Jeff’s Lunch

Jeff walked into the pub. They called them pubs here, that was right. At least he thought so. Wasn’t that a British thing? He could barely pronounce Lithuania. It was cold, he knew that much. The sign battered against the door on its rusty chain in the wind. The “Arm and a Leg”.

The place was tasteful. Expensive, dark wood, square tables, soft lighting. A short, powerfully built young woman was collecting up half-empty glass steins, humming a song Jeff couldn’t place. In the corner, by a window, that weird Russian guy was muttering to himself, rolling a cigarette in trembling fingers. A cold plate of something red congealed on the table next to him. Jeff felt his stomach clench. The walk up here had worked up his appetite. Past the Russian’s head, snow draped the distant mountainside in a blanket of white.

He saw that guy in all the bars – pubs around here. He freaked Jeff out a bit. But then, they had different tastes. And neither were the other’s type.

Jeff walked up to the bar, where a tall, athletic man was polishing glasses, his framed degrees on the wall behind, above the immaculately preserved head of the barman’s latest hunt. What the hell was a psyche doctor doing running a bar anyway? But he smelt good. Classy. Again, not Jeff’s type. But he could appreciate it. Those half-moon eyes under that premature shock of grey hair glinted with amusement as he saw Jeff. But he was always amused.

“The usual, Mr Dahmer?” said Dr Lecter. On the bar was a dark glass of rum and coke, and a plate full of warm, squishy grey matter. Jeff smiled. 

Decker and Bril

Decker got to know his room like a regular lover. The facilities, washroom and materialiser slot were a little higher class than your typical brothel, but after a while there was the same smell of warm human and desperation. And it had the same guard on the other side of the locked door.

The sun rose and set several times, but after a while he stopped paying attention. He was locked out of the local net, and his neural implants were about as useless as he was. But he did notice the city coming to life out of his window. Lights glittered out there in the nights, vapour trails crossed the skies, and the building was rumbling constantly with the arrivals and departures of aircraft. Decker saw them once or twice. Small, thin ships, carrying large white pieces of metal between them as they fled to the stars. But without a point of contact, he could only guess at what it meant.

After a while, he began to doubt his own sanity, when even the guard on the door stopped telling him to shut up when he kicked the walls. He began to hear sounds in the walls, especially when he was asleep. He put this down to withdrawal, although he wasn’t shaking. He no longer felt like shit. Except he did.

One long afternoon, Decker was toying with the materialiser control panel. He had decided it was Friday. And Friday meant fish. His dad had always said so, back when the fish were still biting. Before the river turned sour and the fish fled the invasion better than the humans did.

“Flendarian air salmon,” Decker told the slot. “with a side of let me out, you fucker.”

“Please repeat request.” The machine said in a cold voice.

“Worth a try,” sighed Decker. As it had been worth a try yesterday and the day before. He sniffed. “Fuck it. The salmon, with a bowl of narcfruit. And a vial of Envy.”

“Warning!” said the machine. “Excessive drug use is –” the machine cut off with a high squeak, as if it had heard Decker’s thoughts. But it didn’t produce the salmon. Decker hit it, once, twice. He couldn’t hear the impact of his fist. In fact, he couldn’t hear anything at all. Not even the faint hum of the building’s reactor.

Text scrolled quickly across his eyes. It took him a moment to believe it and pinch his thigh to prove he wasn’t dreaming.

Decker, read the text. We don’t have long.

“Bril?” Decker said, his heart beating quickly. He couldn’t hear his own voice. A localised mute-field. Expensive tech back home. Two-a-breath here.

Go to the bathroom. Sent Bril. The air filter.

Decker shook his head. “Already tried that,” his throat rumbled. “Almost broke my fingers.”

Just go.

Decker sighed and shuffled across the springy carpet. If he wasn’t dreaming, he might as well indulge the rat. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do.

He walked across the wet tile, past the shower recess and the misted mirror he’d written Tobias’s name on six times. He hadn’t seen it when he’d done it, and he didn’t see it now. The room smelt of cherry shampoo.

Decker climbed on top of the toilet with a grunt. Nothing had changed. The metal grate was still there, slightly below the ceiling, gleaming chrome in the harsh light. It was secured from the other side. Decker squinted past the grille but saw only darkness.

“Nothing doing, rat.” He said and rapped on the metal. That was silent too.

Push. Sent Bril.

Decker sighed, stretched on his toes and pushed. And his heart fluttered. He’d noticed the vent after the first hour Sixteen had exiled him. He’d expected it to be electrified or a hidden laser to take off his hand. But in this one aspect, Sixteen’s super-planet had overlooked something. Something he couldn’t take advantage of. Until now.

The grate fell into the vent shaft silently. There was a faint odour of dust and oil. The space was big enough to take a skinny man. Which, despite the bottomless salmon, he still was. Decker eagerly hauled at the grating, dragging himself up the wall.

Reach inside. Sent Bril.

“Fuck that,” said Decker. His boot found purchase on the tile. “I’m out.”

Not yet, Bril’s words were sudden, panicked. They’ll shoot you on sight.

“Got to see me first,” he panted as he climbed higher. He would crawl through, drop down somewhere unobserved, get a gun and … and what? Decker felt a flush spread over his cheeks. He wasn’t a soldier. He hesitated.

If you listen to me, they won’t, Bril typed. Now reach in.

Decker reached in. His fingers danced over cold metal, old dust and loose screws. He fancied they would tinkle like glass, if they could make a sound. He touched something soft and heavy. He couldn’t see much past his arm, just a long dark passage, a large fan behind a grate at the end. Decker grunted and pulled.

It was a uniform of some description. In the bathroom light, it looked grey and unassuming. Dust billowed off it in gentle clouds. It stayed grey, but a line of dark blue lights were visible on the wrists and chest. The material felt spongy, cloying.

Decker carefully replaced the grille and sat down on the closed toilet, holding the suit.

“What is it?” he asked.

Prototype phase camo suit. Bril sent. It refracts light by way of –

“In Coalition standard?” said Decker.

It’s a stealth suit.

Decker laughed hollowly. “Pretty much every military has those. One thermal scan and I’m lit up like that sun.”

No-one has a suit like this. Bril sent. Now put it back.

“What?” Decker objected. “I just -”

I didn’t put it there with my own two paws so you can get busted playing fancy dress when the cameras come back on. Bril typed quickly. Which is in about forty seconds, so move your ass.

“That was you?” Decker gasped. “I thought -”

Decker. Now. Sent Bril. Decker bolted to his feet. Where were the cameras anyway? Were they watching him in the shower?

Decker brushed the thought aside, jumped back onto the toilet and bundled the suit back into the grate. He pulled it up too fast the first time, and it fell back into the vent. He took his time, sweat beading on his lip. How long had passed? Ten seconds, twenty?

Decker got the grate back in place and jumped off the toilet.

“What now?” he said. He could hear his voice now, just a whisper.

Bril was silent. Decker was about to turn back into the bedroom when he saw a black boot mark on the toilet seat. He dashed forward, scrubbing with the elbow of his shirt. He’d already looked up there once, true. But once was natural.

“Bril?” Decker asked. His voice was almost level. He could hear himself panting.

I’m here. Bril sent. Ten seconds. Act normal. I have to get back to work. I’ll tell you when it’s time. Do NOT touch the suit.

“Why would I?” Decker began indignantly as the sun shone through the window on his red face. But Bril was gone, and the sound came back. He became aware he was cursing under his breath only after a few minutes. He looked around the room for the hidden eyes. He couldn’t see them. But he knew they were there. And now Bril was gone, they were the only company he had.

Sunrise

The world was smallish, as planets went. It was around three-quarters ocean, with vast mauve and turquoise seas surrounding several large land masses. They approached on the planet’s nightside, or at least as close as the giant star allowed.  Cities glowed in the dark ribbons like monstrous diamonds. Decker felt himself relax. At least there were people  down there. They couldn’t all be as weird as Sixteen.

Above the northern polar ice, complicated orbital shipyards glittered faintly inside a ring of satellites. Decker almost asked Tobias to zoom in on that area, before he remembered they had no control. There were two large shapes there, maybe some kind of battleships.

“Seems a little …” Decker whispered across the bridge.

Lightly defended? Supplied Bril, who had made an unwelcome return. Decker ignored him.

“That’s what I was about to say,” said Tobias. “Where’s the fleet, or whatever?”

There are twenty-four satellites fixed at geostatic orbits and roughly equidistant from each other. Bril babbled as the craft followed the larger glider through the upper atmosphere. There was a faint rumble, and a faint flaring of orange light in the viewer before the brilliant ocean came back.

“Want to translate?” Tobias asked.

The planet is surrounded by some kind of belt of precisely-positioned orbital platforms. Purpose unknown.

“You worked all that out by sight alone?” Tobias asked with a mixture of scepticism and awe.

Bril was obnoxiously silent.

Decker was about to remind him that if he’d been as smart as he thought, they wouldn’t be here in the first place. And the only rocks he’d be holding now would be the stones in the wall of his cell. But he remembered the AI, and stayed quiet. He’d have to play his cards right now. Because as beautiful and pristine as this world looked, he knew every planet had its dark side. And they were landing in it.

The ship put down away from the closest city, on the edge of a wide, windswept plateau. The light outside the ship was merely dusky, despite it being full on the far side of the bright star. Decker caught a glimpse of a lime-green river bisecting the plane and the waving limbs of whip-like trees, before the view cut it off like a misremembered dream and the screen went back to ugly steel grey.

“Welcome home.” The AI announced coolly, making Decker jump before it shut off with an affected snap.  He got off the bridge as quickly as he could, afraid it might self-destruct.

He met the rest of the crew in the airlock. The atmosphere outside read breathable, but Shen was still bundled up in his suit of armour, and a smaller rifle was holstered over his back.

“Don’t trust him?” Decker asked. Shen grunted.

“I still hate planets,” Eldred said, looking out of the porthole at the narrow strip of river and the distant city lights.

“And they hate you too,” said Decker. “Let me take the lead on this one, yeah?”

She turned to him, glowering, but said nothing. She looked a lot older than when they’d left.

“Hand it over and get straight back to it?” Tobias asked pointedly. Decker realised his hand was in his pocket and removed it.

Back to what? As much as Decker could get on with Tobias, he didn’t see himself sticking around with the aloof young man to conduct a search for a single man in a nebula as hot as it was dense.

“Sure,” he grinned falsely. “If it’s that easy.”

