Banished for a crime he can’t remember.
Forced to relive it in nightmares every night.
Waiting for the man from his past who might be friend, enemy…
Jake Jeong is Memory’s Exile.
Long after a plague decimates the population of Earth, leaving the survivors and their descendants vulnerable to disease of every kind, humanity still seeks a cure. One brilliant researcher, Jake Jeong, takes a desperate chance that goes terribly wrong . . .
Exiled far from Earth on Selas Station, condemned to relive his crime and see his victims in his dreams, unable to entirely trust his own memories, Jake builds a new life with new companions. Only now, he is expecting a visit from Connor Griffin, an old friend – or lover? He can’t quite recall.
And suddenly, people are getting sick, Jake is seeing ghosts when he isn’t dreaming, and safety is an illusion. He can trust no one – not even himself – as he struggles to save his friends, the station, and possibly all of humanity.
- Digital File Size: 1501 KB
- Trade Paperback: 500 pages
- Publisher: Story Spring Publishing
- Publication Date: December 12, 2017
- Digital-ISBN-13: 978-1-940699-16-5
Anna Gaffey lives in Minnesota with her husband, son, and dog. This is her first novel.
…pathologists had been unable to track the virus to any known source, although it was noted that the main symptoms were similar to those of the septicemic plague, including excessive fever, seizures, delirium and hallucinations. Point of origin was unknown and seemed to occur simultaneously throughout the world. When doctors cut open the first confirmed victim (somewhere in old Detroit, it was rumored, and “first confirmed victim” was hardly Patient Zero; rather it meant that likely many of the impoverished had trundled by on the cause of death: influenza or similar gurney bandwagon), they found his sad, halted heart had shriveled into a tiny pit, sucked dry as dust.
They called it many names in different parts of Earth: Diminuto in Madrid, Krimp in Amsterdam, Kradenyy in Moscow, in London, the Thief. In the former United States, the official designation had been SPVC, or Sudden Pulmonary Viral Collapse, but the name that eventually, appropriately stuck fast in the majority of mouths was the more succinct Japanese interpretation: rīchi, or “leech.”
Excerpt: Plague: The Death of Humanity and Life Afterward
Dr. Frenzi Nguyen
Eastern Hemisphere Dome 0107 RC
Earth, Sol System
[Archived: World Historical Society Publications,
UWLA, the Leech epidemic, Earth]
From 2132 to 2141, Leech effectively scythed the planet. No treatment or diet, no location, not even the outposts in Antarctica escaped its reach. A few governments mustered harried responses and collaborated with the now-defunct World Health Organization to develop emergency vaccines. Only the formulation and immunobooster developed by doctors Leah Harmon and Smita Gunaji (who were at that time frantically working in an Utikuma Lake laboratory bunker) served to successfully inoculate the remaining people who received it in time. It was perhaps fortunate that neither woman lived to see, despite their best efforts, the decay of the survivors’ immune systems.
Whether due to Leech, the vaccines, plastics, twenty-second-cent green initiative gases, or the most popularly detested political or religious faction of the time, the fact remained: the human immune system was shot…
Excerpt: Sisters in Science, introduction
Dr. P.K.D. Doshi
Eastern Hemisphere Dome 0001 RI
Earth, Sol System
[Archived: World Historical Society Publications,
UWLA, the Leech epidemic, Earth]
“…Personally I don’t think it mattered whether or not [Gunaji and Harmon] were successful in annihilating Leech from Earth. The end result was still a population with godsawful biological defenses. Worse, the children born after the epidemic were so promising. They flourished with health! But only at first. It was such a slap in the face. When they hit puberty their immune systems took this dip. Nothing we could do about it. Environmental tests showed us nothing. Genetic testing–nothing. We, humanity, could no longer survive without daily assistance, and no one could determine why! It was madness.
But we had the Domes, at least. More Domes went up, some more quickly and shoddily than others. For the large part, people stayed in them. What else could you do with a trashed immune system? The brains of humanity didn’t go running off into the wilderness because of a few common-sense rules for self-preservation. And we used that collective brainpower. With the Domes, we could keep the labs running, we bought ourselves more time. Sometimes I feel like that’s all we’re doing, buying time, running on a treadmill to nowhere.”
Excerpt: oral history
14 March 2199
Grenada Marquesa (2121-2201)
Western Hemisphere Dome 0050 CA
Earth, Sol System
[Archived: World Historical Society Publications,
UWLA, the Leech epidemic, Earth]
[The new human immune system] was no cure. Twenty percent of the treated population did not respond at all. The newly christened Science division put forth successive releases: Supported Human Immune System (SHIS) 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 and so on, until the numbers grew ominously high…each release simply became known as the “new” series. It was a daunting biological row of Great Walls against an ever-oncoming tsunami…
Support of the SHIS required daily immune system boosters: new versions of Harmon and Gunaji’s original immunobooster, mandatory for all Dome dwellers. And the support–support wasn’t perfect, either.
Excerpt: Sisters in Science, introduction
Dr. P.K.D. Doshi
Eastern Hemisphere Dome 0001 RI
Earth, Sol System
[Archived: World Historical Society Publications,
UWLA, the Leech epidemic, Earth]
I wish I could describe to you the beauty of this place. I am without adequate words to do so. If the Board allows, with my next transmission I will include some of the imagery we are capturing. The planet is small and forested, very green and inviting. The station is small, too, but new. I hope you will not be offended when I say it is so like home.
Excerpt: Personal commtext to Lisaveta Chubaryan
27 April 2130
(translation, reviewed in full: 6 April 2136)
United Worlds DS 2075-5 [Selas Station]
Satellite 1H-24HM, 24HM System [updated: Eos]
[Archived: United Governance Board nonoperational/lost mission records, Earth]
“Repeat: we have lost all contact with Station 1H-24HM following their previous transmission. Efforts to contact will continue until a search-and-rescue mission can be mounted. The satellite has emergency provisions for all crew to survive for at least twelve months, which we can send via reusable craft. It is to be hoped that such efforts will reveal a downed comm buoy…”
Excerpt: streaming commtext, priority immediate
30 November 2130
Director, Science Division
United Worlds Commonwealth Governance Board
Earth, Sol System
[Archived: United Governance Board nonoperational/lost mission records, Earth]
…yet the Leech epidemic precluded such measures. After the triumph of life and the continuation of space exploration, the station’s fate again rose to prominence. But what would a rescue mission find? To call it “rescue” was laughable, even insulting. It had been years since that final nonsensical transmission, with no further transmissions despite the fully functioning communications satellites. This meant years with no supply deliveries.
The push for rescue was thus revised to “repair and recommission.” And in 2230 the recommissioners landed on Station 1H-24HM (now known as Selas Station) with their ticker tape and champagne, only to be welcomed by a gruesome host: the naked and frozen body of Russian mission leader Denys Chubaryan afloat in his quarters.
Chubaryan, as readers of this series will remember, is the chief suspect in the disappearance of the other twenty-nine expedition members. Indeed, he is the only suspect available. What little evidence we have (Chubaryan’s last transmission to Earth: a twenty-minute rambling recitation of religious quotation and folklore, followed by hours of distorted feedback. Four missing cargo bay shuttlepods, the most expensive equipment to be lost) indicates just as little. And space fever is not unknown, even in the most heavily vetted of space travel candidates…
Excerpt: cover article, Life (Revival Ed.) magazine
30 October 2235
[Archived: World Historical Society Publications,
UWLA, deep space exploration,
nonoperational/lost missions, Earth]
From the testimony of Lin Hernandez, Defense security officer for Icebreaker labs, Dome 0048 SP, to be read in evidence before the United Planetary International Court (Western Hemisphere 4th Circuit), of Saint Paul. Representative of United Worlds Governance Board in attendance at Examiner’s table.
Examiner: Describe to the court your entry to Icebreaker Labs.
L.H.: Well. It was dark still. Early morning testing. They checked with everyone, you know. The testing wasn’t secret, the Doctors–the Jeongs–let all of us know when they had a big test going on. Just in case anything went wrong. They usually had one of us in there with them, which is weird, now that I think about it…
Ex.: Thank you. Please continue with your entry to the labs.
L.H.: Okay. Sorry. It was dark. Like I already said. My partner Zoida and I had finished our first walkthrough of the day–
Ex.: Define walkthrough?
L.H.: Uh, general security perimeter sweep. We had just met in the middle when the alarms went off.
Ex.: And what alarms were those?
L.H.: The lab fire alarms. We went up to the door and requested entry. It was denied. Zoida tried the Defense override, and that was denied, too. We tried to comm Dr. Rebecca Jeong directly, then Dr. Jake Jeong, and got no response from either. So we tried to force the doors. They were sealed. We had to spend about five minutes cutting the seal. We finally busted it and I went in first.
Ex.: And what happened next?
Ex.: Corporal Hernandez, if you need a moment, we can—
L.H.: No, it’s fine.
Ex.: Let’s resume if you’re ready. You went through the Icebreaker Labs door first.
L.H.: Yeah. And I saw–I saw Dr. Jeong, Rebecca, on one of their exam chairs, you know, for test subjects. And there were others, a lot of others there, too, all in the chairs–all covered in–I mean, there was a lot of blood. And yellow stuff, liquid, and broken glass. And they were stretched all rigid, like they were straining to get out of the chairs and stand up, but they were strapped in–
Ex.: That’s sufficient. Did you count them?
L.H.: Not at first. Zoida did a headcount later; she told me there were 23 dead. We reported 24 initially, because at first we thought Dr. Jeong–the other Dr. Jeong, Jake, we thought he was dead, too.
Ex.: And where was Dr. Jake Jeong when you entered?
L.H.: Lying on the floor face down, in front of the main lab console.
Ex.: Was there anything near him on the floor?
L.H.: Yeah, that thing there. I moved it away from his hand with my foot, to get a look at it.
Ex.: Let the record show that the Corporal has indicated Exhibit C-5, the limbic modulator. What else can you tell us about that moment, Corporal?
