grey. She could see lights through them.
Eldred fell with the rain through alien skies. There was a massive red sun, out there beyond the storm, but it was covered by thick layers of black smoke, reaching for the heavens from monstrous cities, steel skyscrapers and palatial complexes kilometres tall. A hive of industrial activity sprawled beneath her, the muddy brown ground covered horizon to horizon in vast building complexes, cities the size of large countries grouped in a torus shape around a roiling black sea. And each and every one of them was burning. Mushroom clouds bloomed over the smaller cities, whereas a larger one appeared to be melting. Plastic and metal boiled off into the sea in steaming masses. A glittering fat skyscraper was gripped in tendrils of green electricity, that appeared to be peeling like a banana, metal warping back on itself and crumpling like paper into the streets below.
Innumerable ships burst from ports, like flies fleeing a corpse, darkening the skies further as they sought the atmosphere she was plummeting through. None of them made it.
Lances of fire blazed past the falling figure, searing her pink with their heat, from kilometres distant. Orbital cannons, directing the sun’s heat into energy that speared the fleeing civilisation, even as the glitter of railgun fire from the doomed cities struck back at the unseen aggressors.
A thick black cable reaching from the largest of the remaining cities pulsed like something alive. The orbital cannons seemed to be trying to protect it, melting any ship that turned its guns on the giant space elevator. But one capital ship, struck a glancing blow, made it past the grid, blue fire streaming out of it as it hit the elevator on a suicide run.
From half a world away, with the wind beating at her, and smoke that was more plastic than ash clogging her lungs, she shouldn’t have been able to hear the impact, or watch the cable sway on its foundations, hear the snap of bolts and the screams of the people in the cars as the cable snapped in two. Couldn’t have watched the children cut in half by debris, watched them boil in their parent’s arms. Or seen the impact of the severed cable as it plunged into the ocean, throwing up waves half a kilometre tall, to turn to steam on the heat of the inferno of the burning world. But she saw everything. Heard everything. The last desperate assurances of mothers to sons, of children to parents trapped in cocoons of rubble. Saw a lover torn from another by a railgun round, nothing left but the atoms that had once been a life.
Finally, even nature had enough. Great gouts of volcanic material, disturbed from the shocks to the world’s crust spewed into the poisoned air, turning everything black and molten orange. A crack thirty kilometres long yawned open in the ocean and sucked the war down into it like a black hole. Eldred added her scream to billions, as she fell into the end of the world.
The same scream echoed off the walls of the sensory booth as she regained consciousness, coming back hollow and tinny. It felt a pale tribute to the massacre.
She dug frantically at her helmet, tearing it from her sweat-matted hair and throwing it across the room. She wanted it to hit the wall and shatter, in the place of her mind. But it just floated across the lounge at a steady speed and rebounded off the wall with a soft click. Her cheeks were wet with tears.
She remained where she was for a long time, aftershocks of the trip blasting through her system and making her tremble as she floated in a tight ball, hands around her knees, as she had as a little girl. After a time, as it always did, it brought her some peace.
At first, she was surprised she hadn’t been woken by a socially awkward tech who she’d summoned from his virtual porn fantasy. But they only intruded if the program malfunctioned, deviated from the guidelines of its occupant wildly enough to approach safety guidelines. On Hades, such treatment was rare. But Eldred was a high-paying customer. That left one possibility. The program was not at fault.
It was something she’d known for a while. It was something of a taboo subject, even these days. But like her captain, she was stubborn as a sun’s gravity. And effortlessly good at burying her problems. But if it was going to interfere with her time with Jeremiah, and ruin the very thing it stemmed from, she had to do something about it. The one person she could truly have opened up to was no longer here for her. And in some awful, broken way, that person had caused it. Eldred choked down her considerable pride as she swam for the exit that had finally yielded to her and asked the station’s tracking systems where she might find her second best.