It is a pity we won’t have time to explore the city. Bril sent. I can imagine –

“Imagine all you want,” Decker spat. “We’re going home.” Eldred sent him a look he couldn’t interpret. He still found it hard to look at her, so he punched the manual release and walked out onto the surface.

The middle of the night was cool, grey and quiet. A light breeze ruffled sporadic thickets of woodland around the plateau. The ground was soft and spongy underfoot, a mixture of dirt and hard-packed greenery. The river glittered in a low depression a little aft of the ship. There was a damp, pleasant smell in the air. As if it had just rained.

“We supposed to walk?” barked Shen. He was holding his rifle, looking down the thermal scope, pointing it into the nearest woodland. The trees were too tall and whippy, like Eldred’s hair. Something rustled and Shen jumped.

“He might you know … do his thing.” Decker hypothesised, watching the bush. It was vibrating now, soft snarls and squeals coming out of it. Suddenly, a large flying creature blasted through the canopy, carrying a squirming rodent analogue in its claws, its guts trailing in a glistening rope. The bird-thing was twice the size of Bril and took off with a shrill cry that made Decker’s spine tingle. In the half-light it was hard to make out details.

“Well he should hurry up and do his thing,” Eldred grumbled, rubbing her arms. “It’s cold.”

Decker hadn’t noticed.

“What’s that?” Tobias suddenly barked, pointing out at the distant city lights.

“I don’t see …” said Decker, squinting and shading his eyes. But then he did.

There was a faint cyclone of dust in the grey light, Decker belatedly remembering to switch on his thermal setting. It glowed a cool white, above some kind of squat white box, just visible as it crested a hill.

“Vehicle!” Shen shouted his thoughts for him, bending to one knee and planting his rifle stock in his shoulder.

“Hey, easy!” Decker said. “If he wanted to kill us, he could have done it by now.” Like teleporting them beyond the hull of the ship, or having the AI poison their air supply. Or dropping them in the middle of one of those huge oceans.

“You trust him?” Shen muttered disgustedly.

“Nope,” Decker shook his head. “but I don’t think we need to worry. Until he wants us to.”

Shen took a few seconds to process the logic before holstering his rifle. “I don’t like it.” He finally said. Decker wished he would take off the creepy armour.

The “vehicle” turned out to be some kind of ancient dune buggy. So old that when the driver brought it to a halt on wheels of all things, Decker wondered if it might collapse on them like the shell of a dying beetle. It was tall, about three metres long, with a polarised glass viewscreen and four doors above rubberised wheels almost as high as Decker’s chest. It might have been red, but the low light spoiled it. A squall of dust churned up around them as the motor snapped off. Several more birds took flight. Decker could smell hot oil.

The driver’s door opened with a creak. There was a man at a high wheel and a complicated dashboard. He looked small, ineffectual, out of place. He was anything but.

“Sixteen,” said Decker.

The light in the car was strong. The old man was dressed this time in a soft crimson bathrobe, some kind of drug stick between his teeth. Decker could see knobbly pink knees and fluffy blue slippers on the pedals.

“Hop in.” The old man grinned.

“We really need to get out of here,” Decker said half an hour later. The car was bouncing down wide, grey, sloping valleys and across dry riverbeds. He was feeling nauseous with the erratic motion, and the city didn’t appear to be appreciably closer.

Sixteen bulldozed through a wall of scrub, snapping several tree spines. The huge wheels pulped and spat out the remains in their wake like some overly wasteful boat.

“Nonsense!” the old man said, eyes eagerly in the heavens. They appeared to have lightened. “You only just got here!”

Decker turned around in the front seat for help. But Tobias was staring out of the window with foreign eyes, and Eldred had passed out from the awful rocking. Bril was curled in her lap, silent and eyes shut. But Decker doubted he was sleeping. He didn’t like to transmit around Sixteen. Didn’t trust he couldn’t be intercepted. Shen had insisted on perching on the rear platform of the vehicle, and Decker could occasionally see the hulking armour bouncing around out there.

“I’ve got the rock,” Decker said, fingering the cursed thing in his pocket.

“I know you have.” Sixteen nodded to himself.

“Deal was, you get the stone, we get the ship and a clean name.” Decker persisted.

“I haven’t changed the terms.” Sixteen replied. Decker shivered at that simple phrase. The subtle way he wielded the power. Even in words.

“Really?” Decker felt a hot flush creeping on. “Because I didn’t get the part where we slaughter an enemy fleet.”

Sixteen sighed. “You’re spoiling it, you know.” He looked coldly at Decker. “Sunrise on Outer Eden is beautiful.”

“That’s the name of your world?” Decker realised he was getting drawn into distraction. The name meant nothing to him, as did the conversation.

Sixteen smiled. “It’s a facsimile of ideal society. The embryo of a transcendent adulthood. The catalyst, if you will.”

“Autofellatio is a big word as well. You’re good at it.” Decker said.

If he was trying to annoy the old man, he failed. Sixteen pointed out of the viewscreen as they roared up another hill. “There!” He shouted, pulling the car into a drift and halt.

The light hit with no warning. Beyond the city, now twenty kilometres distant, there was a shimmering blur on a watery grey horizon. The city was all steel and ceramic spires, occasionally interspersed with lower domed structures. A vast spaceport sat on the edge of the platform, on the edge of a colossal lake. It didn’t look as advanced as it should. And despite the lights, Decker couldn’t see the tell-tale lights of fliers, buzzing like flies around a week-old corpse. Where were the advertising drones, the flying billboards, the lovers sneaking into and out of windows after dark in illegally muted fliers?

But he forgot all about it as the sunrise blasted away the night in an eyeblink. The supergiant star bathed the world in electric blue light, and Decker could briefly see the bones in his hand before the viewer dimmed further still. It rose out of the horizon like some immense blue disco ball, bathing the sloping valley in a UV light that should have been lethal. The city now hurt to look at, and Decker looked away.

“Beautiful,” Sixteen sighed, and Decker swore he could hear a note of emotion in there. “It’ll be a shame when we leave all this behind.”

Decker could hear Shen cursing outside, and Tobias stuttered awake with a yelp. But Eldred remained asleep, breathing shallowly. Sixteen looked them over with a paternal smile. Was it Decker’s imagination, or did his eyes stop for too long on her?

“Leave what behind?” Tobias spluttered thickly.

Sixteen chuckled. “All in good time, Mr Jensen. All in good time.”

“Time we got out of here.” Tobias said. His hand was resting on his hip again. “You promised us the ship.”

Sixteen gestured over his shoulder at the sunrise. “Are all your crew such bores, Mr Decker?” He said. “This is a sight only witnessed by a handful of people across all time.”

“The ship.” Decker reminded him.

“In good time,” Sixteen repeated. “It needs a little fixing up after your last ah – engagement.”

Engagement? It seemed an insufficient word to describe the annihilation of a Coalition naval battlegroup. And the lives inside.

“For now, consider yourselves my guests,” Sixteen turned back to the sunrise, took a long, slow breath and blew it out. “And there is much I wish to show you.”

The Second Vision

Jeremiah Zakale scored again. The instant replay flashed up on the big screen, bracketed by ads for Hades high-g condos and a Berellian ship-scrubbing service, fronted by a runty grinning lizard.

Jeremiah was a sleek brown bullet in the turquoise water, darting between the blurs of the defenders, twin thruster jets on his hips snapping him about erratically, like a yacht in a storm. He tucked his body, rolling away from one opponent, while driving his shoulder into the gut of a second, sending him spinning away.

He was falling away from the goal, suspended between two regulation-cut spurs of rock. The shield wall of the goal glowed coral pink as it drifted across the space, thicker where it thought Jeremiah would shoot. The drone cams zoomed in on his face for a second, that cute furrow in his brow, like he was working on a math problem. His gills billowed the exertions of his manoeuvres in twin steams of bubbles. His face cleared, as it always did at the last moment. They marketed that. Bottled juice flavours, loaded with caffeine. “Zakale Zen” flavour.

Jeremiah feinted left, the ball curled under his arm. The goal tracked him. He threw right, but the goal was ready, tracking the glowing orange sphere as it curved through the water. But he’d anticipated that.

At the last second, as the ball was on the edge of his striking, Jeremiah blasted his port thruster and brought his foot sweeping around his body, connecting again with the ball and striking it left. It blasted at the unprotected side of the goal like a meteor. Two of the opposition hit Jeremiah at the same moment, and he disappeared in a tangle of limbs. But it was too late.

The ball punched through the skein of the goal shield with an audible pop. The scream from the goal was lost in the roar of the crowd, layered in their thousands in the curved open dome around the stadium, the business end sunk thirty metres below.

Jeremiah burst from the scrum with his finger pointed at the heavens, rocketing upwards on both thruster jets. He broke the surface like some magnificent sea creature, the twin suns glimmering off his sleek body. He turned a flip in mid-air, that finger still high. And his trademark wink, before he fell back into the depths.

Eldred sighed and swiped the replay away. The game fell away too, to expose the view from the spire, half a kilometre above the action. Eldred could see a cluster of curved white buildings below, like tiny seashells. Wythll, the floating city. The only floating city in a planet of 97% water. Calm, turquoise water enclosed the sports city in every direction. Somewhere out there in the clouds, there were three great docking platforms, with shuttle services to the games. If you were rich or a competitor, anyway.

Eldred was neither of these things. But as the consort of the most valuable player in five systems, she didn’t need to worry about that.

“He’s pretty.” A familiar voice called from behind her as she stood at the window, half-empty glass of warm beer in her hand.

Eldred turned to Gabriella, sprawled lengthways across a couch. She was wearing tight shorts and a flimsy blue shift. Her perfume was filling the lounge again, and she was chopping up lines of some blue powder with the edge of her hand terminal.

“You’re dead.” Eldred reminded her.

“So’s your conversation. What’s new?” Gabriella yawned. “Anyway,” She finished chopping a line and began rubbing it into the soft part of her wrist. “Can we get back to loverboy?”

Eldred leant against the railing encircling the pit Gabriella was sitting in. “If we have to,” She sighed.

“He’s not your usual type, El,” her twin fixed her with a penetrating glare.

“Like you know my type.”

 Gabriella finished rubbing in the powder and leant back with a smile. “You want some?” She gestured at the table between them.

“You’d better get that shit out of here before he gets back.” She told her sister. “If they catch him near-”

“I take it back.” Gabriella said. “He is your type. Square as a fucking brick.”

“At least he’s alive.” Eldred pointed out.