L.H.: Well, not a lot. I never liked Dr. Jeong much. He was kind of a dick. Pardon me. And his sister was so nice. But I didn’t want to see him dead. I was relieved when he twitched. Zoida rolled him over as we were on the comm to the emergency med unit. I remember though–he opened his eyes. He looked at us like we were strangers, and he said, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”
Day 12, 13 January 2232
United Worlds Commonwealth v. Jeong
4th Circuit United Worlds International Court
Western Hemisphere Dome 0048 SP
Earth, Sol System
[Archived: United Governance Board regional justice systems, Earth]
31 October 2242 AEC (Adjusted Earth Calendar)
Jake Jeong woke from his court-ordered nightmare at 05:00 precisely. He waited patiently for the blood and screams to clear from his mind, and then between one blink and the next, the dim ceiling of his station quarters swam slowly into view. For a moment he lay still and stared up at it, a frown clouding his face. What had gone wrong?
The verdict had been very specific. He could recite it by heart, thanks to the marriage of his mind and the chip.
“All correctional dreams for convicted felons are mandated by the court and the Enhanced Recall Penitence Implant Chip’s encoding to follow a specific program: once every five Standard days, the offender will have a penitence dream [nightmare] sleep cycle of at least three point five, but not to exceed five hours.”
He whispered the words to the ceiling. “. . . after which the ERPIC will induce slow-wave sleep and activate the designated declarative memory enhancement, which will subsequently run for at least three point five, but not to exceed four hours. If the offender has shown historical tendencies to subsist on less sleep, the schedule must be reprogrammed to accommodate.”
The rest was superfluous self-aggrandizement stuck into the judicial statement by the chip’s developers. The salient and confusing point was that for the first time in nine years of living with the chip, Jake had woken early from the nightmare cycle. Less than twenty minutes in. It was a minor, unheard-of reprieve.
Wait, it—it’s wrong. Rebecca had said this time. The dream still echoed in his ears, her familiar hiccup of a stutter still marring her words. H–hurts.
He closed his eyes and covered his ears until the echo passed and he could think again.
A glitch, then. Possibly a one-time event. He could follow it up in the station’s Heart computer databases, if he wanted to. With his luck, chip malfunction after successful implantation would probably be considered an operator error, punishable by something like an extra twenty years for Jake back in the Bends (professionally: the Carlsbad-Bendis Subterranean Correctional Facility, the only sanctioned prison available for northern-based Domes) and a full lobotomy. Most chipped convicts were short-term implants. They did their penitence under surveillance, and then it was chip out and ship out, or rather, ship back to the Domes with the rest of humanity.
ERPIC long-termers and lifers like Jake had an acceptable rate of return: only about five percent went nuts a few months after the procedure, and those poor bastards manifested early. A near decade of functional humanity, including both his eight-year stint in the Bends and his current deep-space exile, likely meant someone from his implant team was writing a ponderous statistic-laden success story about Jake for scientific publication. A delightful prospect. At least he was no longer required to keep more than monthly contact with them.
Light was beginning to edge the walls of his quarters, a thin thread of the unobtrusive orange glow that was the station’s virtual dawn system. With the imposition of Earth time, the star Eos gave them real dawns every forty-eight hours. The virtual system didn’t fully kick on till 06:00. But he was wide awake now, and watching the fake internal sun rise had never topped Jake’s list of needful things. Groaning, he dragged himself out of bed and escaped into the cool darkness of the head for a lengthy shit and a longer shower.
As he cleansed under the hydro-acoustic field he wondered whether it’d be worth it to report to Dr. Lindy. His fingers knobbled over the implant scars at the nape of his neck and over his ear, and he rubbed hard at them. No, it probably wasn’t worth it. A few hours less of the nightmare wasn’t enough to remove Rebecca from his mind. She was still there in Icebreaker lab, her face and surroundings familiar and unfamiliar, like a word spoken so many times that it’d lost meaning. Nightmare-Rebecca was better than his old memories had been, the techs assured him. They had created a new Rebecca from his intact recollections unrelated to the incident. She was supported by the chip, and her near-perfection woke every memory he still had of her so that the sharpness of his self-loathing and penitence echoed back to childhood. The familiar guilt threatened to swamp him, and Jake clenched his fist against his temple until the nausea dwindled to manageable levels.
Guilt, nausea, regret, check, check, check. The chip was still doing its job. There was nothing to report.
Furthermore, it was expedition day, and Jake had been waiting too damn long for this particular surface visit to trade it for an exploratory brain surgery, no matter how expedited Lindy’s technique.
He shut off the acoustics and toweled off. While he was brushing his teeth the auto bathroom nightlight flickered on belatedly, and Jake found himself suddenly revealed in the little slab mirror, his toothbrush inelegantly distorting one cheek.
The stark light wasn’t flattering. He looked away before he could see Rebecca’s dark, oblique eyes staring back at him and brushed till his gums were sore, then rinsed with stale recycled water. It was nothing. She wasn’t there. The drawn tiredness merely meant he’d taken too many stims again. And the light was supposed to be automatic. Maybe his chip glitch was related. Maybe he’d caught a new alien vacuum-borne virus that lodged in his head as it floated through space and time.
Or maybe the chip’s a piece of shit, like the light, like the station. The odds aren’t long . . . He shaved dry and pulled on his last clean station uniform, then dug around in the dim untidiness of his quarters for his expeditionary gear. Satchels shouldered, he poked his head out into the deserted crew corridor.
With all forty of the transferring crew gone back to Earth two days earlier, Selas Station was near vacant, and spookily, gloriously quiet. For the first time since Jake had arrived two years ago, he could breathe and fill his lungs without feeling claustrophobic. It was nice to step out of his quarters without bumping into other crew—Mick Boxhill with his winnings from whatever latest card party he’d engineered, or a hollow-eyed, triumphant Kai Murakami stumbling home after a Science labs all-nighter, or the graveyard shift cargo crew doing their morning calisthenics.
Normally their station personnel transfers were simultaneous, in with the new and out with the old on the same transport. But bureaucratic fuckups happened. This time, apparently, some waystation idiot had lost the transfer codes. Jake didn’t mind. In fact, if he knew who the little gene-fuse was, he’d have thanked him. Until the transfer came in at 20:00, they were running Selas Station’s primary functions with a skeleton crew of eight from the operations control on Level 3: no mess crew, no cargo bay or lab techs, and no one up early except Mick and Katherine Lindy, the Indefatigable Zombie Doctor. Perhaps that was what had glitched his chip: the unnatural stillness.
He got into Delta Lift and pressed the location for the mess hall. The lift locations panel groaned at him, and Jake slapped it out of habit. “Heart, what’s the problem?”
The monitor chimed merrily, but otherwise did not respond. The lift doors shot open again to reveal the crew corridor he’d just left.
“Real helpful. Thanks.” Jake yawned and stepped out again. If the main computer wouldn’t even acknowledge, the lift probably needed a whole mess of realigning and relinking and rewiring, and there was no damn way he was going there, especially not before breakfast. He pushed the call button for Alpha Lift.
Little Selas Station was a decrepit junker, a fussy recommission-cum-peripheral Science project spinning serenely around its planetary namesake. Originally constructed back in 2120, it’d served as a Class A-Bernoulli Science station with an Old American-Russian crew of thirty trained scientists, administrators, and security officers. Upon reclamation one hundred twenty-two years later, it was a mystery, a spook story, a floating wreck with a clockwork orbit and just enough salvageable hardware to make it worth recommissioning. After a prolonged skirmish about ownership among Science, Defense, and the Historical Society, Science won out.
Science had staffed the place with whoever would take the post, which meant most positions were filled involuntarily, with shit-starters or unlucky folk on the wrong side of someone. Must possess multiple Course strengths, the job postings ran. Programming and minor construction skills desired. Apart from a small handful, most people in the dozen years since recommission stayed only until their contract expired or they could wangle a transfer, and then they hightailed it back to Earth, citing headaches and strange dreams and even some melodramatic garbage about seeing ghostly ancient crewmembers in the mess hall late at night.
Jake was Selas’ first felon. Given all the monitoring and attention to his good progress, he’d probably serve as the first ripple of a wave. The Gov Board would love to have an established dumping ground for semi-undesirables.
But despite the compulsory posting, he loved the station, and Selas, even if the feeling wasn’t mutual. Viewscreens flickered in and out. The internal/external paneling and polymerine glass windows frequently cracked due to strain and old age. Just last week the upper docking ring had to be closed to shipping traffic, thanks to a rotting hank of memory gem connections. She was a spinning cylindrical jigsaw puzzle with decomposing pieces that failed faster than they could be replaced, even with the help of the high-tech Heart main computer and the gently-coerced contractual specs and techs Science sent them every other quarter.
Jake still loved it: loved every stupid, crumbling corner of the thing. It had seven levels: infirmary and medlab, then science on the top two levels, ops on 3, crew and Astrometrics on 4, more crew space on 5, and cargo bays and common areas for brief stopovers on Levels 6 and 7. And it was in a good location—four months out, far enough to be considered remote and severely limit streaming communications with Earth, close enough to refuel the deep space freighters with routes unfriendly to the main network of auto-refueling satellites. And the crew was making it better with each new repair. When they’d replaced something major like the outer paneling, or when he’d helped reinstall the containment field shelter and they watched, hovering in space, as the blue protective haze unfurled in a shimmering mantle over their home, he’d felt a surge of something too powerful to be mere pride, something almost paternal. Nat Ticonti would say he was projecting his love for Earth onto the nearest available substitute, but Nat was almost always wrong about everything.
He wasn’t alone in his love for the station. He knew Mick felt the same way he did, and Lindy, and almost all the senior staff and longtimers who’d been there on multiple contracts. Maybe it was infectious. Certainly the longer he stayed, the stronger the feeling became. If it had felt out of control, it would’ve bothered him, but it didn’t. It was enveloping and pliant, a feeling of gentle synergy, of welcome. Fixing up the station felt like the highest tribute he could pay.
What the hell was taking so long with the lift? They had reprogrammed Alpha just last month.
As if they heard his thoughts, Alpha Lift’s doors whispered open. In the corner hunched Mei Chen, her legs drawn up to her chest, her feathery black head disordered and resting on her knees.
“Morning, Mei. What’s the matter, forget your boost?”
Mei made a hollow indeterminate noise, muffled by her knees. Small, strongly-built, and absentminded, Mei Chen was half anomaly, half kindred spirit. She spent a chunk of her contract piddling around in Astrophysics and the other part working cargo bay shifts with the rough-hewn security crew. Jake sidled in and assumed what he hoped was a safe distance by the locations panel. He pressed for Level 1. “Why the hell aren’t you in the infirmary?”
“I was going there,” Mei paused and gulped. “Until someone stopped the lift.”
