“This is hardly the speediest escape in history.” I tell Jimmy, dismayed at my own progress.
“Well, from some angles you do look like a snail.” I scowl at his comment. “Just around the corner there might be a nice big lettuce leaf for you.”
“Tell you what, why don't you scoot ahead and find out for me?” Make believe friends must have their uses somewhere. “And take that dazzling wit with you.”
“Sorry, buddy, gotta stay here and look after you.”
“You still making sure I don't panic?”
“Just making sure nothing new comes out of that murky memory of yours and spooks you.”
“Have you seen this on the newsfeed?” I ask her over breakfast. Cereal, juice, no coffee, definitely sticking to the dietary regime this time.
“Hanson working with the philharmonic? He mentioned something about it when we were recording last month, I expect a call some day soon asking if I'll arrange the piano section.” We've lived together for so long, but some mornings we are just in completely different worlds.
“Sorry, I meant my newsfeed.” I flick the article across to her screen. She browses it, flicking a wayward strand of hair out of the way of her spoon.
“Its a bit technical, isn't it just a rogue rock? Surely they'll just catch it or blow it up or something.” She reads scientific and space industry terms much the same way I read music.
“Its not from our solar system, its moving really fast, its a very funny shape and they think it might be slowing down.” I explain.
“You don't mean people are calling it an alien spacecraft? That's just silly.”
“They probably are on the populist channels, here people are speculating that its something someone launched in secret during the war.” Twenty years of the accord holding peace between the various larger powers, but still no-one trusts anyone else.
“Well ask Jimmy if it is, he's still plugged into all that.”
I pull myself another half dozen centimetres forwards and then stop to rest, as I drop back to the ceiling I realise I can just about see down the corridor. It runs for about three metres before some sort of structural brace bisects it. There are two doors off it, the one on the far side is buckled and looks like it is probably stuck closed, the near one looks open, but the angle is wrong for me to see properly.
“Not a dead end, then. Looks like Billy the snail can crawl a little further.” Jimmy encourages me.
“Billy the snail thinks that leaving Jimmy the dead weight behind might speed things up a little. Get off my back, this would be easy in zero gee.”
I catch the ball, take a fraction of a second to note my new trajectory and then hurl it towards the goal. It looks destined to miss, but the slight drift imparted by the spin of the station carries it to glance of the inside of the bar and into the net.
“Eight-three, I believe. Not bad for a team of dilapidated old space-farts.” I crow. Davis scowls at me, Liefman shakes her head and Peterson covers his face in shame. Jimmy floats over and gives me a high five that sends us both slightly out of control.
“I give in,” admits Peterson. “Apparently there is a reason why we are letting the veterans fly this mission.”
The third member of our team, Colonel Vickers, suggests we leave it there, so we agree the point has been made and head back to the parts of the station spun fast enough to simulate gravity to collect on the bet at the bar.
“Fucking hell,” I say to Jimmy when we are out of earshot, trying to regain my breath without making it obvious. “We're definitely not as young as we used to be.”
“One more push?” Jimmy raises an eyebrow and once again gives me his 'punch me here' smile.
“If you're so eager to see what's through that door then why don't you take a peek and let me know?”
“And spoil the surprise?”
“Is this the surprise I should not be panicking over? Because if you don't start filling in the blanks before long I think I might just panic to see exactly why I shouldn't.” The ship moves around us again, I brace myself for a catastrophic slide, but again it settles.
“You must be getting tired, you're making even less sense than usual.” I am already pulling myself forwards again before I realise I have risen to his gibe.
I ease myself around the corner into the corridor. The doorway has a lip on the ceiling that could hamper my progress, but also provide some thing to pull myself along with. The door itself is either open or missing. I grab the edge and pull my head into the room.
The room appears to be some sort of cargo bay, with boxes mostly still attached to the walls, that much is easy to figure. The body of a broken woman lies like discarded laundry not far inside the room. Most of the rest of the room is filled with something that my mind struggles to make sense of.
There are what I take to be legs, legs with far too many joints encased in a grey armour or shell. A lot of legs, one seems to be equipped with an industrial cutting tool, another with something that could be a gun or blowtorch. The legs spill upwards from a carapaced body, probably two metres across, something like a massive crab lying on its back, it takes me a moment to realise it is probably upside down like the rest of this place.
The structural spar the blocked the corridor has crushed this alien monstrosity, it lies in a pool of its own greenish fluids. It would be sensible to consider it dead, but I freeze in terror, waiting for it to twitch, to come alive and reach for me. My heartbeat echoes in my ears, so I force myself to relax, not very easy with Crabzilla watching me.
“...fuck is that?” The tunnel between the spaceport and the main body of the settlement gives me my first proper view of this new planet. New to me, I remind myself.
Something moves in the refuse pile so thoughtlessly dumped outside the enclosed human habitats. Small quick movements, a pause, a scuttle, too many legs. I widen my view to try to gain a sense of scale and see that it is not alone. Swarming over the detritus is an army of giant, dark grey crabs, digging, shuffling, chewing.
“Sorting the settlement's rubbish you may see the recycling crustaceans.” The drone guiding me accepts my outburst as a query. “These were genetically modified from crabs brought by the original settlers, to survive in the local atmosphere and to exist consuming waste and convert it via their tailored intestinal bacteria back into usable materials. Their meat is considered a delicacy which can be purchased at many stalls and restaurants.”
“Sounds delicious,” Jimmy comments, “Ask the tourbot if you get fries with that.”
I grimace and continue along the tunnel, wondering how much longer I have to endure the awful music piped in to make the foot slog more bearable. The strings finish their journey into crescendo, orgasm, spasm and then are silent, replaced by an even more annoying choral group. I begin to doubt if intelligent life ever left Earth and journeyed to the stars.
I surprise myself by humming along, it seems familiar and then realisation dawns. Someone has left a message in the language of the Angels, disguised as music. There were only nine people who could have done that, four are certainly dead, three probably, one hopefully and I did not do it myself.
“Decipher that for me, Jimmy.” I subvocalise.
“I have left here, looking for those who started this, follow me if you must, travel lightly for we trail destruction in our wake.”
“Liefman.” Jimmy concurs. “I thought she was captured, I never dreamed she escaped the entire thing.”