“Sure,” Gabriella rolled her eyes. “He only comes alive when you turn him on.” She mimed hitting a switch and deleting Jeremiah’s program. “Come to think of it,” she mused. “That doesn’t separate him from most men.”

Eldred rubbed a hand over her face. This wasn’t right, was it? She’d never simmed Gab. Not that there was anything wrong with that. It was written into most Wills these days. You never had to say goodbye, if you had the credits. But she’d been afraid to. Afraid she’d get addicted. Afraid she’d never come back.

“Where am I, Gab?” she asked. Outside she could hear the cries of large birds, squabbling in the clouds over the larvae that swam in them.

Gabriella pretended to think. “You’re sitting in a place too fancy for your budget, kicking your heels and waiting for a man who doesn’t exist, and talking to a corpse. Sound about right?”

“I’m not waiting on any man!” She latched onto the easiest option.

Gabriella shook her head, her long dreads whipping through her neat lines of powder and scattering it on the carpet. Jeremiah would be pissed.

“I thought I taught you better than that, El.” She said.

“We were on a planet, we stole something.” Eldred said, looking down into the dissipating foam of her beer. “Something that fucked me up.”

“No more than usual, I’d wager.” Gabriella grinned.

Eldred said nothing.

Her dead sister sighed and pulled herself into a sitting position with a groan. She cupped her head in her hands for a moment. “You always had to spoil the little moments.” She said. “Okay, fine. I’m dead and you’re dreaming. Your brain right now looks a bit like Harlo city. All the lights are on and burning twice as bright as they should. Even in the places where light isn’t supposed to go. Rooms that haven’t been opened before.”

“Since when did you go in for poetry?” Eldred scoffed.

“Hey, being dead gives you a lot of free time.” She grinned. “You pick up new hobbies.”

“Pick my foot out of your ass.” Eldred said. It felt good. Too good. Something hurt inside her as she said it.

Gabriella continued smiling but said nothing.

“What’s happening to me, Gab?” She whispered, clammy fingers tight on the railing. “How are you here?”

“Tough questions,” Gabriella acknowledged. “and I don’t have great answers. It feels like I’ve just woken up. Getting used to this body again, even if it’s just in your head.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Maybe I’ve always been here, it’s hard to say.”

“I’ve never stopped thinking about you.” Eldred said. It didn’t feel like a dream. She had full control of her speech, her actions. She could have run across the lounge and picked up her sister like Jeremiah’s jetball. But something was holding her back. Because she didn’t think it was Gab. At least, not just Gab.

“We were sad you took it, El.” Gabriella looked it too. Were those tears perching in her eyes?

“Who’s we?”

“We hoped we could stop you. We can’t hurt you. Not like we hurt the others. Maybe that’s why they chose you.”

Eldred felt cold. She shrank away from the railing and the Gabriella-thing, towards the bubble window. Soft carpet crushed under her feet. Something crunched and released a stale food odour.

“What are you?” She whispered.

“Gabriella,” said Gabriella. “And a lot of others besides.”

“What do you want?” She clutched her shirt against her chest as she hit the bubble glass with a soft thump.

The Gabriella-thing rose gently, stepping lightly out of the pit to face Eldred again.

“Keep back!” She shouted.

Its face fell for a moment, and Eldred felt that pain again, somewhere in her chest. It looked so much like her –

“We’re trying to help you.” It said.

“I don’t need your help!” Eldred shouted again. “I was doing fine until I, until I …”

“Until you came to Orduu.” It offered.

“Well I’m done with that!” She shrank away again. There wasn’t any further to go. Her hair stuck greasily to the glass. “I won’t go back again, I’ll stay well the fuck away.”

“It’s not that simple.” The avatar shook its head. “You need to stop them. They can’t be allowed to -” its face twitched suddenly, one cheek rising and a squint of pain.

“El?” it said. She – it – sounded lost, hurt. Like that time she’d walked in on Gab crying over dad.  When the big sister act had fallen, just for a moment. She wanted to hold her like she had then. Whisper comfort into her hair and promise her she’d never hurt again. She’d failed that promise. “This is a lot for me to handle. All these voices.” It looked down at her and now it was crying. “More even than when I was alive, I-”

Eldred was crying now too. “You’re not Gab!” She choked. “She’s dead! I was there! Stop punishing me for it!”

The avatar sank to her level, took her writhing hands in soft, cool ones. Eldred tried to fight it, but it was too strong. The glimpse of her sister was gone, the light in the thing’s eyes cool and hollow. But it wasn’t an empty hollowness. There was something down there. But it didn’t feel threatening.

“We don’t have long.” It told her in Gab’s voice. “We’re sorry we can’t let you stay with her.”

Eldred sobbed and felt herself go limp. The thing’s eyes were so blue. Soft, enveloping. She wanted to trust it. Needed to trust something. She wished Gab would come back.

“We’re weak when we’re near the stone.” It told her. “And the longer you’re near it, the more it will tempt you. You’re the key to everything. The last one.”

“I don’t know what you mean!” She wailed at it, trying to push it away. But it was already growing blurry, translucent. She could see the doorway through its head. A large mass was stuck in the opening, twitching, furry, brown like some kind of warm sea urchin.

She tried to latch onto the Gabriella inside the thing, but that was gone too. Now there was only a ghostly blue mass, dissipating like ash on the wind even as she watched. It was hissing softly like the pressure had been let out of it. But there were words, if she strained her ears. The furry brown mass was halfway into the apartment now, forcing itself through a hole much too small for it.

“Don’t trust the construct.” The wind told her. “It lies.”

“What construct?” Eldred sobbed into the snuffling, warm brown mass. “What con -”

Bril’s breath was warm on her face, the short grey trunk quivering in the lustrous brown fur as he raked her face with his claws, hard enough to sting. She gathered it wasn’t the first time he’d done it. Her friend’s eyes were large, dark, worried. She reached up to brush him away, but her arm was too weak. He was heavy on her chest. But he wasn’t the only thing.

The ship must still be under thrust. Her chair held her like a prisoner, tubes poked out of her neck, pumping cool fluid beneath her skin. But that wasn’t all that entered her as she came to. She could feel the thing from across the bridge, even if she couldn’t see Decker right now. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to. The stone called across the expanse from dead millennia, and suddenly Gabriella and the dream went out of her head like an intrusive thought.

Everything was fine. Everything was fine now. She smiled to tell Bril so, the thrust gravity making the smile crawling and painful. She’d fallen asleep, that was all. There was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. It was best to focus on what she could control. Like surviving the next few hours once Decker’s sluggish brain caught up to the fact that she and Bril had almost fucked them over. That would be hard enough in itself. She’d better check on Jeremiah. He might have some answers.

Storm’s Roar

The ship settled on the sand with a series of deep crunches. It lurched alarmingly to port for a moment, and then rocked back on its landing gear with a faint hiss. The viewscreen in front of them was still dim, but Eldred could see a large dune rising in front of them, backlit by the sun, huge enough to fill half the sky. She fingered the patch on her arm and shuddered a little at the thought of stepping onto the world. Not that she had much choice. At least she’d made up with Shen.

“Hope you’re all happy.” Decker muttered, and strode off the bridge. Eldred caught Tobias’s eye and they shared a shake of their heads before they followed him.

The airlock of Sixteen’s glider was cool, expansive, and looked just off the assembly line. Two rows of gleaming steel lockers sat around a low bench, on which Decker was sitting, stripped to the waist as he pulled on his suit. Outside the port-holed double hatch, she could see soft white sand, that occasionally blew in gusts against the ship, and made a sound like crackling electricity. Decker’s body odour filled the room like an unsanitary phantom.

At least the suits were nice. She pulled hers from her named locker, unsurprised that it fit her gangly measurements perfectly. It was basically a thin outer layer of transparent plastic, millimetre thick, that sat in open configuration until it felt her body against it, and then closed over her like a beartrap. The plastic misted into a white opacity, so she needn’t have to worry about Decker walking behind her. Incongruously, a bulky grey helmet with tinted visor sat on top of the plastic in the locker. She bundled her dreadlocks together and slipped it over her head, where it met the suit with a faint click. She felt a prickle as something itched at her temple, and then the suit’s readout was scrolling across her eyes. Heartrate, body temperature, both elevated in a flush. 16 hours of O2, and an inbuilt targeting computer for a weapon she didn’t have. The suit tightened briefly against her skin and then it was if she was as naked as the day she was born. She flexed her fingers and felt them close like coiled steel. She was strong!

“Fancy suits.” Tobias was already suited, tapping a foot restlessly as he looked beyond the airlock. His helmet looked impossibly large on his frame. She had the feeling they would look like a procession of bobbleheads crossing the desert. Bril was waiting with him. The Herminoid had done his own calculations. He was used to high temperature, and he’d forgone the full suit for an absurdly cute fishbowl-style bubble on his furry head. Eldred stifled a giggle as he tried to preen his rear leg and bumped his helmet. But she was aware Herminoids possessed 270 degree vision. She figured the helmet bumped him up a few degrees. It didn’t make it less funny.

“Could have done with a fucking instruction manual.” Decker grimaced and poked his suit aggressively in his lap. Eldred sighed and stepped over to help. And stifled a scream when the monster walked in.

Shen strode into the airlock like some kind of malevolent building. It was easy to see what he’d been doing now on a trip where the ship practically mothered itself. The suit he’d built was jet black, all angles and diamond-shaped tiles that flowed over each other like snakeskin as he moved. His boots rang on the deck like thunder, and Eldred almost missed the neon-green flashing slit of visor in his bulky helmet for the field artillery he was carrying in one hand as if it was a feather.

“Compensating, much?” Decker asked in a small voice.

Shen considered the gun in his hand, a rod of black steel over a metre long, a central chamber humming with a faint blue electricity, surrounded on three sides by barrels with bores large enough to sink her arm up to the elbow. A holographic readout further up the weapon said something in a language she didn’t read.

Shen shrugged suddenly and laughed, the sound somehow deeper and demonic in his shell.

“Shoot first, talk later.” He opened his other hand and spilled an assortment of weapons on the deck in front of him. “Take your pick.”

Tobias and Decker started cautiously forward, both prying weapons that looked vaguely familiar from amongst the glittering pile. Decker set his into the crook of his arm, seeming to take comfort in the short laser rifle. Neither he nor Tobias, toting a heavy pistol in each hand, looked half as comfortable as Shen. But then, neither had killed before.

“E?” Shen dipped his neon visor at the pile. His filtered voice didn’t betray the usual shake upon planetfall. Either the suit masked it, or it wasn’t there. With the gravity inducer, he could pretend he had four atmospheres on top of him. As she could pretend there was none.