“Ease, we’ll be there before you can—er… Never mind, I didn’t say it.” Mei obligingly held it in. The lift thrummed upward. After a moment, Jake prudently covered his nose and mouth. “Don’t breathe your infectious agents at me. What happened?”
She shook her head. “Old rations shipment. Yesterday. Something wrong with it. We were getting low on . . . beans in the mess, oh, my head. I incinerated it, so… The shipment. Not my head. Sorry if you wanted any . . . oh, god.”
There was a horrible retching noise. A second later, the lift doors slid open.
“That’s lovely.” Jake froze the doors and got an arm under Mei, who had apparently given up and stretched full out alongside the freshly deposited puddle. A chain spilled out from under her collar. The charm caught his eye: the cross-sickle-star of the Combined Belief system. Funny—he’d spent ages knocking around with her in the labs and playing endless hands of Go-Go Fishboots in their off-duty hours, and he hadn’t known she was religious. “Where are your gods now?”
“You’re looking at them,” she mumbled into the floor.
“No wonder I never got into the CB. Come on, up and out.”
Mei batted a hand at him. “Nah. Fine right here. Niiiice and cool.”
“Yeah, sure. C’mon now, let’s go hand you off to Lindy before you get puke all over the corridor, too.” He hoisted her up and out the door, and caught a glimpse of someone standing just out of sight at the end of the corridor. “Hey buddy, you want to give us a hand here?”
No response. Jake strained to look over Mei’s shivering shoulders. The corridor was empty. Odd. He could have sworn he’d seen someone standing out there, someone in a grey uniform. And there were only the eight of them on board—
“Who’re you talking to?”
“Huh? No one, I guess. Thought I saw someone there.” It was close to All Hallows and Nat’s corresponding celebration. What could be more appropriate than Jake’s own first ghostly sighting? Even spirits felt the pull of Selas. It would be one of the original crew, if lore served; probably Chubaryan, the mission leader. More likely, Jake was still too close to nightmare-time and seeing things in the shadows as a result. Although he’d never before mistaken a shadow for an actual person. He felt Mei gulp convulsively, and he tightened his grip. “Sorry.”
“No problem, fine. Oh plaguing hells, standing up is bad. Just let me crawl.”
“That’ll take too long.” Jake hooked his arm more firmly under her. “I’ve got shit to do today. Few more steps.”
“Uh hmm, don’t you listen to those cargo bay kids. I say you’re not a bastard.”
“Thanks a bunch. They think everyone’s a bastard.”
“Mostly you, though. And you are, like that time you yelled at me, but you’re not, you know?”
“Lindy!” Jake hollered as they stumbled through the swinging doors and into infirmary processing. “Giddy vomitous delivery? Dropping off?”
Dr. Katherine Lindy, hair and eyes the color of slate, her perpetual wrinkled scowl firmly affixed, was elbow-deep in sterilizing solution and the infirmary scanner. Clambering to her feet, she marched toward them. “Tell me you did your boost, girl.”
“Last night, all clear,” Mei said, looking befuddled.
“Over there.” Lindy pointed at the nearest hospital bed, and Jake snapped to. The oldest member of Selas Station’s crew, Lindy possessed the enviable ability to make grown men and women leap when she twitched an eyebrow. He laid Mei down as best he could and checked the brass wall chrono. Still an hour before the mission shuttlepod was due to fire up. He started back toward the doors and was jerked to a halt by Lindy’s hand on his collar.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Jake pulled at her fingers. “The labs. The expedition, you know? I need to pick up more sample cases—what?”
Lindy was shaking her head. “No, no, no. Standard UW direct monitoring for post-plague influenza is twelve hours after antivirals and vaccination, Jeong. Even for the head of Science.” She released his collar and, after a moment’s consideration, straightened it. Then she turned away and rummaged through the nearest supply cart.
“I know that.” Jake leaned over her shoulder. “But—”
“What page was it?”
“Page 464A to be cited in Appendices QR2300A to—” He stopped himself. “Damn it. You did that on purpose.”
Lindy tapped her head. “Only way I know to shut you up voluntarily, son.”
Possible side effect number 18 of the ERPIC: in closed initial studies of successful insertions, the penitence implant chip had been shown to have mild influence on other portions of the brain’s limbic system, including but not limited to long- and short-term memory enhancement, long- and short-term memory loss, and hallucinations. The unlucky five percent experienced psychotic episodes, or the development of psychosis—Jake bit down hard on his lip to keep the whole chapter from escaping. Before the incident, his memory had been decent enough without assisted robotic recall. “Stick it in your skull and see how well you do. So what do you need, pokey tests before I go? Give me a shot already, and I’ll get out of your hair.”
“I told you. Twelve hours. We’re already on skeleton crew, and you know what Carmichael will say.”
“You’re joking. You’re joking, right?” Jake was dumbfounded. “But she’s fine. I mean, despite that gusher of puke.”
“It wasn’t a gusher,” Mei said, sitting up. “He’s right, though. I’m fine, Doc—” Her face greened, and she slowly eased herself back down again. “Gusher. That’s just gross.”
“Mmm, yes,” Lindy mused as she loaded a blue antiviral-KO combo vial into an injector. “You should really clean that up, Jake, since we won’t have any maintenance staff till later tonight.”
He bristled. “And you don’t know it’s post-Leech flu, you haven’t even sampled her yet. She’ll be fine in an hour, and that’ll put us back up to bare minimum crew count. Give me a six-hour postponement, at least.”
She gave him the hairy eyeball instead. “No. Twelve hours. Standard recuperation time. Anything else puts a patient and us in possible jeopardy. Take it up with Toby if you don’t like it.” She slapped the combo into Mei’s elbow port. “Ease, dear. Have you feeling better in no time. Just a little blood now, and then you can relax.”
Lindy took blood samples the way normal people blinked. Jake waited until she had filled her vials and then followed her into the tiny med lab. “This is completely excessive. She’ll be fine, and you know it. We could probably patch her and monitor while she does—what are you doing today, Mei, traffic control? You’ll be fine. Right? Stop ignoring me, Doc. I’ve been counting on this trip.”
“Not gonna happen, sweetheart.” Lindy clinked the vials together. “Toby, you awake yet?”
The general comm system thrummed, and Stationmaster Tobias Carmichael’s deep tones flooded the wave over the infirmary PA. “Unfortunately. What’s your situation?”
“Got a flu patient here.” Lindy loaded the sample incubator with a few judicious slaps. “Mei Chen’s having some, ahem, emanations.”
“Emanations.” Carmichael sounded amused. “Do we need a priest up there?”
“Do we have one?”
“No. But I’m sure Nat could do a credible impression.”
“Looks like post-plague flu. And Jeong’s giving me grief about his mission. I’ll set up a monitoring lockdown, make sure no one else is infected. Also, can we institute quarantine today? Refuels are fine, but no visiting traffic stops on the Commons level until we pass the twelve-hour mark.”
“Wait.” Jake joined the comm. “If ever there was a case for discretionary judgment, Carmichael, this is it. Damn it, Lindy, if I wait twelve hours, I’ll be stuck training newts the next few weeks—”
“That’s a negative, Jake,” Carmichael interrupted. “I’ve postponed you anyway. Shipping traffic levels have gone through the roof. You’re needed in Control. Once our new crew arrives tonight and gets settled properly, we can talk about rescheduling. That suit you, Lindy?”
“Suits me just fine,” Lindy said. “I’ll send him your way after inoc.”
She cut the connection and swept Jake a look of pure satisfaction. “There’s supposed to be a micrometeoroid shower tonight, isn’t there?”
“Ooh, fascinating, Doctor. Maybe I’ll go float off the port bow and see if I can catch any.”
She tugged up his sleeve. “Bitching about it won’t change my mind.”
“Maybe not, but it might make you feel bad.” At her skeptical eyebrow, Jake amended, “Or just me feel better. Ow, damn it.”
“Do suck it up, son, you’re a grown man.”
Grown man or not, a needle was a needle, and just because Jake had grown up with them didn’t mean that he had to enjoy them. Like the rest of his generation, he had the new Supported Human Immune System—a type of therapy and treatment, the shared creation of sixteen United Worlds Science geneticists that functioned with a combination of genetic engineering, smart gene implants, and biotech. Or more accurately, when it functioned properly. To preserve minimal function, everyone received daily boosters. It didn’t bear thinking what would happen if Leech ever came back.
Thirty-eight percent of Earth’s population had perished between 2132 and 2141, in the primary wave of the Leech virus. But the Domes begun during the crisis had been completed by the time Jake was born, and most of the survivors had retreated to live in relative peace, safety, and health within the huge glass and polymerine enclosures.
Dome life was standard now on Earth, except for the loners and the scavs and the hermits, those who chose to live outside the Domes and the necessary . . . rigidity required to keep the community safe. The founding cadre of chemists, botanists, and pathologists who became United Worlds’ Science division controlled it all in the early days and still (barely) held all the Domes together now in one big worldwide network, under the United Worlds Governance Board. Technically, full-blown living outside the Dome was illegal. In reality, Dome dwellers and scavs lived and let live. There was no point in harassing a “doomed sect of misanthropes,” as the Gov Board had classified them. And they were doomed. It was rare to hear talk of an old scav. Their life expectancy was low and their numbers minimal, barely double the rate of Dome-defectors with stolen suits, who themselves lasted only slightly longer than those who went skin-bare in the new wilderness of the convalescing ecosystem. The devastation of man had allowed plenty of endangered flora and fauna to regain standing.
Inside, the Domes had regularly scheduled sunlight exposure, gardening exercises, and underground maintenance duty; they also had tagging, boosts, assiduous micro-decontamination, and a host of other inconveniences. Domes were paranoid by nature, with good reason. One cough could bring down a Dome. You could still go outside and get back in again, as long as you passed the decon clearance. If you didn’t . . . defection wasn’t the only way to become a scav. Or so Jake had heard.
Space was different, in ways Jake hadn’t expected. Stations had heavier decon regulations, especially ones that saw as many traffic control stopovers as Selas did. Space travel crews were required to boost twice daily. Compared to the typical civilian model, spacer arm ports were heavy duty, tough little implants like a soft socket surgically applied to the arm, the end pressing thousands of injection nodes into the flesh at the crook of your elbow. Jake rarely noticed his anymore, unless a sadistic insomniac doctor jabbed him in it with a 22-gauge sharp, as Lindy was wont to do.
