“C'mon, Chief, you can't keep on drifting out on me like that, I know there's a lot of shit going on in your head, but right now I want you to pay attention to what's happening out here. Can you do that for me? Can you nod your head to let me know you're in there and not panicking?”
The idea to rebel crosses my mind,
but I have no other ally, crazy hallucination or not. My neck seems
seized solid, but I put on a display of will, I move my head a few
millimetres and then relax it. I am rewarded by a coughing fit that
shakes my body, refilling it with the sea of pain and threatening to
send me back into unconsciousness.
I choke on the smoke, now filling the cabin and starting to
obscure the canopy and instruments. Systems are failing but the
craft clears the border fencing and hits the hardtop, the landing
gear holding up despite the warning messages and weapons damage. The
logos of an allied company stream past as the 'chute deploys and I
decelerate to a rapid and uncomfortable stop. I hit the manual
release on seatbelts and canopy, hurl myself out of the seat, slide
down the craft's side and fall to the tarmac, flopping on the hard
surface, coughing and retching. Sirens and fire-retardant foam start
to fill the air.
“Easy there, relax, using two lungs
takes a little getting used to. Was that nod for me?” I nod
again, carefully. “That's good, it means I'm probably not going to
have to start from day one and get you toilet trained. Try to keep
still, we're getting there, but we're still not quite ready for
moving about. Try your right arm, slowly now.”
I ponder for a moment on which is my
right arm, make a decision and find that it seems to be pinned under
a heavy weight. Suddenly it spasms and jerks, I realise it was not
trapped after all. With careful concentration I lift the aching limb
until the hand comes into my eye-line. The flesh is red and a little
puffy. I wiggle my fingers experimentally and am pleased to watch
“Fantastic.” Says my spirit
guide. “You'll be playing the piano before you know it.”
We sit side by side on the stool,
one arm around the other and one hand on the keys. She laughs as my
inexpert touch messes up another chord and improvises around it. The
tune becomes a parody of itself, a music joke at my expense. My
attempts to get the song back on track make it worse, her laughter is
I rub some life into my left arm and
soon have the use of two limbs. My physical world appears to be
pulling itself together, I feel stiff and raw, but there is no longer
any great pain. My mental world is still a forest of clashing
images, snatches of memory that I cannot put into order, familiar
times that seem to have happened to other people.
With a grinding noise the floor moves
again, something shifts and crashes down to my left. I turn my head
and try to bring my working eye to bear on the source of the sound,
but all I can see is a damaged and dark visual display, some sort of
liquid has adhered to its cracked surface and congealed.
“Yes, we'll have to make a move
before too long, but we'll cross that bridge in a while, stay patient
and try not to panic. I need to know how well you're doing in there,
can you remember your name? Or my name? Or even her name? C'mon,
think deep, it must be in there somewhere, get your hand on the
stick, push that throttle forwards.”
“Are you really going to go
through with this?” He brushes imagined dust from my dress
uniform's collar, and looks straight at me with those eyes that could
have won any girl he fancied, if he wanted to. His hand lingers on
my shoulder. “Is this what you really want?”
Through the small window I can see that the bridal party has
decanted from the beribboned vehicles. There are murmurs from the
chapel, I should already be stood at the altar. Our families are
small, but the place is packed with her orchestra and my squadron. A
break in hostilities coinciding with a gap in their schedule and we
jumped at the chance without really thinking it through.
“Yes.” I finally reply. I lift his arm away from my
“Then get your hand on the stick, push that throttle
forwards.” He says. We clasp hands, reseat our caps and then
Jimmy leads me out in front of the congregation.
“Jimmy,” I force out of a throat only now coming under my
control, little more than a croak, but Jimmy's face opens up with a
warm smile of relief.
“Hey, you're actually in there, how much do you remember?”
plane...” I realise that somewhere all these fragments must
connect into a coherent narrative, but they flow too fast for me to
put them in place. I am a crippled man trying to run.
I fall again onto the gravel, a victim of the uneven and
shifting surface. She starts forwards to help me but stops dead at
my angry bark. Unwarranted, I pour my frustration into her and watch
her recoil in horror. Tears are in her eyes and suddenly they are in
mine. We cry for a while, then I let her help me up and readjust the
prosthetic. She supports my weight all the way to the memorial and I
tell her how little I am without her.
“My leg!” I struggle to sit upright, but my lower body
doesn't work properly. Jimmy stretches out his hand to hold me down,
so I sink back onto the floor.
“Easy, now, remember what I said about not panicking?” I
recall Jimmy's penchant for relaying bad news in the calmest manner.
“The leg is old news. You were in an old military surplus
orbital-to-ground lander when the computers failed. You were drunk
and you'd just had your licence revoked, but the inquest covered that
up. Computer simulations say you should have hit the ground hard
enough to leave a crater, but we all learned a few things about those
birds during the war and you managed to bring it in horizontally.
You still smeared it over a couple of kilometres, but the survivors
forgot how you basically hijacked the craft and declared you a hero.”
“Any landing you can walk away from...”
“That's just the point, you didn't, remember?” Jimmy's
attempt to distract me fails, I have myself up on my elbows, head
raised, before he can react. I am having trouble recalling my own
name, but no-one can prevent me exerting my will. It is a mistake.
My clothing is gashed and striped in gore, with no real clue as
to what style or colour it was originally, I can see a large patch of
my raw looking chest through a tear. Worse lies further down, my
vision moves steadily to greater devastation. My clothing and my
body both end abruptly where my pelvis should be, only tatters of
flesh and cloth lie any further. My vision swims, but I force focus
and look beyond.
Running from my truncated torso is a length of what I take to be
intestine, it spans the arm's length to the corpse of a man, where it
plunges into his abdomen. It pulses slowly, some obscene, adult
umbilicus ferrying sustenance from the dead to the impossibly alive.
The cadaver's skin is sunken, pillaged by whatever unholy process is
keeping me alive. The name on the breast pocket of his coverall is
Peterson struggles against my grip. I outweigh him and while
my years of judo practice in low gravity should give me the edge, he
has the strength and determination of a madman. His arm breaks free
and flails out, striking Liefman and then dislodging his gag. He
starts screaming again, his wails drowning out Liefman's complaint
and threatening to expose our furtive endeavour.
“Sanders, for fucks sake, help me!” The look on Sander's
face tells me that his courage is wavering and if we don't finish
this soon then the game will be up, but he repositions the gag while
I catch the wayward arm.
“Hurry it up,” I bark at Liefman, unnecessarily. The
airlock door beeps and then slides slowly back, she looks up from her
pad to give me an accusatory glance.
We manhandle Peterson through the opening, throwing him
against the far door so he has no chance to come back at us before he
is sealed inside. Liefman works to keep the alarms from going off
while I run through the manual sequence, Sanders stands there looking
sick. The vocal alarm refuses to be silent and a calm synthesised
woman's voice announces our crime.
“Unauthorised airlock discharge, unauthorised airlock
discharge,” She accuses as the expulsion of air takes Peterson's
struggling form outside the limits of the space station. The
automated drone senses the garbage tag we planted on him, grabs his
body and flings it towards the Earth's atmosphere for cremation.
She is still chiding us when security apprehends us, stood
staring at the airlock.