“We won’t need them.” Eldred looked across the lock at Bril, who inclined his trunk slightly. She had no idea how she knew that. She just did. She looked again at the sand and shivered. It wasn’t right, somehow. She didn’t know how she knew that either.

Shen shrugged again, the armour hissing faintly. “Your funeral.”

Decker walked unsteadily to the door of the lock behind them, as if he was already drunk. He turned to face them, but his face was hidden by his helmet, and she could only see his eyes. He looked young.

“I suppose I can’t talk you out of this.” He said.

“You kidding?” Shen barked metallically. “I got fucking dressed up and all.”

“And you look dashing.” Tobias’s sarcasm dripped from his pores. “Now can we go?”

“Just stick behind me, asshole.” Shen grunted at Tobias and moved for the lock. The younger man visibly bristled.

Bril crossed the room in two quick bounds and tried to climb her leg. His claws, unused to the sheen of plastic, squealed as he struggled for purchase. It sounded like a pair of rats mating and magnified off the steel walls.

The crew jumped as one and turned to glare at him. Eldred bent to pick him up and set him on her shoulder. But Tobias stepped away from the fight he couldn’t win. As Bril had intended. Tobias chuckled weakly.

Between them they might have half a brain Bril’s words scrolled across her helmet. But she couldn’t laugh.

We need more than that. She sent back. He didn’t reply.

“If the dramatics are over…” Decker said, then realised no-one was taking the bait. He couldn’t stall any longer. He shifted uncomfortably, fiddling clumsily with his weapon. It was probably meant to look heroic. “Let’s go, team.”

Decker cranked the handle of the airlock, and stepped through before he could think again. Eldred followed behind Shen and Tobias, absently stroking Bril with one plastic-coated hand. It was time to face her demons.

Shen was right. She might have been walking on air. Apart from the fact that fine particles of sand were being blasted against her as she climbed the hill, in the rear with Tobias. Shen strode out front in his power armour, Decker lagging just behind.

“Couldn’t have landed us any closer?” Eldred groaned at the slight incline, despite not feeling any ill effects.

Tobias shook his bobblehead. She could see a line of stark trees falling away to a narrow gorge on their left. She had a feeling if she touched one, it would crumble to ash. The hill filled their vision like some great beige blanket, and the giant sun turned the world a deep crimson.

“The valley is molten rock. I’m not landing in that shit. Unless you want to get out and push again.” He sounded distracted, and he kept staring around him, as if he was looking for an oasis in the great brown nothing. Soft sand sifted under her boots in the gentle breeze. It was probably burning hot, but the suit was good. She might have been back on the ship. Having that dream. She shook her head to clear it.

“How far?” She asked, noting that he’d only holstered the one pistol.

“About two klicks.” He grunted as Shen and Decker disappeared over the brow of the dune. “Best I could do.”

“Do better next time then.” Eldred muttered. He didn’t reply, merely breaking into a shuffling trot to catch up with the others.

Still with me, furface? Eldred tapped out the message to Bril. The Herminoid was bounding at her side like some overly-intelligent dog, stopping occasionally to roll in the sand. He was panting steadily and Eldred realised the one-and-three-quarter g’s was probably enough to give him a good workout.

Forgot how good it was, He took another tumble, the pink pads of his paws flashing in the sun, to be on a half-decent planet.

“Speak for yourself.” She said, and finally crested the dune. Bril was briefly lost behind her in a cloud of his own dust.

She almost bumped into Shen’s obsidian back on the downslope. Decker and Tobias flanked him, like two predators guarding a throne. She stumbled for a moment, lost her balance, and fell on her ass in the sand with a soft woof. At least no-one had noticed. They were too busy staring. And after a moment, she joined them.

The dune fell away from them in a gentle gradient, actually seeming to move under her like the galaxy’s slowest conveyer belt. She shuddered and regained her feet. About ten metres below, the sand levelled out against some kind of rock shelf, naked red stone that was spattered with loose pools of sand. The surface was unnatural-looking, even for a planet. It appeared to be holding some kind of glaze, like a sickly-tasting bun. It stretched to the horizon in each direction, unbroken apart from some more of those dead trees and the occasional house-sized boulder. About a kilometre and-a-half distant, ugly red cliffs rose to meet the ugly red sky.

“What happened here?” asked Decker, his voice crisp in the expensive comms.

Eldred chinned the controls of her helmet and an interactive green overlay fell over her vision. She zoomed into the smooth surface, little red halos appearing around hidden pitfalls covered over with sand. A flashing blue waypoint popped up in her vision, winking in the red cliffs. A thin blue trail skirted from her feet to the entrance to the valley, snaking around the bizarre rock like a ropy snake. “I fucking hate planets.” She said.

High-impact plasma warhead Bril sent to the group. Big one.

“Bullshit.” Said Decker. “There isn’t so much as a fucking bird in the skies.” He sounded like he was shivering at that. Eldred had no idea why. “Place is dead as your conversation.”

Shen grunted. Eldred felt herself bristling. Did he always have to act like a child?

She opened her mouth to say something, but Tobias beat her to it.

“Got a storm coming in.” The words chilled her as she turned her head in the direction he was looking. She hadn’t noticed the wind, but now she did. It was picking up fast, moaning off the distant cliffs and lifting sand in gentle drifts. And he was right.

In the Eastern sky, great purple thunderheads were amassing, like a giant bruise on the sky. The sun’s giant surface was almost half-obscured. Not another storm. Not after the dream.

“Shit.” Pronounced Decker. “How long?”

Bril calculated at lightspeed. Fifteen minutes. He hopped up onto Eldred’s shoulder. We need to go.

Shen was already gone, a dark blur halfway down the slope, his gun slung over his shoulder.

“But this planet doesn’t even have water.” Decker pointed out. He was pointing his rifle at the storm, as if he planned to blast it away. “How can it-“

Stay here and find out. Bril sounded as if he meant it. In the mile-high clouds, yellow lightning bolts the size of small moons flared in the purple.

“Why the hell didn’t we see this on the way down?” Eldred stuttered as she started to run for the plateau.

“Because hotshot didn’t want to wait.” Decker panted in the comms as he struggled to catch her up. Eldred didn’t have time to ask what he meant before the storm was on them.

They crossed the plateau in a series of dashes, the smooth rock slippery and hard under the suits. Shen led the way, his heavy suit keeping him anchored to the rock. The wind was deafening as they ran for the cliffs, and the passage between the rocks. She didn’t want to get stuck in there when the storm hit, suit or no suit. The sky was dark, sand swirling around them and pattering off the suits. She could hear the thunder, the sound like an apocalypse. Her teeth chattered together in her suit and she lost her footing momentarily. Brill flew away from her with a surprised yelp.

Then Shen was there, all clanking servos and thudding boots. He hoisted her up like a toy and ran into the wind, screaming around them now. Sand flew around them in great clumps.

“Bril!” Eldred shouted. Even the suit comms seemed muted in the roar as the light bled out of the sky. The slick ground shot by like a dark river. Where was he? Had he fallen in-

Here. And she saw him, clinging to Shen’s belt by one claw, the furry body flapping in the wind. Relief shot through her like a bullet. She couldn’t lose her last friend too. As well as Gabriella. As well as The Institute. The…what? The image vanished as rapidly as it appeared. But it meant something. She’d never heard of-

Shen couldn’t fit through the gap in the cliff. It didn’t stop him. His power armour groaned and bent as he barrelled into the narrow passage. Red rock dust blasted around him in a rustic bath. The wind was like a banshee in the passage. There was a blur of movement ahead, that might have been Decker, Tobias, or the cliffs falling in. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Someone shouted in the comms, but her fear obscured it. She couldn’t see anything but redness, darkness and Shen’s arm, like a steel hook around her waist. He squeezed tighter and she blacked out.

The Institute was a beautiful building. It climbed out of a complex of brilliant white domes like a needle piercing the stars. They always kept the grass long, blue and wavy. It was fun to lay down in after a hard day’s genome sequencing. The susurrus of the porm trees was like chimes in a gentle breeze. The fruits were poisonous, of course, but tasted delicious, and with the right immuno-suppressors, made a wonderful lunch. It was important to enjoy life before it was gone.

Her lab coat rippled around her long pale limbs in the afternoon breeze. She would need to go back in soon. The schedule had ramped up with the heavier military presence. The azure sky was spoiled by the darting silvery flickers of the drones around the spire of the building, like insects bothering a goliath. It was too bad. They’d bombed the houses of parliament the other day. The first minister had only escaped by chance and a vigilant chauffeur. Why couldn’t people accept progress? She supposed there would always be dissenters. Like her children, they benefited from a sharp tongue. And sometimes a sharp hand. But it would all be fine, soon.

But it really was beautiful out here. The complex sat on the shores of the Lake, and on a clear day, you could see all the way across to City Zero, where her ancestors had knocked rocks together and made a world. Birds wheeled and called in the afternoon light. She breathed deeply. Fresh grass and saltwater mixed deliciously in her nostrils. But it was time to get back to the sweat. And the blood.

She walked the long gravel drive slowly, escorted lazily at distance by a soldier in flickering active camouflage. Light bent around the shape and itched her eyes. Soon he would be gone too, and his dreams of invisibility realised. The glass doors of the white needle beckoned to her, as much as the flag fluttering at half-mast for the attack called to her patriotism. Children, slow to learn.

She did hope the little boy was done screaming. There were no nerve endings in the brain, after all. It was rather melodramatic. And he had to be alive for the procedure. That was just how it was. Her hands trembled faintly with anticipation as she crossed the cool lobby and stepped into the elevator. This was the one. She could feel it. She just had to rub the right neuron the right way, and it would be over. It would be over for him too, but what was the price, to save a world?

Eldred screamed when she awoke.

Descent

Kjellman 3 was a small, brown world. At first glance, it could have been a mudball. But that was only until Sixteen’s ship cleared the soft halo of stellar dust and fragments of rock away with its energy shields, exposing the hot beige sands of the rocky world. The dust and rock had once been a moon, possibly melted by the red supergiant star, a monstrous crimson football in the sky, dimmed in the viewer. Or had alternately been annihilated by the impact of another celestial body. Or a nuke big enough to make a Trogg blush.