Jake and his fellows were even more strictly regulated. In addition to the boosts and the micro-decon for pod trips, no one came or went without first enduring one of Lindy’s uncomfortably exacting physicals. There were daily contact logs, the testing drills, and emergency inoc kits. Even space relationships were supposed to be officially declared if they became physical (though that was probably the one rule Carmichael let slide every now and then, given his long tenure). Consequently, Selas was considered a near-monastery back on Earth, her inhabitants so randy they’d sleep with anyone who dropped by and bothered to disinfect.
Monasteries. They weren’t a big draw on Earth these days, unless you counted the Historical Society’s interest in tracing the genesis of the ritual orgies. The Historical Society . . . hells, Jake had almost forgotten. Con. And Dr. Silverman.
How could he have forgotten? Supposedly he’d had an eidetic memory before the implant (so the prosecution had claimed at his trial), and what he had now . . . well, he had mostly good memory days and the occasional bad one, during which he usually stayed in his quarters. Bad days meant flashes of unmoored memory, things like complicated chemical formula strings or glittering glass. On the best occasions, the impediment of the chip seemed to lessen, and he saw the days of his life in a continual march backward, each moment bright and clear. But the bad days with their murky, interminable gaps always returned. And the biggest gap of all, the gap that never went away: Icebreaker Labs. The day of the serum test. Rebecca. A chunk excised, gone completely.
By all the tardy messiahs, it was a wonder his brain was still of use to anyone. On the plus side, he could serve as a handy warning to anyone tempted to wipe their own mind.
Jake stamped on that thought. It was all right to feel good, to remember the day still promised something decent. Con and Silverman. That was fine.
Another sharp stabbed his port. Lindy had given him something else.
“Can’t get enough?” Jake rubbed his arm.
“Your boost,” she said
“I said I’d do it down on Control.”
“That machine’s busted and I won’t have time to fix it today.”
“Still light years better than you.” He yanked free of her grip and stalked out of the infirmary, and heard her holler after him:
“Still not going.”
“I’ve just received word we are to report to the cryo bay for the remainder of the trip. We’re only a day out from Earth, but already I feel as though I’ve spent months aboard the Harmon. And still, it’s too soon. In the words of our dear Will, ‘Make haste, the hour of death is expiate!’ There’s so much to do. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the legacy notes we pieced together from memory. I’m very eager to begin my tenure on Selas Station…”
Excerpt: personal ship’s log
30 June 2242
Dr. Alice Silverman
Personnel Carrier Leah Harmon
United Worlds DS 2150-1
Earth, Sol System
[Data recovered 02 Dec 2242, Gunaji rights per salvage]
31 October 2242 AEC
The rest of the day was, as expected, spectacular. Stuck in Control, ferrying in-and-out freighter traffic was to Jake the most mind-numbing task available. The station’s operations control center took up all of Level 3. It was simple and spare with no partitions, just the Heart core computers and the lift column running up through the middle of the circular grey room. Unfortunately, the design was difficult to work around. To update the tech to match Heart, the original reclamation crew had added new shimmering blue viewscreen curtains for displays. But the only place to hang them was around the lift column, which meant that the curved grey consoles for comm and docking and refueling now faced the wrong way. The best view of the system and Selas, through the clear polymerine glass of the walls, was served up to the crew’s backs.
Still, Jake hardly wanted to stare wistfully into Selas’ green bulk while he was stuck serving as a glorified automated signpost. And he didn’t have time to brood. The viewscreens were going nova with constantly winking stars, planets, solar flares, freighter signals, comm traffic blasting through the interstellar comm buoy network, all their primary station systems turned up and thrumming through Heart’s computer core. Freighters stopping at the remotely-controlled refueling satellites. Freighters swinging into Selas’ docking ring to refuel, to drop off supplies, to barter for news updates or entertainments. To have only four people on-console sifting through the cacophony of traffic communication was thoughtlessly overconfident and just plain masochistic.
A mess of talk flooded his comm, and Jake drifted along with it, brooding anyway. At least there was bound to be some excellent Earth and colony gossip tangled up in the chatter. Gossip was currency here on Selas Station—the freighter pilots and crews were desperate for any news as they went in and out of comm buoy range via their respective nowheres, and they brought in whatever tidbits they could garner to trade.
If he was honest, and really, dishonesty was not among his many failings, the ultimate issue wasn’t the shift or the increasingly insane levels of traffic and transmissions or even the postponed mission, it was that he was sharing his Control console with an effervescent Natalia Ticonti, who was no longer on duty. If Jake had to listen to her a minute longer, he’d be forced to pitch her out the airlock for the good of the station.
“But it’s perfect,” Nat crowed. Her voice was a barb in his ear. “Don’t you think? I admit I was skeptical, too. No rational person really believes in ghosts or goblins any longer, but this is something fresh, something very, oh, very Earth. And that, my dears, makes it comforting to the newly homesick. What do you think? Really, go on, tell me.”
At twenty-five years old, Natalia Ticonti was the Science division’s youngest resident space psychiatrist. On Selas Station, she served as both psych and self-appointed morale officer. She looked about twelve until she opened her mouth and unleashed a prattle of vocabulary worthy of an old-time Oxford English dictionary. Her favorite accessories were fluffy scarves and bright plastic hair combs. Insanely chipper, she hashed up strange, trendy aphorisms from Earth’s history so often (“it was what it was back in the good old boys club”) that Jake suspected she was doing side research for a Historical Society paper. She was a greedy stockpiler of gossip and chitteringly annoying from a distance. Up close, she was a horror story.
The United Worlds Commonwealth Gov Board’s early education was considered a rousing success by everyone living in Domes on Earth: doctors, scientists, technicians, and Defense soldiers took up the Courses training earlier every year. While in theory the idea was sound, in practice the kids were still too goddamn young for their posts. Jake might have wrecked his first lab at age nine, but he hadn’t blathered anyone’s brains to death while doing it. At least, not without merit. He himself had probably been too young.
But damn it anyway. Nat had been officially off now for—Jake checked his console’s chrono and ground his teeth—in excess of forty-five minutes, and still she loitered. Ostensibly her motive was to confer with Rachel Santos, their Quartermaster, but she’d stayed to bore them all stupid with the plans of her elaborate “welcome mixer” for the thirty new crew members arriving on the evening personnel transport. Jake widened his eyes pleadingly first at Santos, who sat on his other side, then across the starboard console to Carmichael. They both ignored him.
He hadn’t needed any welcome party; he hadn’t been homesick since his first month of exile. Selas Station was Earth’s furthest waystation, and that was fine. But then, he’d been used to isolation. Most of the newts wouldn’t be, and the ones that were wouldn’t be choice—Furbad Station and the colony planets snagged most of the best UW Science or Defense newts for crew. Selas was where you sent the obscure, the elderly, and the out-of-favor, not one of United Planetary Science’s freshest young psychs. Nat’s presence was a mystery, although she certainly could’ve unthinkingly blabbed her way onto a blacklist. And that line of thought brought Jake back to Silverman . . . what made one of the enduring stars of Science voluntarily seek assignment to their dark corner of the universe? There had been no whispers of scandal or disfavor regarding her, either.
He peeled his fingers from the console. Only a few more hours of traffic control, and he could sign off and escape into the lab. They were supposed to be on low-traffic status, for fuck’s sake. The never-ending stream of incoming freighter pilots had apparently skipped that comm buoy. Not much could stop their bitching, either. He caught an intriguing few repeats in the transmission and noted them down: Marathon. Freighter. Uppity. There had been multiple mentions of “Marathon” today. Too bad he hadn’t the faintest idea what it referred to. And was that something about Smita Gunaji? It just showed that every bored pilot came to history in the end, when they needed something to read between space vault cycles.
The infirmary’s comm node buzzed and Jake pressed it live. “Is my trip back on?”
“Put it to bed, sweetheart.” Dr. Lindy smiled, her angular face crowding the tablet screen cradled between his hands. “Now transfer me to the main screen or I’ll postpone your little mission indefinitely.”
“Didn’t you already do that?” Jake muttered. But he was already tapping the node and pushing it to the large screen. Lindy flickered into view there, her sharp grey eyes dominating the wafting viewscreen curtain.
“How’s that meteor shower looking?”
“Fuck off, Doc.”
She cackled. “Toby? Mei’s back on her feet and looking good. I got everyone with the upgrade vaccine by oh-eight-hundred, so we’re smooth-sail again. Mick Boxhill’s here and we scanned the rest of the rations. They’re clean. He’s going back to inventory now.”
Hunkered over his console, Tobias Carmichael sat square and somber as a slab, and twice as imposing. “Affirmative. Shall we follow standard boost schedule?” He sounded half-asleep, but his huge hands flew too quickly to follow over the nodes, gems, screens and tablets in their connective wells atop the console.
Lindy wrinkled her nose and the screen display fuzzed out for a moment. “Better do an extra. I’m out, then.”
“Wait,” Jake interjected. “Mei could come down here for a few hours, and then I could still—”
With a muffled curse, Lindy’s image joggled and blipped out. The viewscreen faded to the crystalline blue of standby mode. Jake bit his tongue and winced.
“Ease up, there,” Santos murmured beside him. “You’re sending a shuttle across the lanes—”
“It’ll wake ’em up,” Jake snapped. But he corrected the coordinates. Blinking blue sensor blips flooded the screen curtains, a descending cloud of shuttles and ships, and he swallowed a groan. Half were headed to the various unmanned auto-fueling stations networked through Heart, but the other half were destined for Selas and her refueling ring, and then on to the colonies in Petel and Vega and Tau Ceti. Another section showed that comm messages from Earth had jumped again in the past hour, near doubling Heart’s memory usage, but he didn’t have time to access any of them. Carmichael was probably on it.
As their Stationmaster, de facto slave driver, and anal-retentive nitpicker, Tobias Carmichael had naturally settled at the busier starboard docking and refueling controls early that morning. He hadn’t stirred since, except to occasionally stretch and pass coordinates to the rest of them over the viewscreens. He wasn’t troubled by Jake or by anyone or anything else in the known universe. He inspired the same lockjaw and spine-ratcheting in them all as Lindy did, except for Rachel Santos, who ribbed him openly. She claimed he was part Unangan, part Hawaiian, and no nonsense, which combined took all the fun out of him. (It was at those times that Carmichael liked to remind them all that he possessed the only working weapons aboard the station: a dozen fryguns with modulating levels of current.) He was straight out of Defense division retirement, and he’d come to Selas with Lindy in 2235, five years before Jake arrived.