“Well…I wouldn’t take it home to meet my mother.” Decker commented. The planet was an uneven globe of sifting sands, and occasional spurs of red rock, poking like knobs of shattered spine through the skin. Occasional cirrus clouds drifted across the bare world as Tobias brought them smoothly into a geosynchronous orbit. The dark disc of the night side of the world, rumoured to get as low as a bracing minus 40ºc, gave way to the harsh glare of day, the reflected sun glittering off a ring of immense red mountains, clustered around the lip of a crater that had to stretch for a thousand kilometres. Like a giant fist had punched a hole in the world. Decker wondered if the high cloud coverage had anything to do with evaporated ocean.

A great dark brown spot dominated a third of the Southern hemisphere. According to the ship, it was a dust storm estimated to have lasted for several hundred years. It was probably a cranky geriatric. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to ask it for milk and cookies.

The floor did that disorientating thing again, turning transparent so the crew could stare through their feet at the world below. Decker considered ordering Tobias to shut off that particular feature, but he was the only one on the bridge squirming. A captain had to save face.

“It’s beautiful.” Said Eldred, unexpectedly. Decker turned in his chair to shoot her a surprised glance. Eldred hated planets. They hurt her spine and she lived in some kind of mortal terror that she’d be flipped off like a pancake if some malevolent god allowed it. Water confused her. For a smart woman, she could be wilfully stubborn. Maybe that was why Decker liked her. And why she liked the planet. It seemed to have purposefully eradicated all its water, and was about as inhospitable as the space around them.

I concur. Bril cast his words to the main viewer, like the god in question. Of course the rodent would like the desert. Perhaps if they were lucky, he might like it enough to stay.

“We’ll need full suits.” Tobias said. Bril was perched on the back of the pilot’s chair, and Tobias was leaning forward to escape his musk. The Herminoid’s ropy tail hung off the back of the seat like Tobias had grown a particularly unpleasant ponytail. “60ºc median temperature.”

“Yeah, fucking delightful.” Decker grumbled. He noted that Tobias hadn’t asked to join the ground team. He had a more pressing question.

“How exactly do we get down?” Eldred voiced it for him. Another we. Her hands fluttered behind him, and a cross-section of the world hovered in blue on the screen. Just like Sixteen had said. The valley was half a world away from the orbit of the ship.

“I didn’t see any shuttle.” Decker broke in. “And if that bastard thinks I’m-“ He shuddered as he recalled the sensations of Sixteen’s parlour tricks. He might be able to teleport directly into the mouth of the cavern the old man had marked on their maps, but he preferred his liver this side of his pelvis.

“We’re rated for atmosphere.” Tobias said.

“Meaning?” Decker waved at him.

“Meaning we’re landing.” Tobias said, and touched his console in the same moment. The screen dimmed again as heat began to build silently on the edges of the craft, and the world jumped forward.

“Now wait a minute-“ Decker started. “We don’t even know if-“

“Scared, Decker?” Eldred shot at him. He turned to look at her as the craft rumbled faintly around them. Their eyes met, and her teasing smiled evaporated.

“Maybe.” He whispered. But she heard him, and nodded. He’d never seen anything like Sixteen’s ghosts before. Apart from on those long, sleepless nights, when he’d drank something loaded with as much caffeine as alcohol, or shot a rocket up his arm. When he drifted in and out of a fractured consciousness, and saw his father. Screaming in a way he never had. The way he had been screaming ever since Decker took the simulations on the journey here. Suddenly he knew he wouldn’t fight her, wouldn’t fight any of them. They might all die. But at least he wouldn’t die alone.

The planet was filling the viewscreen now, fire melting away from the ship as it punched through the thin atmosphere, like an arrowhead cleaving soft flesh. The ship muffled the noise, but the air resistance still shrieked around them, making the deck ripple and Bril’s fur puff up in primal threat response. The swirling sands, driven by 40 kilometre an hour winds, seemed to undulate like impossible snakes on the surface of the barren world. Giant spurs of red rock, like the fingers of an apocalyptic carcass, sprang up around the ship as it fell into the dead world. Decker prayed the corpse didn’t want company.

Kjellmann approach

Decker drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair in the silence. The Kjellmann star was growing in space, almost, but not quite, imperceptibly. Right now, it was just a large pinprick of light in the sea of stars, like a widening hole in a great canvass.

Decker opened his mouth wide and exaggerated a yawn. He didn’t need to exaggerate much.

“So…what’s up?” He said after a moment. He stretched his legs out on the smooth decking, making sure his boots squealed. Tobias didn’t turn around.

Decker sniffed and took in the last dregs of Sixteen’s teleportation odour. It smelt like cake, burned to a cinder in an oven last week. The bridge lights were on half-setting, and his eyes were beginning to droop despite the adrenaline that raced intermittently through his system. Being on edge was tiring.

“You haven’t said two words to me since we got on board.” Decker paused. “Not that that’s particularly new.”

“What do you want me to say?” Tobias’s voice was rough, raw. Like he’d eaten a raw onion. Or he’d been crying. But Tobias hated onion. He didn’t turn from his console.

“I don’t know.” Decker sighed. “Tell a story. Tell me the time. Tell me I’m a prick and I should shut up. Anything.”

“You’re a prick and you should shut up?” said Tobias.

Decker laughed. “Fair enough. Or maybe you could tell me what you owe me.”

Tobias sniffed and an edge of anger crept into his tone. He turned suddenly to face Decker, his chair swivelling and rebounding off the console with a soft click. He had been crying. He seemed to realise this at the same time as Decker, and swatted at his face with his sleeve. If anything, it made his eyes blaze harder.

“I don’t owe you shit.” He spat.

“You begged a ride on this trip, remember?” Decker could feel his own heat rising. “You could at least tell me why.”

Tobias turned again in his chair. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.” Decker continued. “I’m not a bad psychologist.”

He could hear the hesitant grin in Tobias’s voice. “Can’t be any worse than you are as a captain.”

“Hmm.” Said Decker. He’d intended it to come across lightly, but even he could hear the weight in it as it hung in the bridge like a small storm cloud. Perhaps Tobias heard it too.

“My brother.” He said, after a while. Decker could see his dark fingers, pressed into the console so hard they’d turned pale.

“Didn’t know you had one.” Decker mused, as he watched Kjellmann. The star was larger now, large enough that he couldn’t block it out with his thumb. A soft alert chimed from Tobias’s console, alerting them to the fact they’d entered the system.

“He was 14 years older than me,” Tobias said. “He’d already started basic by the time I was old enough to walk, my parents-“

“Wait, you have parents too?” Decker said. “You’ve got to hold up a sec, my heart can only take so much.”

“Is that so surprising?”

“Well…yeah.” Said Decker, and was surprised to find he’d meant it. Of the entire crew, Tobias was the member he knew the least about, no matter how fervently he’d tried to pretend Bril was just a wall hanging that unfortunately moved at times. He’d known him the longest, and often felt he barely knew him at all. The young man was highly-stung, lowly-sexed, and stole anything that wasn’t nailed down.

“Yep, parents. Married, two kids, nice house in the country.”

“If they were married, then you weren’t even a bastard.” Decker batted back. “And there I thought all along-“

“Not a bastard, but an accident.” Tobias smirked in the reflective plastic of the viewscreen. Stars glittered in his teeth, like diamonds set in ivory.

Decker made a rare wise decision, and closed his mouth.

“You know Vulaya?” Tobias asked.

Decker thought for a moment. “That’s the planet the Coalition militia come from, right?”

Tobias nodded. “Roughly 80% of the human component anyway.”

“Good fighters.” Decker nodded as if he knew. Perhaps there’d been some in the blockade, back there.

“We are.” Tobias said.

We? Decker’s history was shaky. But Vulayans had a rep. Shen had scrapped with a big one a year or so back on a cargo transport, and had to regrow four teeth and his right ear. They’d called it a draw. Tobias was tall, but scrawny. But he sure had the anger. When his space was violated for too long, he would fight like a demon. Just not a very effectual one.

“My parents paid into the system. Thirty years of service, then the state gave them their house, and their child allowance.”

“Seems backward.” Said Decker.

“It works.” Said Tobias. “Or at least, usually.” He sounded bitter.

“Not in your case?”

“In mine, no. In Garrett’s, sure.” Tobias sighed and dug his fingers deeper into the console. “They allocate you three. But mum and dad were happy enough with the one. How I happened is anyone’s guess.”

“Sibling rivalry.” Decker had heard of that before. Maybe he’d even had one. Named prisoners had been rarer than a solid bowel movement in the camp.

“I loved Garrett.” Tobias’s voice shook. Decker didn’t believe the kid loved anything. Besides the thrill of the chase, that was. “He never treated me like they did, like I was a pet they wanted to rehome. He taught me to fly, you know.”

“Thank him for me, when you see him next.” Decker said. He meant it. Tobias had evaded the guns of the Pavralian emperor’s flagship, The Avenger, in that little tub that had been their cargo shuttle, held together with Shen’s spit and prayer.

“Might be sooner than you think.” Tobias muttered.

“What-“ began Decker, and then his mind caught up with his mouth. Tobias had seemed his usual nonchalant self, typically unaffected by the massacre at Pavralia that had likely been a dual diversion, to help thin the blockade. He’d smirked his stupid smirk and been as uninterested in Decker’s predicament as he was in women, right up until Sixteen had mentioned the Slyrene nebula.

“He’s out here?” Decker was taken aback. If he’d heard Tobias right, his brother was Coalition military. The type that stayed out of the area they blockaded. A massive gas giant, emerald green, ringed by faint, glittering crystal, crawled by in the viewer. The Kjellmann star was so bright in the sky that the viewer dimmed now as it labelled another point of growing light. Kjellmann 3.

“That’s what the file said.” Tobias nodded to himself.

“What file?” Decker was becoming rapidly more invested in the conversation, anything to take his mind off that planet, slowly coalescing to haunt more than his dreams.

“I had Eldred hack into the Vulayan database, when you were off cleaning the bits between the emperor’s toes.” Tobias almost had his grin back.

“You what?” Decker spluttered. “We agreed, nothing to draw attention-“

“Take it up with Eldred, she got me drunk.” Tobias said. “And we didn’t get caught.”

“I will.” Said Decker, knowing he wouldn’t. “What did you find?”

“Nothing.” Tobias shook his head ruefully. “Apart from that. They held a funeral for him, seven years ago. Full military honours. I watched mum and dad on the feeds.”

“You didn’t go?” asked Decker.

“I’m…not welcome on Vulaya. Long story.” Tobias said. “Point is, they lied. Said he’d been killed in a skirmish and spaced.”

“Might not be a lie.” Decker pointed out, and instantly regretted it.

Tobias was silent for a long time. Decker could hear him try to get his breathing under control. When he finally spoke, the wall was firmly back in place. “Lost out here.” He said. “But I’m going to find him.”

Decker was spared having to continue the conversation as Kjellmann 3 slowly filled the viewscreen.

Master Hunter excerpt – Hunting Shaw

As I approached the short jetty from beneath, moonlight glinting through the spaces between the boards to paint me in zebra stripes, I made an effort to calm my ragged breath, and move slowly.

The boathouse had a lower deck, a short set of wooden steps leading down to a wooden platform. Firelight was flickering in the windows as I braced myself against the rocking mass of Shaw’s fishing launch. I could smell diesel and cigarette smoke. I could hear music playing on the deck above me. Bob Dylan singing The Times They Are A Changin’, interrupted by a faint crackle of static. I times my movements in the bursts of harmonica, steering myself around the wooden support poles in the half-light. Slowly, maddeningly, with my hands flexing in the torn latex gloves, I inched around the left side of the jetty, and swam for the platform leading into the boathouse. The painted walls passed over my head, Bob Dylan grew louder. I heard a sigh above me, and a shuffle of feet on boards. I could jump up now, haul myself from the depths like a creature from the swamp and rush him. But my muscles might seize up from the water, and he might get to the door and run for the house before the cramps let up. I had to do this right.

I was in the boathouse now, the radio echoing off the white-painted boards, three metres above me. The upper platform was solid dark wood. I couldn’t see him through the floor. I paused with my hand on the lower platform, taking in the covered shapes of fuel drums, a barrel of firewood and kindling. Several plastic containers, contents obscure in the firelight flickering from above. There was a pop and crackle, as if he’d just thrown something on the flames. The track changed and I held my breath in the silence.

When the music started again, I hauled myself silently out of the waves, biting my tongue as my body screamed again at the temperature change. My flesh was raised in goose pimples wide enough to tee off with. But when I moved into a low crouch against the tarpaulin cover of the fuel drums, my muscles moved with life I didn’t feel. My body never betrayed me, when it mattered.

I padded slowly across the boards to the sound of “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. I crossed the platform as the old man began to croon, and took the stairs two at a time, walking on the sides of my feet. The red-painted door to the jetty outside was directly in front of me. A bundle of nets sat in a small alcove to its left. The door was ajar, and a faint flash of lighting shone off the doorknob. The smell of tobacco was stronger now.

I turned to my right, the interior of the boathouse inching gradually into view. A low ceiling, a dark, bare bulb hanging off a chain. Four crossbeams, a dry trout hanging from one, swaying gently in the breeze. A roaring fire, blazing from the depths of a steel drum in the centre of the floor, equidistant from the walls. A coffee table sat next to it, the transistor radio sitting next to the stuffed bunny and a loaded ashtray. A half-empty bottle of Glenlivet sat with them. And Shaw, facing the flames in a flimsy white deckchair, looking across the fire to the small window in the far wall, and the night beyond. A fag hung from one ringed hand, smoking gently into the rafters. He was short enough that his head was out of sight behind the chair’s back. I could smell a faint cologne. Hugo Boss maybe. It would be easy enough from here. Lunge across the room in two large steps. Hands around his throat, cutting off his air. Hold the squirming body against me until he fell asleep like a child in his mother’s lap. Then take him below. And get the fuck out of here. I took my first step about the same time the radio lost reception, and the cabin grew as silent as a morgue.

The creak as my foot met the floor sounded like the tomb of a corrupted Pharaoh cracking open with plague and malice. My heart froze in my chest. There was a long, protracted pause. The lawyer coughed.

“I’d offer you a chair, but something tells me you won’t be stopping.” The Scots accents had been diluted a little by his time in the states, but he wasn’t slurring his words.

I remained silent, but my hands flexed again in the filthy gloves. Time appeared to have stopped.

“You don’t need to worry.” Shaw continued, and sighed. “It’s just you and me.”

I licked my lips. My throat was dry. My plan was unravelling as wildly as the faded yellow fabric of the deckchair, a metre away.

Shaw stretched out both his hands. One held the stub of the fag, the other an empty glass. A pair of melting ice cubes clinked against the glass. “Come out into the light. I deserve to see you, at least.”

My legs moved on autopilot, and I circled the chair like a lioness stalking a wildebeest. Except he’d declawed me. The little man in the chair grinned at me as if he’d read my thoughts as I stood with my back to the fire. The heat should have been delicious on my shivering skin, but I could barely feel it.

Dominic Shaw looked tired. He was clad in a thick red jumper and blue nylon trousers, feet ending in tartan slippers. His eyes were bloodshot in his pink face. A pair of steel-rimmed specs perched on his forehead. A brown stain sat in the crease of his mouth, as if he’d rushed dinner. There was a glimmer of grey chest hair at his neck.

He raised the empty glass to me as if in a toast. There was no weapon on the chair, and the man was the size of a fourteen-year-old girl. I could have reached out and broken his neck like a toothpick. But his eyes were steely and grey, and made him seem ten feet tall. Courtroom eyes. And he was smiling. “The man on the camera.” He said.

I grunted. It was the best I could do. If he knew that, why was he still here? The radio burst to life again with a shower of static. I recoiled against the steel, and gave Shaw enough to time to tut, reach out, and flick it off. The fire’s crackling was suddenly loud enough to raise hell.

“In shower wear, no less. I apologise.” He gave a short yawn. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you on the job.”

I touched trembling fingers to the dampness of the cap.

“Forensics, of course.” He gestured at the bottle with his empty glass, and looked a question at me. I nodded stiffly, my head feeling like a bowling ball on my neck.

Shaw poured himself a generous triple. He took a long swig and sighed. “No trace then?” He looked back at me. We might have been talking about plumbing.

I nodded again.

He returned my nod. “It makes sense. Looks better that way.”

“It does?” I finally ground out. My voice sounded like it had died ten years ago.

“Mmm…” Said Shaw, looking appreciatively at his whiskey. He gestured at the bottle again, then at me. I shook my head. “Pity.” He said. “A condemned man shouldn’t have to drink alone.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” I said. I wasn’t sure who I was talking to.

Shaw reclined in the chair with a groan of abused springs. “I imagine not.” He said. “But I wanted to meet it head on.”

“You knew?” I asked. Maybe the scotch would have helped. My eyes must have asked my next question.

“I think it was when that woman looked me in the eye.” Shaw mused. “The youngest on the jury.” He swilled the whiskey in his glass. “She was a care worker, worked with the elderly. Hell.” He snorted. “Maybe in ten years she would have changed my bedpan and told me my name twice a day.”

The jury…Jackson’s jury? How could he possibly have-

“She had a history with domestic abuse. Raped by her brother, beaten by the man she married to block it out. I wasn’t supposed to know these things. But I have a way of finding out.” He looked suddenly disgusted with himself. He gestured with the burnt-out fag. “Maybe the prosecution planted her. Watered her, fed her the right things. She was probably supposed to blossom during his testimony. Break down at just the right time to turn the case.” He sighed again.

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. It seemed all there was to say.

“Because he was guilty!” Shaw suddenly roared, and threw the glass. It blew past my shoulder and struck the wall of the cabin, spattering me with warm liquid. It hit the water below with a series of plops. I squared my shoulders automatically, but he didn’t run.

Shaw was red in the face, teeth clamped down on his lower lip. His eyes blazed like binary stars. A muscle twitched in his temple. I wondered for a second if his heart would do my job for me. But he subsided after a moment, falling back into the chair with a groan.

“Guilty.” He managed only a cracked whisper this time.

“It was unanimous…” I pointed out, bizarrely afraid for a moment of the little man.

He favoured me with a look of singular hatred. “I was his fucking lawyer, do you not think I know what he did?”

I stayed silent.

He fell back again and spoke to his slippers. “He told me on the third day I took his case. Brazen as you fucking like. Flew me over for caviar and plantain, of all things.” He shook his head. “And told me I could retire if I got him off.”

“He did it?” I asked.

“Absolutely.” Shaw nodded. At least I knew this conversation wasn’t being recorded. “Blames the coke, of course. The steroids. Bad combination. But he chose them.”

“And the juror?” I prodded. I felt less like a killer, and more a therapist. He’d turned me like-

“I turned her.” He whispered, and a solitary tear ran his fat cheek. “I turned their plant. Got in her head, made her doubt him. Made her doubt herself. I took it as a fucking challenge. Do you know what that’s like?” He looked up at me, beseeching.

I shook my head again.

“It takes a little piece of your soul. Each and every time.” He rubbed his forehead roughly. “You look in the mirror, but you’re not there. Your family only reach out when they need a loan, and your wife can’t look at you from the other side of the pillow. You’re just doing a job, but that job takes people’s lives. And some part of you is proud of that.”

I felt something in my chest give. “My wife couldn’t look at me either.” I could almost see the words leaving my mouth, see them stretch invisible wings I thought I’d clipped, and vanish into the ether.

Shaw, incredibly, smiled and gestured at me. “And that’s what I mean. I can’t do that anymore.”

I opened my mouth, but he waved a hand at me. “You came here, hired to kill me by any number of people. You probably never heard of me outside of The Times or the bloody Mail on Sunday. I don’t know you from Adam. And I broke you like a fucking twig.”

I bristled in my wet clothes, but he was right. He’d got in my head as if it had been as soft as jelly. Which it was starting to feel like.

He cast a critical eye over me. “Caucasian, male, about six foot two, late thirties. Married once but no longer. You take no pleasure in your work, indeed, it disgusts you. Therefore, you did not volunteer for the role. You were manipulated, no doubt. They have something over you, something you can’t run away from. You no longer have your wife, but you care about something. About someone. Why else would you continue to work? Unless you’re a coward. And I don’t think you are.” He smiled again. “Stop me, when I make a mistake.”

My expression must have been almost comical, but he didn’t laugh.

“Two things.” I shook my head. I was sweating, but it was cold.

He raised an eyebrow.

“I’m closer to 6’1.” I said. “And I am a coward.” I felt ridiculous all of a sudden, standing there in my shower cap and gloves, being dressed down like a child. Part of me fought a desire to run home and cuddle with my mother and have her bake me my favourite cookies.

Shaw inclined his head and smiled again. “We all make mistakes.”

“My daughter.” I croaked out in the same flat tone. “I can’t stop. Because they’ll hurt her.”

Shaw looked down at his slippers again. “That isn’t sustainable.”