Like most people assigned to the place, he had some interest in historical artifacts and Earth space history, but Carmichael’s particular fondness ran to antique artillery. It was one he indulged whenever his credits allowed. The latest shipment: some kind of bazooka, an AL494 from the 2090s. No live ammo, obviously, but the seller had included an old archival scan of a soldier in old-time military fatigues firing a slim tube, an orange cloud of backfire blooming behind him. Carmichael had blown half a year’s pay on shipping alone, and he’d handled the packaging cylinder with such uncharacteristic reverence that Jake didn’t want to know what they got up to in private. The last time he’d seen it, it was mounted over Carmichael’s bed.
But all quirks aside, and despite the loose triumvirate he’d formed with Jake and Santos to keep the station’s daily operations in line, Carmichael was in charge.
Except in the case of so-called medically informed decisions.
“Meteoroids. Postponed indefinitely,” he muttered. What nerve.
“It’s not forever,” Santos murmured back, startling him. She looked every bit as starched and immaculate as she had since they’d begun the shift that morning, her dark hair still slicked back into a stiff bun at her nape. Infuriatingly neat, but typical for Defense, even former Defense like Santos. Despite her military history, though, she was all right. Sure, she joined in on the occasional recall trick, letting Jake parrot endless facts or memories of facts until he stopped himself, or until the chip let him stop. And she overrode his perfectly logical requests while citing overly inflexible station policy, and she continually made snarky comments at his expense. But she was fair, icy cold with logic, and sharply competent. During missions to the surface, Jake had witnessed his own satisfaction and pride mirrored in her, a sight that had relaxed an unnamable, painfully tight thing hidden deep in him. Sometimes he wondered if it had been as immediate for her as it had been for him, or if it had been a slower beguilement. But it didn’t matter. Santos loved both Selas and the station as much as (if not more than) he did. She was all right.
He buttoned his lips and tried to concentrate on the scanning control, because Nat was still perched on the console, still listening with that intent psych expression of hers, but—
“Postponed indefinitely,” he said again. “Indefinitely! As if she could.”
Santos shrugged. “Probably not.”
“With the look of those foundation rocks, the dereliction . . . it’s possible Selas wasn’t always an uninhabited planet.”
“If it’s inhabited,” Santos said, “shouldn’t we be able to pick some evidence of that up on weekly station scans? Little insectoid people waving white flags or little pistols?”
“I didn’t say it is inhabited, I said it was. Possibly. I mean, maybe. And no. You need to do in-depth field research to pick up that stuff. Do you ever bother to look at those scans?”
“Nope.” Santos smiled. “Probably not gonna start, either. Unless there are little insectoid people.”
Nat frowned. “Well, I think—”
Jake raised his voice over hers. “If I could just cut out for a few hours, before the newts get here.”
“And if the station blows up? Because we didn’t have the personnel to head off an emergency?”
“First of all, I’d be on Selas, not light years away,” Jake pointed out. “I’d come back to help. Probably. I’d make whoever flew me come back, even if they were seeing psychedelic rainbow chickens.”
“Oh, so someone’s flying you now. We’re out two people in this scenario. Excellent.”
“If you guys were stupid enough to get yourselves blown up out of hand, I could try to comm Earth from the habitat.”
“So grab a pod. Lindy might let you back in. Go down and check it out.” Santos shot him a sideways look. “Leave the labs to Kai.”
“Ha.” But her smirk was infectious, and the bilious angry heat that had been festering in Jake’s throat all day began to slowly dissolve. “But since everyone else is either half a parsec away or wallpapering the infirmary with projectile vomit—”
“Oh, thanks for that, Jake. Really. I’ll cherish that image. Call on it in times of need.”
“My pleasure. And the newts won’t be in any shape to help out even without the headaches. They’ll need to be trained. I should go alone. Complete scientific solitude, that’s what I need. No morons.”
“Until you trip over a rock and crack your skull.” Santos pulled up a tiny image of greenish-white Selas and pushed the virtual orb over to his side of the console, where it filled his tablet screens. Jake snorted.
“Is this supposed to be coercion? They teach you this in Defense training? Or no, wait, wait, this is your idea of torture, right?”
Strange to see it so small when the real thing was so close out there, drifting slowly behind him and the station. Like most of the early 22nd century designers, the original engineers of Selas Station had been suckers for a space view. He’d never seen so much polymerine used in the more modern Earth stations, and for good reason, too: reclamation reported that, despite the shielding, Selas’ Control level in particular had been pocked to near bits by micrometeoroids and space drift. They were still fixing chinks here and there, while the newly installed containment field buzzed over the station’s length.
But then, who wanted to look at Earth? He never tired of looking at Selas. Jake drummed his fingers against the console, and the little globe jiggled under the assault. The carpet of bright star points, the vast green-white marble of Selas omnipresent in the background, lulled him into a state of wonder—regardless of how many hours his ass had been planted in the same chair with only cold sandwich rations and lukewarm coffee while they waited for fresh food and mess crew. He could disregard the million sequences his fingers had tapped while an endless line of bored pilots whined over the comm, pissy and stir-crazed in their cramped cockpits because Lindy’s flu quarantine denied all passing transits the refuge of the Common area at the base of the station.
Bland food, Control duty, benumbed ass cheeks. These were minor annoyances by normal standards. But when Jake could have been on the planet’s surface? They were unbearable.
Meanwhile Santos was still talking. “—give you three resuscitation attempts, max. And then after you’re officially declared dead, or actually probably before, Dr. Murakami will take over as station head of Science—”
“Okay, okay, okay. Enough. Point taken.” Jake gave the mini Selas a last look and dissolved the image.
“Fuel in station ring quadrant four down to twenty percent,” Carmichael murmured. “Redirect all traffic to quadrant three.”
“Done.” Santos’ fingers danced over her console. “You should ease up, Jake. Just think. By tomorrow you’ll have thirty fresh, healthy victims for all the surface visits you want. Provided they’re game.”
“Well, there is that.”
“I’m not sure the term ‘victim’ is really appropriate for our new personnel, unless you want to alienate fresh crewmembers before they arrive,” Nat said, looking pleased to have finally got a word in. “But cheer up! There’s a party to look forward to.”
Still she was harping on the party. Nat was enough to turn anyone to the Dark Side of Science.
Jake tried to tune out her titters. There were only a few hours until the freighter arrived and the newts swarmed in, nine-tenths of them with chips on their shoulders. Or in their necks or brains, his mind added helpfully. He rubbed at the prickling on his own neck and tried to rub away the thought. The station would downgrade to minimal traffic control, and he could escape up to the labs. The bio samples he’d collected on his last visit to Selas waited frosty and secure behind a containment field and isolation of three centimeters of pre-Plague style glass storage. That is, if Kai hadn’t yet managed to break into them. Carmichael might not notice if Jake did some remote scans to the lab…
Accordingly, the comm node for the Science Labs vibrated. Jake tapped up one of the smaller, internal viewscreens on his central tablet. Kai’s face swam into view. Fucking Kai.
“Evening,” Jake said. “You seem awfully well recovered, Dr. Murakami. Change your mind about that Control shift?”
“What did you do to the containment field?” Kai demanded. “I can’t open the samples case without turning it on, and when I turn it on the screen says Opposable thumbs only. Why am I locked out, Jake? In case you’ve forgotten, I have full science privileges on this station, too.”
“I think what you really need to be asking, Kai, is why you’re sniffing around my samples in the first place.”
Kai sneered and retreated a few steps from the monitor, and Jake could see the mess of papers, rations trash, and food detritus piled next to the sample cases: Kai’s little calling cards. He gritted his teeth and sent a docking beacon to the next shuttle in the queue.
“Come on, now, Jake,” Kai said, and his voice took on the snidely reasonable cast he used when he thought he was being placating. “Someone’s got to get cracking on them. The rest of the team is on their way back to Earth. Under quarantine, the new recruits don’t exist yet, and you’re obviously overextended with the admin side of things.”
“Still my samples, Kai. I collected them with my own two hands.” Beside him, Santos sighed. What? he mouthed at her, and she scoffed back.
“I’ve collected samples, too,” Kai said, his face reddening.
Jake swerved back to the screen. “Really? When?”
“Plenty of times. Read the pod logs. And anyway, samples from Selas are public domain.”
“So is the containment field source code, buddy. Have fun with that.”
“Some of us didn’t grow up with it.”
“Excuses, excuses.” Jake cocked his head. “You could do something useful, like finish that database update backlog I assigned you, oh, last month.” He was pleased to see Kai’s pretentious little goatee quiver.
“I assigned it to Floros!”
“Who left this morning with the rest of them. That info’s been moldering in those gems since the place was recommissioned. Don’t you think that’s a priority?”
“For newts, maybe.” Kai made a rude sign at the screen, and Jake adopted a pious tone.
“I expected you to be laid up, Kai. Didn’t you say earlier you were feeling too ill to pull a quarter Control shift?”
“I—well—that doesn’t have any bearing on the larger issue.”
“You’re probably right.” Jake grinned. “I’ll just go on being overextended up here, then. Who knows when I’ll get back up to the lab?”
Kai glared. “I’m going to report you to the board, Doctor. Just wait till the next review period comes through.”
“Why wait? Comm’s always open. And it’s been, hmm, almost a week since your last complaint? I’m sure they’re just desolate.”
“Keep shoveling, you snide little shi—”
“Sorry, gotta sign off now. Freighters to refuel, samples to protect.” Jake clicked off the monitor and called up the next shuttle.
“Not your day for getting along with people?” Santos asked sweetly.
“Hey, if he’s gonna lie about being sick when Mei’s down and we’re busy as hell?”
“Jake, you of all people should know it’s very foolish to antagonize a scientist,” Nat observed. “Though I should probably be more concerned about staff mediations. Accusations of dishonesty will have to be investigated.” She settled herself more firmly on the edge of their console, returning her attention to Santos, and Jake smothered a groan. “Anyway, Rachel . . .”