“Don’t you fucking tell me that!” I roared at him, the wooden floor trembling at my shout, But he didn’t flinch. I came close to reaching over and caving in his forehead, just to get him out of my mind. My heart was racing and I was covered in sweat. I couldn’t believe where I was. Baring all to a dead man who knew and welcomed it. Some kind of terminal confession.

“It isn’t my business.” He said.

“Damned fucking right.” I muttered.

“Might I give you a piece of advice?” He didn’t sound afraid of my reaction.

“Fine.” I spat. “Then I’m going to kill you.”

Shaw nodded as if I’d told him the time of day. “Get out, as soon as you can. For her.”

“That’s it?” I heard petulance and sarcasm mixing to produce an ugly child.

“But this isn’t something you can do quickly, or do alone. You’ll need help.”

“And let me guess, you’ll help me, if I spare you.” I sighed.

Shaw just shook his head. “I didn’t come out here just for a nice evening. I’ve had this coming for years. I don’t want to complicate your job.”

“Could have fooled me.” I said.

“Find the people that can help you. And accept their help. Sooner rather than later.”

“Do they have little fairy wings and golden trumpets?” I sounded childish, even to myself.

“You know who they are, I suspect. If you want to avoid meeting someone like yourself late one night, just think about it.”

He yawned and stretched, planted his feet on the decking and made as if to get up. The thunder rattled again, distant now. I heard his dogs baying again in the house. For the first time that evening, a flicker of worry crossed his face. “Will you…” He gestured back at the house.

I nodded stiffly. “Least I can do, I suppose.”

“They’ll find me soon?”

“Tomorrow, maybe.” I said. “They won’t starve.”

He nodded with some relief.

“You’ve given me a lot to think about.” I grated. My head was spinning from the heat of the flames and his words. Was it possible? Even now?

“One last good deed, maybe. Or as good as a man like me deserves.” He said.

He rose to his feet, seemed about to turn away, and then stuck out his hand. All of a sudden I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to leave him hanging, turn and walk out of the shack. Leave him to his booze and his regrets. And then what? I couldn’t even get back to London before Barney tripped the alarm, and my master cracked the whip over the smiling girl I’d left in the cottage. My eyes misted over as I took his hand and pumped it once, quickly. He felt like coiled steel.

We regarded each other for a moment, almost a foot in height between us, but I felt a child in his shadow.

“Well…shall we do this?” He finally said.

I nodded stiffly, my head feeling like a block of granite, and followed his lead as he turned for the stairs.

He walked slowly, steadily, with the careful dignity of a man to the noose. The fire was dying behind us, and our shadows were long against the wooden planking. I half-expected him even now to turn and run, try to push past me for the door and run for the house. His slippers shuffled on the wood, like whispers from the grave. The walk took ten seconds at most, but felt a lot longer.

Shaw turned to me on the lower level of the boathouse, thin shoulders against the covered oil drums. His perfect teeth glittered in the low light. I could smell his sweat on the gentle breeze. The dock rocked gently beneath our feet.

“Accident or suicide?” Shaw asked me, as casually as my preference of soft drink.

My reactions were still muddy and slow. I didn’t want to be here, and he must have known. I didn’t want to kill him. He’d done something to me, and I didn’t know whether I needed to curse or thank him.

“Either.” I finally grated. “They’re not fussed.”

“Suicide, then.” Shaw decided after a moment. “That way Nicki gets half.”

“Nicki?” I whispered. I felt my hand clutch at my wrist.

“Nicola.” Said Shaw. “My wife.”

Of course it was. How could it be anything else?


“Complicated Will.” I managed.

Shaw gave a humourless chuckle. “Naturally. I was a damned good lawyer.”

“Those full?” I nudged the barrels with my foot. There was a gentle slosh from inside. Pragmatism beat self-reflection.

“Ah…” said Shaw after a moment. “Yes, I suppose they’ll get the job done.” He didn’t sound regretful of that.

“Turn around, walk to the edge.” I told him. But I could hear her in my mind. First laughing at me as I finally told her how I paid the bills. Unbelieving, incredulous. Then the silence…that deathly silence in which I poured out a broken lifetime. And finally the screaming when the words sank in. And the slam of the door as she left. Maybe I’d sounded as I did now. Cold, efficient. Alien.

Shaw walked to the edge of the platform, gasping as the water lapped at his slippers. I fumbled in the dark, found the knots of heavy cord holding the tarp and worked them loose. I threw it over the plastic containers beside the barrels, and dug my hands into the steel drum. It was heavy, probably about a hundred kilos. It would do. I shuffled it across the wood towards the old man, who was staring at an unseen horizon. The jetty groaned with the shift in weight. He stepped back, leaning into it like a lover’s embrace.

“Hold still.” I told him, and wondered if he would. It took a brave man to face his death like this. He might even now bolt for the stairs, or the waters beneath. He couldn’t outpace me in the water, but guilt might weigh me down, hold me back. I had never felt like this on a hit before. But then, I’d never confessed to one of my target’s either. I bent down to snatch up the rope in my latex gloves, and half-expected to hear the splash.

But he stayed. I threw the loops of yellow cord over him in thick bands, and he pulled them against his chest. I could smell the fumes of the diesel in the drum and his aftershave again as I yanked the cords tight around the barrel, making him cry out as they cut into his sternum.

“You okay?” I asked, bizarrely.

“Just fine.” He laughed shakily. “May I ask you two favours?”

“Two?” I grunted in the thick silence that followed. The water lapped gently against the jetty, and I could hear the wind howling out there in the dark, along with the distant cry of disturbed gulls.

“Firstly, you need to tie the knots from the front. Not a very good suicide if I have to dislocate my arms to do it.”

I froze for a moment. Of course, he was right. And I would have seen it too. If I’d been inside my own head instead of miles away. I moved around him silently, thankful for the dying light. It meant I wouldn’t have to look in his eyes as I killed him. I yanked the cord tight again, almost nose to nose with him in the dark. His breath was on my cheeks, warm and heavy with alcohol. He groaned as I knotted the cord securely beneath his ribcage. I tested the weight of the barrel with a shove, and made sure he wasn’t going to slip out. It wasn’t much of a favour.

“And the second one?” I asked.

“The toy, upstairs. Please.” He sounded almost ashamed, child-like. I felt my cheeks burn with shame for him and myself.

“Okay.” I said.

I held the pink rabbit for a second in the half-light. It was missing one eye, fabric faded with time and washes. Its short dress was an indeterminate shade of grey. It smelled clean and faintly like lemon. Too threadbare for my daughter. I’d have thrown it out once she’d stopped paying attention to it. But it meant something to him, and it was the least I could do.

Shaw snatched at it hastily in the dark, drawing it against the knot around his chest. He was quiet for several minutes.

“For a child?” I asked, hoping, praying he would tell me no. I didn’t know if I could do it, right here and now, if there was another Ellie I was orphaning. No matter what he’d done.

I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to answer me, but he did, voice shaky with tears. “For one that never came. Perhaps that was a blessing.”

“Some of us aren’t meant to have children.” I said. He didn’t reply.

I walked the barrel the rest of the way in occasional shoves. Shaw didn’t complain as he faced over the edge into the water.

“Will my death mean something?” He asked me suddenly as I planted my foot against the cold metal and drew back. “Besides a victory for justice.”

I thought of Ellie, lying asleep by now across the lap of my neighbour, three hundred miles away. Of Nicole, if she was still alive, curling up in some filthy mattress and jonesing for the needle. How I’d failed them. How with just a twitch of my leg, I was continuing to fail them. Could the last ten minutes change the course of a lifetime?

“I don’t know.” I told him. “I honestly don’t know.”

“You know something?” Shaw sniffed and gave a short laugh. “I’d take your case. And I’d find a way to win. I think you’re very much like me. Even if you don’t know it yet.”

I couldn’t make my mouth work. I settled for my foot.

“Good luck.” said Dominic Shaw as he faced his end.

“You too.” I managed. It wasn’t much of an epitaph, but it would have to do. I nudged the teetering barrel, and the lawyer plunged into the depths without another word. A ring of dark ripples became the last sign he had ever lived. And after a moment, not even that.

The Blockade

The ship dropped out of hyperspace on the edge of the Sylrene nebula. Sixteen hadn’t wanted to push it. He’d boasted to the crew heartily over dinner that it was undetectable by the Coalition blockade, but he hadn’t answered her when she’d asked if he had any proof of that.

Two million kilometres away, the great ring of ships was barely a radar glimmer in Tobias’s display. He gestured in the air, and the stars stopped their crawl past the viewer.

Eldred was holding Bril again. The small bridge was packed, the entire crew up here to watch Sixteen’s magic. Or meet their end the other way. She was in a swivel chair at the rear of the bridge, watching the stars over Tobias’s shoulder. Occasionally Shen would pace across her view like some malevolent cloud, muttering to himself.

“Will you sit down?” Decker barked after a while of this. He was sprawled across the central chair, foot restlessly taping over the arm. Sixteen stood at his shoulder, motionless and watchful. The back of his head twitched occasionally, like he was nodding to himself.

Shen glared at Decker and shot him the finger, but he marched across the bridge and slumped into a seat adjacent to Eldred’s. He pulled up a schematic on his wrist terminal as the ship’s lighting dimmed to an emergency setting. Soft green light glowed faintly through the bridge, exposing shadow and hiding faces. The air smelled tense and hot, like they were waiting for the birth of something ugly.

“Display please, Mr Jensen.” Sixteen whispered. So softly that if there had been any background hum, it would have been lost. But the ship was dead and silent around them, the only sounds their laboured breathing and Bril’s soft purring vibrating her thighs. Sixteen was back in his tux, with the addition of an ancient duelling sword in a scabbard on his hip. It glittered in the jade light like the tooth of a demon.

Eldred had never seen a Trogg ship up close. Typically, if she saw one of their drive signatures, she was moving as rapidly as possible in the other direction. The Trogg were the unofficial warrior arm of the Coalition. One of the founding species, along with Greater Humanity, Herminoids and the mercurial Flendarians. Herminoid strategy might have won the war with the Slir, and humanity the cannon fodder that enabled the plans to succeed, but it was the Trogg who held the line long enough to give them that chance. And it wasn’t hard to see why, as the pair of ships filled the curved viewscreen.

“Big fuckers.” Tobias said.

Minor understatement sent Bril.

The pair of dreadnoughts stood out like slabs of carved ice against the backdrop of the Sylrene nebula, an expanse of rust-coloured cloud and gas two hundred light years across. It was dotted with sparse patches of green, as if space was rusting and rotting at the same time. The image made her shiver.

Each Trogg ship was roughly four kilometres long, a fat drive section tapering gradually to a wicked curved point, like a bird’s beak. The brilliant white paintjobs glittered in the dark like bone, spoiled by dark spots standing out like bristles. Recessed torpedo bays, stubs of hull-mounted railguns, and the long, reflective strips which concealed four particle cannons, each one longer than Sixteen’s vessel.

They hung in space like the giant tusks of some monstrous pachyderm, one with a belly open to space, spilling out smaller ships like a spray of parasites. Tributary vessels, one-man fighters, human destroyers and the occasional Flendarian bio-ship, tendrils glinting darkly, swam in the sea surrounding the monsters.

“We can take them” muttered Shen. Eldred heard Bril roll his eyes.

“We won’t need to.” Said Sixteen. But was she imagining a hint of panic in his tone? She hadn’t seen the blockade in a good five years, when she’d skirted it with Bril as they’d lain low from a deal he’d been rumbled on. It made sense. No-one came within ten light years of the quarantine zone if they could help it. They’d muted the alarms on day two, blaring constantly as multiple ships target-locked them to remind them of their place.

“Subroutine 276.4 please, Mr Jensen.” Sixteen said, and Eldred heard his knuckles sink into the back of Decker’s chair.

“Yes. Uh. Do that.” Decker spluttered. Eldred grinned to herself.

The ship lurched under her feet, and for a moment she was weightless. The lights dimmed further, until she could barely see the viewscreen shimmer and clear, as if rubbed over with a giant eraser. It was now the same opaque grey steel as the deck.

Won’t we need to see where we’re going? She shot at Bril, nestling down into her lap, as if seating himself for a show. His musk was weaker today, but he still smelt of damp earth and horny male.

It’s some pretty advanced stealth tech. Bril replied. 93 percent probability the toads won’t notice a thing. He sounded smug, as if he’d invented it.

“93?” Eldred hissed aloud. “What if-“

It’s simple really. Bril continued. Light is refracted around the-

They might refract you, when I throw you out the fucking airlock.

They won’t see us, in plain moron. Bril sent. She squeezed him and received a squeal.

You seem very nonchalant about all this.

Curious. Bril corrected. These people have tech light years beyond us. When I bring this back, it’ll- He seemed to stop, as if he’d said too much.

Bring it back to that no-balled craven, I believe I heard you refer to him as? Eldred enjoyed gloating. It helped with the fear. There was the barest perception of motion in the decking. The crew were silent around her, but she could hear Decker chewing his nails, the soft clicks like gunshots in the dark. Where were they? Had they reached the blockade already? Maybe they were within centimetres of one of the hulls of those behemoths, and the faintest sneeze would see the Trogg blow them to atoms. She realised she was holding her breath.

The Premier. Bril made sure to inject the title of the preeminent Herminoid leader with as much sarcasm as text allowed, is a- But Eldred never found out what he was.

“We’re clear.” Tobias said, with obvious relief. He even gave a faint laugh, but it was shaky.

“Excellent.” Smiled Sixteen, as the bridge lighting dialled back up to full, and Shen rose from his seat with a sticky sound.

Tobias threw up a holo-screen of the blockade, receding now behind them, the Trogg ships already the size of her fingernail.

The Sim

Decker was in over his head. This was nothing novel, or even particularly new. As a result, he was almost comfortable as he watched Shen scurry like a termite beneath his boots. He tapped his foot against the deck as he looked through the one-way transparent decking of the chamber above the engineering deck. The sound echoed off the plastic, coming back as thin echoes off the opaque dome of the sim suite.

“Doesn’t he ever sleep?” Sixteen asked with a wry smile. The old man was draped in a floral-printed apron, and wore a white bonnet tied around his chin. His thigh-high leather boots rapped on the floor as he paced around Decker in a sort of lazy orbit. He smelled hotly metallic, as if Tobias had set fire to the kitchen again.

“Not when he has a new toy.” Decker said. The mechanic had been up for a solid seventeen hours, and as far as Decker knew, hadn’t eaten in that time. Shen flitted about below them like a bat shot up with amphetamines, pausing occasionally to fiddle with a holo-panel or touchscreen, hand twitching automatically for tools he didn’t need. The big man was not much for speeches, but Decker had had to mute the audio once Shen had discovered he could actually TALK to the machines. He looked up and fixed the old man with a tired gaze. “Do you?”

Sixteen inclined his head. “If required.” He gave a faint chuckle, which didn’t make it to the walls, roughly ten metres equidistant. The ceiling to the sim suite was another ten above their heads and studded with fist-sized black sensor nodules. “Shall we run it again?”

Decker sighed and tapped his temple. His new implants hastily accepted Sixteen’s program, filtering down from the sensors above. A red countdown began in the corner of his left eye. In the five seconds, he tried once again to focus on Sixteen, the way he had on Tobias’s mark on Hades. Tried to see what was underneath those clothes in a way he hadn’t been brave enough to try on Eldred. Maybe look inside that gleaming pink skull and show faint surprise at the cogs and gears inside. But the harder he looked, the mistier the picture became, as if he was trying to read through the bottom of a glass. Maybe it would come once he got over the headaches and the soreness in the mornings. He had no further time to ruminate on this before the sim sucked him back in.

Decker’ breath fogged the screen of his helmet. He could even imagine he was cold. He was holding a rifle, the moulded plastic light in his hands. It was dark, but his implants had kicked in with night vision, and the ground before him lit up a grainy green. The stone was covered in a thin layer of dirt and innumerable small bones. It shifted around his boots like disturbed soup as he started walking.

He was standing in a narrow chamber, wading through a shallow pit dug into the floor. Ahead of him was a raised dais, the type a tyrannical preacher might have cursed from. Beyond that, a dark doorway, laced with a wreathe of overgrown creepers. There was a faint dripping of something thick and viscous, far away. Dust motes glittered in a thin lance of sunlight from a crack running the length of the chamber’s ceiling.

A tall, faceless figure was on his right side, cradling a formless silver shape, the same colour as itself. Silver snakes danced on a light breeze. Decker had guessed on the first run that it was supposed to be Eldred. He sub-vocalised a command into his throat mic, and not-Eldred flowed smoothly up the steps to the right of the dais. A squat silver shape already at the doorway could only be Shen. Despite himself, Decker’s heart was palpitating in his virtual suit. A faint moaning sound crept down the tunnel ahead, and made his gut squirm. Just the wind.

The unit moved as one into the tunnel ahead. Not-Eldred had to duck her head to deal with the low ceiling. Decker took point, the rifle dancing in his hands in time with his pulse. There was a brief pulse of light around the gentle curve ahead, and Decker threw himself into a narrow alcove just in time as the dull moan built into a scream. Not-Eldred squashed in beside him, the thin bulk of the avatar making his flesh crawl. Not-Shen wasn’t fast enough. Decker just remembered to kill his NV before the entity burst around the bend in the corridor.

The light was blinding, a roaring wave of sound, like a supernova might sound down a gravity well. Decker saw the insides of his eyelids, hot pink for half a second. The utter blackness after the entity passed was almost as terrifying as the sonic boom that trembled the walls of the tomb around him. Decker held onto a pillar and his virtual lunch. When he looked up again, Not-Shen was gone.

“Don’t need him anyway, right babe?” Decker grinned shakily at Not-Eldred. The silver-skinned avatar turned a hollow face towards him, and he lost the smile.

They proceeded along the curved hallway, took a right at a T-junction, and crossed a narrow stone bridge over a yawning chasm, a dark liquid bubbling thirty metres below. The bridge creaked as they walked, and dust cascaded from the underside of the bridge into the depths. Decker disliked this almost as much as the way Not-Eldred held his shoulders with her not-hands. A sour, rank smell crept from the pit, like liquifying mushroom.

They passed the second lake, skirting the thin rim around the circumference of the chamber, sunlight glinting through a peppered ceiling. Decker had lost his footing on his fourth run. Apparently, the water was as deadly as the ghosts because it had ended there.

By the time he passed the sunken squares he’d designated the swimming baths, his hands were shaking again. He’d never made it this far. Not-Eldred was gone, taken three turns back by two entities that appeared to have been on a collision course. Decker had tripped in his fright and cracked his helmet open on the tiles. He hadn’t seen Not-Eldred go above him.

His helmet hissed away as his atmosphere gently escaped through a narrow spider-web in the right corner of his visor. His implants were still functioning, but he was becoming light-headed. The laser rifle was gone. He’d left it behind after he’d lost Not-Eldred, crawling on his elbows with his heart in his ears. The fucking things didn’t touch the entities anyhow.

He appeared to be in some sort of communal area. Rows of stone benches sat in a circle, around a dark obelisk that rose to meet the high ceiling. Recesses in the tower might have been windows. Perhaps some bizarre concert hall, where the performers could hide in their central building if they felt particularly shy. Decker’s footsteps echoed on the stone as he walked down the crumbling concentric platforms to the centre. Was it his imagination, or was there some kind of glow higher up? He held his breath and listened. Nothing but the faint susurrus of the subterranean winds, and the hiss of escaping air. Decker focused on the light, perhaps ten metres ahead and above him, and cautiously jerked his head to kill the NV.

A faint green light lit up the upper works of the tower, the only glimmer in the pitch dark. His heart leapt in his chest. Sixteen had said it would be green. “At least in-Sim.” Whatever what meant. He might only be virtual steps away, and logically, very solid ones towards his bed and a boast at breakfast. Not to mention a confidence boost for the genuine article. He felt his manufactured anxiety disperse as rapidly as his air as he flicked his NV back on and broke into a trot for the steps leading into the tower.

He immediately realised his mistake. The Sim wights were blind, apparently. They reacted to sound, smell, changes in air density. “In-Sim, of course.” Decker had the disturbing feeling Sixteen was guessing at this. But it was his program, and Decker’s footsteps were as loud as thunderclaps in the musty hall.

They seemed to burst from everywhere. Wispy trails of brilliant white, dripping from solid masses, like miniature suns. At least five of them, swirling around the tower, filling the hall with that maddening moan that shook his teeth. His NV cut out to save his eyes. He had time to raise his hands against the combined glare before they flew at him as one screaming fireball, and the shockwave obliterated Not-Decker.

Decker collapsed with a strangled yell, the motion of the attack seeming to translate for a second into reality. His boots squealed on the deck as he slid half a metre backwards. He landed on his elbow. Again.