Jake focused on the viewscreen. His own encryption was pretty advanced, but Kai was very good at hacking alternative routes, especially when it came to scientific recognition or ways to inveigle his name onto award-winning studies. Dr. Kai Murakami was best at picking up where others left off. Kai left vile self-conglomerating piles of rubbish in his wake but no helpful paperwork. Kai ate smelly, specially boiled organic food rations and left drippings all over the lab tables. Kai had a precious little ponytail to match his goatee. Kai consistently uploaded any important data to the comm network but just as consistently and conveniently forgot to decrypt them for communal viewing—not that Jake didn’t do that, too, but he was head of Science, he was allowed.
Nat laughed again, a high, happy trill, and Jake closed his eyes and thought space. Endless. Wide. No sound. No oxygen. No welcome galas or aggressive subordinates. Nothing but microwaves and gem spectrum and the occasional asteroid flyby. Very cold. Very black. Very peaceful. When the plaguing fuck was Carmichael going to kick her out?
A squawk in his commbud yanked Jake out of the calm coldness and back into Control. A freighter pilot for the General Grant had forgotten to update his cargo tonnage data.
“Furthermore, I know just where we’ll do it.” Nat’s voice reverberated around the deck. “The main gala is in general mess, but that second cooler’s still out of commission and exceedingly roomy, so—”
“—I don’t think so, Control,” the captain of the Grant interjected in Jake’s ear. “We took on more than a few tons of stellarcore at Sirius Four. Are you sure standard docking procedures still apply—”
“—I know! Won’t it be an absolute coup—”
Jake slapped the docking-cradle sequence, covered his mouthpiece, and swiveled around in his chair. “Ticonti, your shift is up. Why don’t you go decorate the mess?”
“I finished this morning.” Nat pouted at him across the console. She was picking restlessly at the uniform collar buttons under her scarlet scarf, her cheeks flushed. “But I’ve had the best idea. It’s really all quite serendipitous, isn’t it, Rachel? And just in time for All Hallows Eve and the transport. It will really do wonders for crew morale. Even yours, Jake.”
She pranced over and waved her computer tablet in Jake’s face. All he could make out was a dizzying spread of text on a field of pale aquamarine, the color of all textual comm traffic routed from Earth. He swatted it away. “Get out, damn it, I’m right in the middle of bringing the Grant in, and it’s a beast.”
Undeterred, Nat cradled the tablet. “No worries. I can read it to you instead.”
“That’s okay. I’d rather be surprised.” Jake uncovered his mouthpiece. “Grant, as previously stated, you are clear to dock.” The freighters were starting to resemble a logjam in the shimmering curtain’s readout.
“‘Earth History Notes, year two-two, volume four. Courtesy of the United Worlds Library Association, as continued from our last volume on Old England fairy tales and folklore.’”
“I got those already, Nat.” Obviously. They were the only two official Historical Society members on board the station.
She gave him a pitying glance. “We all know you skim them for the corny science fiction bits.”
“I do not skim,” Jake snapped. “I like history. Patterns of technology? Hence the membership?” But so what if he did? What was the point of reading if you couldn’t read selectively? And there was such a wealth of material to read and watch and hear and taste, even under the Society’s conservative preservation dictates.
The birth of the Society had come some ten, fifteen years past the retreat into the Domes. After a prolonged and pissy skirmish between United Worlds Defense and Science over who would control the international networks, a group of radical librarians, archivists, and historians seized a bunch of servers and archived infinite old-time yottabytes of the old Internet’s material before it all went poof in the conversion and overlay to the new ’Net. The UWC Gov Board members and Science came out in grudging support of the action, and the World Historical Society was formed within the UWLA to perform further archival tasks. History, they claimed, had an importance equaling any new tech or scientific advancements. With enough study, they might discover further clues to the origin of Leech and thus use the knowledge to improve upon the human race’s little health problem.
Defense had accordingly blustered then that they, too, supported ’Net archival (which was bullshit) and that clearly they hadn’t understood the capacity requirements (definite bullshit). Jake still had never heard a reasonable argument for why Defense had wanted full control of the ’Net. Had they wanted the old material for some particular reason? Or more likely, were they being overbearing dicks solely for dickery’s sake? Maybe they’d wanted it for newt decompression. He’d always heard Defense training was comparable to slow death by suffocation.
But overall, thanks to research on both the reclaimed ’Net and primary sources, the Historical Society’s Earth History Notes were good: educational, full of equal parts treasure and junk, and almost always surprising. Though Jake wouldn’t know, since he’d skimmed them this week.
“‘Ghost stories and fairy tales,” Nat read, “are some of the oldest forms of moralistic cultural study available to our society,’ la di dah, la di dah.” She sketched above the tablet’s surface, sliding through layers of text. Jake turned up the volume on his commbud.
“—haints, fetches, more nonsense about evil and wolves and wicked stepmothers, you get the idea. Skipping ahead. ‘The incidence of séances in Earth culture is both varied and rich. Strongly linked with mesmerism, spiritualism, and later, hyperbolism—’”
“Control, say again?” The captain of The Grant sounded lost, and it was no wonder. “Come in, Control. Say again, all after ‘mesmerism?’”
Jake groaned. “Nothing, Captain. Proceed with docking to ring quadrant two, and we’ll have you reloaded and refueled before you know it.” He heard Nat take a huffy breath and overrode her. “Ticonti, take it outside, or I’ll put you outside. And by outside, I do mean outside.”
She tapped her tablet, considering. “If it’s too much pressure for you to handle an extended Control shift, Jake, you really should inform Carmichael instead of taking it out on me.”
“I am fine with the pressure. Pressure is easy. Give me another fleet of shuttles, another ten thousand carriers, a few emergencies—hells, take away my lab, too. As long as I don’t have to listen to you.”
Nat’s smiled hardened.
“Don’t mind him,” Santos said in confiding tones. “He’s just upset he might miss his meteoroids.”
“Perhaps you’ll be in a less foul mood tonight.” Nat regained her brightness. “In any case, you know who to thank when you’re enjoying yourself at the gala.”
“Not much chance of forgetting,” Jake muttered. And if one more person mentioned fucking pointless plaguing meteoroids to him, he’d chuck them out the airlock after Nat. Capricious mass murder in space! It sounded like an old serial.
Nat stood up and tucked her hair behind her ears. “Then don’t forget the quarterly psych evals are due next week—including yours.” She whispered something unintelligible to Santos and scurried off to the lifts.
“Is that supposed to be a threat?” Jake called after her. “No one reads those things, Nat.”
Santos sighed again. Jake ignored it, and also the pointed, silent rebuke radiating from Carmichael across the room. He took a deep breath and held it. Santos, Carmichael, Mei, Mick, Nat, Kai, and Lindy. Surely they could survive until the newts docked.
Apart from notifications, they worked in bad-tempered silence for the next few freighters and transports. Santos handled the console and her gems and tablets with a detachment to rival Carmichael’s, and the heavy traffic didn’t faze her at all. Jake had been worried about the Heart upgrade they’d installed before the main techs had skedaddled, but it was functioning well, almost too smooth and unbuggy.
The traffic jam bothered him, though. Selas Station had always been a science mission above all else. Science had insisted on it. In the eighteen months since Jake’s arrival, they’d never had this many freighters. He guided the Grant back out into open space, and with another hand, he sought out the traffic logs from the last two years, keeping the tablet display local and fixed to his console. The statistics compiled into a graph, and he tried not to snort in disbelief: for this day alone, they’d experienced a 99.5 percent increase in ship stops at Selas.
“What’re you looking at?” Santos asked.
“Oh? Nothing much. Station stats.”
“If you’ve got time, there’s still plenty of legacy data to trawl.” Santos extended a long leg and gently kicked a canvas sack in the direction of his console. The gem cases inside clinked.
“Give me a break already.”
Santos shrugged. “Suck it up. I already did my yottas for the month. Scanning frequencies. Again. More weird spectrums I’ve never heard of. I’m beginning to think Chubaryan adored scanning frequencies in a sad, sick way. So you need to step up, too.”
She pushed the sack more firmly against his feet, and Jake ignored it, concentrating on the giant traffic spike. It indicated something brewing, but what? Science was predictable in their interests and open about their takeovers. Defense usually briefed all space stations involved in a skirmish, unless they planned to commandeer a particular isolated station for tactical purposes. Which was funny, because there was no one to fight, at least not fairly. Any outright humans-versus-humans conflict had been technically illegal for fifty years. But Defense always managed to find a way to subdue humans in the name of human rights.
Something brewing, or paranoia. Jake shook his head. He would have to rein himself in during the psych eval if he didn’t want Nat to have a professional field day. Even allowing for a Defense coup, he couldn’t come up with viable players. Furbad Station was now a military outpost, the colonists on Dardanelle were too busy trying to regulate their farms to revolt, and the three or four other colonized worlds like Tau Ceti and Petel Eight weren’t really up and running yet. As for the scavengers, they’d never managed to get their hands on shuttles. Any skirmishes with them took place on good solid Earth.
There was a long break as the incoming ships jockeyed amongst themselves for lane position.
Was he really being paranoid, though? Furbad Station had been taken over by Defense as a political power grab. The deciding factor in that sketchy mess, despite how tiny and podunk an observational operation Furbad had been, was its proximity to Earth, only a few light years from Jupiter. But a Furbad-type takeover could easily happen on Selas Station, if some higher-up in Defense decided they also needed a waystation security outpost.
Science wasn’t stupid like that. But they had already eaten the cost on Selas Station twice over. They’d be inclined to protect the investment, just as Defense would spare no expense in a takeover. In Jake’s opinion, both Science and Defense could avoid trouble, expense for a second reclamation, and bad publicity if they let station employees in on the decision. They weren’t unswayable. There was so much waiting for him—for them, them—to study biologically, geologically, and pathologically on Selas. It was the first untouched planet Jake had ever seen, let alone explored. He didn’t care who the hell was in charge, as long as he got to stay.
Even Defense? asked a snide little voice in the back of his mind. Yes, he thought. He hadn’t felt that way back in the Bends, but he hadn’t been pro-Science either. He hadn’t had opinions or loyalty for anything. Jail was numbing and boring. He was rather surprised to have opinions and loyalty now, after only two years out. How quickly the human brain adapted to mediocre comforts.
Anyway, extra traffic did not signify a station takeover. And Carmichael would be first to know if something coup-worthy was happening: Defense kept up a weird courtesy between the retired and the new guard, and Toby was decent to the Selas crew. He’d ready them if anything were set to happen. Strangely Santos fell under the same banner, though she was former Defense, which wasn’t the same as retired. Jake wasn’t sure what she’d done, just that she’d gotten a dishonorable discharge for disobeying some order a few years back. Fine minds needed fine distinctions. Santos certainly required them.
She was also a sucker for sweets. Jake dug in his pocket for his last piece of lemon candy and pushed it across the console to her. “What’s Nat jabbering about?”
Santos eyed it and him for a long uncomfortable moment. Then she laughed and took the candy. “She wants to have a séance tonight.”
“Huh.” That was a new one. In fact—no, no, Jake did know what it was. He’d read about Genialla Glory, and the Fox sisters, and Ouija boards. The History Notes were doing an old-time spooky series in honor of All Hallows Eve, in an attempt to raise awareness about cultural roots. Nat’s inspiration, clearly. This did not bode well.
“Yeah.” She arched her perfectly groomed eyebrows at him as she unwrapped the sweet. “Apparently she wants to see if any spirits have figured out how to travel with us through space. Or raise the ghost of Denys Chubaryan and the rest of them. I don’t really get it, but you know.”
“As long as it keeps her busy . . .”
Santos harrumphed. “She’s just a kid. Lonely, and all that. You were probably worse at her age, what with the ego and all.” Abruptly she sat up straight and tapped her console’s viewer. “And here comes our transport early. Check out sector three.”
Jake realigned his own screen. Sure enough, the giant personnel liner was there, insinuated narrowly and cockeyed between two tiny agriculture shuttlecrafts. There was almost an air of smugness to its angle. “How’d they sneak into the middle like that?”
The comm crackled. “Selas Station, this is the Leah Harmon approaching for dock, over.”
Jake grinned involuntarily at the lazy, familiar voice in his ear. Beside him, Santos coughed lightly, and Jake wiped the grin. “We read you, Harmon. We, ah, we weren’t expecting you until nineteen-hundred at the earliest.”
“Hey there, Jeong. Guess that makes me an overachiever, then. Been a while, huh? Good to hear your voice. How’re the bugs?”
He sounded exactly the same. How long had it been since Jake had seen him without the mishmash transmission quality of a vid? Two years, nine months, fourteen days. “Staying in their petri dishes. All expedition activities indefinitely suspended due to the flu. And low station personnel,” Jake added, when Santos leaned over and poked him.
“So this is a stellar time to visit.” The sarcasm sliced through the broadcast. “Is it just rumor that there’s some kind of festivity brewing?”
“Nah, that part’s true. When we get sick here, we just open the booze stores and invite everyone in the quadrant. You know how it is. Heaving-vomiting-sweating misery loves company.” Out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw Santos make some abortive gesture in Carmichael’s direction. Stop talking already, idiot. He hurried along. “Standard quarantine, obviously. You can dock, but we can’t break the seal till twenty hundred hours.”
“Right.” A pause. “See you later, genius.”
Jake broke the connection, and swiveled in his chair to see the personnel carrier pull in long and sleek past the main observation portal. On impulse, he gave it a sardonic salute.
“Hmm,” he heard Carmichael say behind the shimmer of the viewscreen curtains. “Was that the infamous—”
“My friend, yes. Ag shuttles are up next, and they’re coming in too hot,” Jake announced loudly. His ears were hot, and damn it, he could feel Santos gearing up to pounce. He directed all his attention to the viewscreen and fiddled with the comm frequencies. “Ready the refueling process, please.”
“Standing by and ready for drop.” Santos paused, and then added, “Genius.”
“Don’t make me throw you in the brig, Rachel.”
“As if you could. Even if we had one.”
“I’ll build a tiny one just for you out of Kai’s lab equipment.”
“That’s darling.” The cargo bay relay on Santos’ console beeped, and she entered a quick, complex succession of commands. “Fuel pods dropped. Confirmed receipt. So anyway . . .”
Jake could practically hear her shuffling the different questions in her mind before deciding on the one she thought might needle him the most.
“You are planning on coming to Nat’s party, then?”
“Hmm. Fascinating, this change of tune.”
“You know, I liked it better when I was new and you were all still scared of me,” Jake mourned.
Rachel Santos hooted. “Who told you that bullshit? I’ll kill ’em.”
“Yeah, I’m still pissed about that. They told us about the migraines when we first got to the space station. What a joke, huh? Something like that should be in the contract. Required by law, man.
“Anyway, after thaw and decomp-decon we had a big welcome-to-this-side-of-the-galaxy meeting in the common room, you know, down at the bottom level, with Selas floating on a viewscreen all big and green and kinda cloudy-white, and nobody said anything until we were shunted off into our quarters, and there was this dinky welcome pamphlet with – oh. You wrote those? Well, pardon my saying so, but it was a hell of an info-dump, Doc.
“So, about six months later – I was busy, okay? Six months later I asked Jake, I mean, Dr. Jeong, when he got here, and he called another meeting and went into a long-ass scientist presentation about the headaches and what caused ‘em – probably – and why. No one really got it except the scientists, and there’s nothing like a bunch of whitecoats nodding in unison to make you feel like a moron, you know? But finally Jake took pity on us guys who didn’t spend years poking at microbes or whatever and made it simple. “Sort of like tides back on Earth,” he said. And he said some other stuff I forgot, but it was good. Made sense at the time.
“It pulls at your head. Selas does. Don’t you think? Earth tides sure as hell don’t do that. Some people have weird dreams, too. Not me. Probably because I usually work while everyone else is asleep, but Jake says that doesn’t matter. The headaches are enough. It’s pretty trippy at first, but as long as Dr. Lindy keeps a heavy supply of pain dope, it’s fine. And also? You just get used to it. No matter how many years we went past Leech, no matter how many setbacks we had with the Domes and spaceships and figuring out how to get from Earth to across the stars without it taking a damn century or making old men out of us, we all keep on getting better at getting used to things. We adapt.
“It’s still a good place to work, though. Newts have a hard time. But I love it here. Did I say that already? Sorry, dude, um, Doc. You’re making me nervous. Wow. This is really long, isn’t it?”
Excerpt: biannual psych interview
13 February 2241
Michael “Mick” Boxhill
Stellar Technician, grade 9
United Worlds DS 2075-5 [Selas Station]
Satellite 1H-24HM, 24HM System [updated: Eos]
[Archived: United Governance Board tri-system mission records, Earth]
31 October 2242 AEC
Thirty-five seconds before Jake could shut down the station’s beacon, the Earth rations freighter Smita Gunaji zipped in unscheduled out of the black and requested a full refueling. Carmichael and Santos had already gone down to Level 7 to unload the newts from the Harmon, so Jake made the call. They had plenty of station reserves; it couldn’t hurt to fill the guy up and send him on his way. Plus, he was curious. This had to be the mysterious Gunaji he’d been hearing about on the chatter all day. If he could figure out what they were up to, he’d have a nice newsy cache of goods to exchange.
He pressed the cargo bay and fueling commands at Santos’ empty console and loaded the freighter with enough fuel to reach their destination twice over—that is, if he’d known what it was. When he prodded, the Gunaji captain hemmed and hawed and finally flat-out refused to say.
Jake turned up the volume on his commbud. “Say again? I’m asking you a straightforward question, Captain—” Jake scrolled quickly through the transcript of comms from the ship’s manifest. “Fletcher. What’s your destination?” He’d never had a pilot block a destination before. Hells, there was never an opportunity: origin and destination were mandatory fields for the manifest. Leftover backlash? No, that was paranoid, even for Jake. He tried to inject some frivolity into his voice. “Obviously I can’t beat you out of it from here, but—”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m unable to give out that information.”
The captain was hedging with him, the bastard. Jake sent a scanning query in through the fueling computer and pulled a quick image of the Gunaji’s cargo holds. The view curtains shimmered and displayed some exceedingly crammed quarters. Fuel pods, containment conduits, crates and containers and more crates, an easy dozen of scientific probes in their wall sockets; in short, nothing too provocative. So why the dodge? “Well, I’m afraid that’s outside procedure, Captain. We require at least a system heading for any ship that fills up here. Part of our statistical reporting to the Board. It’s regulation.”
The captain huffed into the comm. “Currently our destination is—uh—undisclosable due to security concerns. Science, I mean Defense priority two-delta. See the manifest. Gunaji out.”
“‘Undisclosable.’” Jake stared in disbelief at the console. Whatever kind of Regulation language they were teaching the space apes these days, he didn’t know it. Priority two-delta, that he did know. It was Defense code for avert your eyes and shut the fuck up, and if it was in the manifest, it was sanctioned. An illegitimate two-delt would set off alarm bells before a freighter underwent a greeting scan. Jake pushed back up to the top of the manifest.
Designation: S. Gunaji
Class: Brooks Freighter
Pilot: J.L. Fletcher
And in very big, dark print at the bottom of the preliminaries:
Well, shit. The new vocab was standardized.
Piqued, he scanned the latest commtext broadcast from Earth. It was sixteen hours old, their second of the standard three daily updates they received as one of the further-out stations. But there were no new bulletins regarding a hijacked freighter. No cryptic bursts on the Science channels, either, though most would be old by the time they reached Selas, and Jake probably wouldn’t recognize any new lingo. Muttering, he tracked the Gunaji’s signal on the console for half a parsec until it began to dwindle. It looked like they were headed on the main route to the Beda system, but there was no way to tell for sure. And Beda? As far as Jake knew, there was nothing habitable out there, not even a station setup. Rations for whom, then? The satellites and comm buoys?
What was going on? Back on Earth there were plenty of sophisticated political games, misdirections, art-of-war advances and retreats and face-savings. This was certainly Earthish, but not like that. Civil conflict? Defense foul-up? Maybe someone was planting a flag on an asteroid.
He shook his head and felt his thoughts practically clunk back into place. All were options far-removed from Selas and none of his business. Jake pinged irritably at the winking, fading signal of the Gunaji on his tablet. Let it go, Jake.
So he cleared the signal. He broadcast a wideband Station Closed comm signal to the nearest buoys, set all the consoles to standby, and dimmed the viewscreen curtains until the shining pixelated tracking dots faded to barely visible gleams.
The newts were probably all aboard by now, and after a month frozen in cryostasis on the Harmon, more than eager to enjoy a party, festivities, whatever Nat had decided to call it. He wondered if Con had come aboard with them. Probably he had some piloting duties to attend to before he could relax.
Two years, nine months, fourteen days. That was when he’d last seen Con in person, in a transfer cell after his official release. They’d had time to shake hands and have a brief conversation, and Con had passed him a tablet packed with audios and e-texts, and Jake hadn’t been able to ask, Were you there? Do you remember? The time before that, he could recall reasonably well, probably because it was so repetitive: roughly seven years of the scheduled nightmare, of reading, of listening to someone bashing around the cell adjoining Jake’s in the Bends. Before that, he’d lost a year on trial, so about eight years total. Then his memory ran into the yawning gap and circled around it like a drain.
With an effort, he focused instead on the familiar, much-traversed memories from before the lab accident and the gap. There were scraps of dinners with his parents and Rebecca, and the clear, hectic day at the Courses when they learned about historical animal husbandry practices, and Santos showing him how to hold and fire a frygun.
Wait. Jake pressed on his temples. That was wrong, he hadn’t met Santos until Selas. Could the implant be affecting his long-term memories? Possible side effect number 23C: in closed initial studies, three percent of subjects displayed a phenomenon known colloquially as blurred lines—no, no, no, shut up, Jake.
He wanted to go back to his quarters, hide in his bunk, and let his mind empty of everything but the snuffing need for sleep.
No. Calm down. He breathed deeply. He would remember. He could do it. This was a good mental day. He cast about for a memory, anything, and focused on his arrival at Selas Station. The transport ship had smelled weirdly like grapes, but no one said anything, so Jake hadn’t mentioned it. He’d felt the chill slow jolt of cryostasis, the memory of endless, slow starry dreams they all had while frozen during vault cycle. He had noticed, as he walked through the pressure seal into the station’s receiving bay on Level 7, that the station’s air tasted metallic instead of grapey.
That was better, relaxing. Jake let more unrelated bits of memory slip in. Swirly green Selas floating outside the polymerine portholes. Trips to the little planet habitat. Climbing down the side of a rounded black shuttlepod and thumping with both feet into the solidity of Selas soil. The scent of trees, moss, and other green plant life, the breeze, the filtered grey-yellow sunlight, just different enough from Earth’s sun to be noticeable.
His mother, Angelica: straight-spined, tall and blonde and regal as she leaned forward, her lips plum red and perfectly outlined for the news cameras. Then his father, Min Jee, the dark embodiment of Old Korea, hunched and withering already from cancer as he crept in and out of the witness stand. The unintelligible chicken-scratches of the formula for Restore, the chains spiraling across a viewscreen. Rebecca’s face. The labs, the Dome, the hidden tunnels.
Jake shook himself. It was all right, if he could still recall things. That was the way the ERPIC worked. He had to remember, or else he wouldn’t be a successful repentant who contributed to society. He’d be a useless lunatic, haunted by bloody dreams of unfamiliar people. In any case, he had to have enough clear mind space to have passed the Selas placement psych exam, hadn’t he? Plague it all, he was confused.
Con. He’d been thinking about Con. Had Jake done anything wrong at their last meeting, back at the Bends? Said something inappropriate or unsolicited? The idea made him grin. If anything, the chip had enhanced his abrasive tendencies. But it was unlikely, if the friendliness in Con’s commtexts and vids since then and in his voice over the comm earlier was anything to judge by. Perhaps absence made jerkery seem charming. Jake could go down to the mess now and find out.
Or maybe he’d make a small cup of coffee and stay in Control a little longer, just to be sure everything was okay. Nervous? Jake? Nah. He leaned back against the console. Not nervous, just terrified for no reason, for fear that his one longstanding friendship would turn out to be a mistake, or a joke, or even simply not as genuine or close as he thought it was. The thought was preposterous and strangling.
Selas drifted silent and luminous before him. At this time of night, the planet suffused the Control windows with her marbly green-veined bulk. Black space crept in around the curve of her, and cold stars winked just within visibility.
Rebecca had found the super old-time paper map in Mother’s study, and they spread it out on her bed and huddled over it. She let Jake crumple the edges. She was nice about things like that.
“What do you think is outside…” He traced with his finger across the lines separating the Domes until it came to land on a wide spread of No Man’s Land woodsy wilderness. “There? Skin eaters? Lions run wild?”
“Stupid.” Rebecca laughed. “Hermits. That’s all. They like it out there. Scavs do, too. Maybe you could go live with them!”
He smacked her arm, and she clutched it, her face aging instantly into adulthood. Her cheeks reddened and contorted with pain—the nightmare, his nightmare—
At the voice in his ear, he jerked away from the console and crashed violently into Mick Boxhill, who was hovering beside him. He blinked, and Rebecca flicked out of sight.
“Sorry, doc.” Boxhill steadied him with both hands. “You okay there, twitchy?”
“Fine, fine.” For a moment Jake had dreamed, or thought of dreaming. It was sad not to be able to tell the difference. He should’ve hated the memory of Rebecca by now, still so clear and exact in her imperfections. But he didn’t. He looked more closely at Mick, grey and drawn under his wild shock of orange hair, his eyes shadowed by dusky circles. “You look awful. You’re not coming down with the flu?”
“Nah.” Boxhill sniffed. “I’m clean. Dr. Lindy stuck me this morning. Heh. I mean—”
“Don’t say it, I don’t need that image ever. You look dead on your feet.”
“That dickbag Niedermeier skipped out on his inventory shift before he left. I’ve been counting crates since oh-nine-hundred. But I did my boost before I came up here.”
“Ah. Right. Boost.” The day had been suitably abnormal to throw Jake out of his own routine, but not too terribly. He hadn’t felt the barest hit of withdrawal yet. Rolling up his sleeve, he went to Control’s immuno-boost box and stuck his arm inside. The jabber skittered over his elbow port. “Shit. What’s wrong with this thing?”
Boxhill shrugged. “Do the infirmary, man. Lindy’s machine never fritzes.”
“No thanks.” Lindy was sure to be there; she never attended station parties. Cursing, he twisted his arm and slapped the frame of the box. The jabber fluttered, pricking Jake’s skin, and then wove desultorily into his arm port. He felt the quick sting, and the hot push of boost flooded his veins.
“Masochist,” Boxhill mumbled.
“Lazy,” Jake corrected him. He pulled his arm out and examined it; the jab had scrawled a raw red V into the skin. He swiped it with alcohol and stuck on a heal patch from the dispenser atop the boost box. “Is Lindy taking care of the new recruits?”
“No, I talked to the pilot, your friend, guy, you know. So-and-so. Such and such.” Mick sat down in the rotating chair, and banged Jake’s console as if to jumpstart his memory. “Connor. He said they did their own boosts before docking. They’re all in the mess now.”
“Ah. Finally.” Apparently pilot duties weren’t that time-consuming after all.
“You should see the place—it’s nuts. Nat did a good job. But don’t you repeat that shit. She’s thrilled enough with herself as it is.”
“Bet I get a priority-ten memo in a few hours.” Mick pitched his voice higher, and clipped it into Nat’s scholarly old-time phrasing. “‘Attention to all crew. My hum-blest of thanks for your attendance and contribution to my contribution, this amazing psychological synchronization of humankind and nature among the stars…’” He trailed off, his eyes darting like startled fish.
“You sure you’re feeling all right, Mick?” Jake patted his shoulder. “You look bad.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you said that.” Boxhill rubbed at his temples. “All those damn supplies…everything just looks kind of shivery, you know? And the mess hall. It got me thinking. You know Nat wants to have a death picnic or something? Chubaryan and all them. I started thinking about that a little too much. Ghosts, man. Why?”
Yeesh. “Guess you have to believe in ghosts first.” Jake tried to look casual as he flicked the inside of his elbow. The heal patch had already done its work and was beginning to sink wetly into the skin. He still didn’t like the look of Mick’s eyes. “I’m not in any rush for that. I could stay.”
“No, really. I mean, that’d be great, but I’m good. And Mei’s totally feeling better. She might come up later, keep me company. You know how it is, anyway.” Mick motioned at the screen. “Most relaxing time of the day. Headaches aren’t even much of a problem anymore. Although this one time I thought Mei was up here and she wasn’t. Shadows, man. Brrr. Makes you think Nat might be onto something.”
Jake grimaced, and Mick laughed. “But hells, don’t you think better here? It’s so calm. Look at how calm I am.”
“Yeah,” Jake admitted. “Something about being out here in the middle of nowhere in general, I suppose. But it’s just you for now. You need to be on top of things.”
“I am, I’m fine. I’m good.” Mick scuffed his feet, and kicked the canvas sack still lying against the Control console base. He picked it up and dangled it suspiciously. “What’re these?”
“Legacy gems. Knock yourself out.”
Mick dropped it as if it were on fire. The sack clinked reproachfully. “Maybe later.”
“You know, I could comm Carmichael, or I could stay for a while, keep you from dropping us out of orbit or blowing us up—”
For a second, Mick looked almost grateful. But he waved a shooing hand at Jake. “Oh, hells, no. Seriously. Go check out the mess, eat some fresh reconstitution.”
Jake’s belly rumbled. “They bring any fruit?”
“Pineapple. Some other stuff. Oh, yeah, baby. You know you want some.”
Jake didn’t want to go. And yes, he did. And…he was an idiot. He turned toward the lift column and caught a flurry of motion. A tall form in a grey station uniform had just stepped around beyond the curve of the lifts. “Hey. Who—”
“What?” asked Mick.
“Hey.” Jake strode around the column. “This area is restricted. Who is that?”
There was no one there. No telltale crunch of the lifts starting up behind their closed doors, either. According to the lift map, Delta Lift was stalled somewhere down around Level 6. Jake pushed the call button, and the doors to Alpha slid open to reveal the lift box empty and waiting. Jake’s neck prickled. He could have sworn…but there was nothing.
Boxhill’s voice floated out from the other side of the column. “Who you talking at, dude?”
Jake stalked back around to the console. “No one, apparently.” For a moment, Boxhill’s orange head was haloed in a greyish cloud. Jake blinked, and the cloudiness rearranged itself into the normal background of consoles, polymerine, Selas.
“Now, you? You need to take some ease.” With a nerve-grinding squeal, Boxhill swiveled his seat and glared at Jake. “Seriously, man. Shadows. Ghosts. Don’t give Nat any fuel; she will eat that up. Will you get out of here already?” He screeeed back around to stare out at the fluid, shifting atmosphere of Selas as the planet waned slowly into deep green darkness. “You’re making me twitchy, too.”
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