“Shit.” I stop and slump to the floor.
“Its dead. Some sort of semi-organic robot?” Jimmy peers at the thing with a complete lack of fear.
“Not that, that's just disturbing, I can handle disturbing.” I hope I am handling the whole thing quite well. “The map, I figured out where we are.”
“Ah, do you know of any good restaurants in the area? I have a sudden hankering for seafood.”
“Ah, indeed, Jimmy. Another thing that I had to work out on my own?” I refuse to be sidetracked.
“And what, exactly, have you worked out?”
“We're not on Earth.”
“So when do you leave?” She asks me over her coffee cup.
“Hold on, I've not agreed to anything yet, the whole thing is crazy, I stopped being a spaceman twenty years ago.” I look down at the drink in my own cup, it contains no caffeine, no calories and if I did not know that then I am sure it would taste just fine.
She laughs, a full on hearty outburst of amusement. Stops, looks me in the face and then starts again. She puts the cup down and the house remotes appear to clean up the spilled liquid. Eventually she has herself under enough control to speak.
“You'll go, there's no question. There's this big alien spacecraft thingy hurtling towards Earth and they want someone with experience to go out there and talk the aliens or whatever into signing up with them before anyone else gets a chance. They asked you. You'll do it because you hate what you do now. You'll do it because you would do anything to get back up there. You'll do it because its one last chance to be the hero. You'll do it because Jimmy asked. You'll do it because if you don't then someone else will. I knew exactly what you were like when I married you, and you are still the same man. I still love that man. If you ever stopped being that man then I would leave you like a shot.”
I stare at her, wondering if I should be hurt that she managed to distill me into such a small container or be proud that she knows me so well.
“Call them and get going. I am supposed to be working at the piano and you keep distracting me, I'll see you when you get back. Call ahead if you are bringing aliens over for dinner.”
“You're right. But before you ask, I honestly have no clue where we are. That's something we'll have to find out together.” Jimmy gestures at me to move onwards, but I still have questions.
“Is there anything you are going to tell me, or do I have to play detective with my own past?”
“You've had quite a bump on the head, its best if you sort out those memories and file them away on your own. Trust doctor Jimmy.”
“Like I trusted you when we were making the comm-link repairs back on Brayard Station?” I lift myself back up and start to make an attempt at the lip of the door.
“That was a drunken bet, besides, they never managed to pinpoint the blame.”
The spin of Brayard Station imparts a feeling of weight, but it is not enough that pacing back and forth is advisable. Still, I imagine Jason Vickers, would be doing that if there was space in the room. The entire team is here, sixteen cadets, the graduates of Beyond Inc.'s training program and the next generation of space miner. Vickers is only a few years older than us, but he has the benefit of practical experience and the authority the company have invested him with. He is not happy.
“I just can't see why any one of you would think this was in any way safe, advisable or funny.” He has been holding forth like this for quite a while and his face is red. “And seeing as no one of you is willing to come forth and admit responsibility, I have no alternative but to punish the lot of you!”
Behind him a display screen shifts its focus from a woman's ecstatic face to a close-up of male genitalia. There is a cough as one us suppresses his giggles.
I cast my mind back to the exercise, all of us working together to upgrade the station's array of communications equipment, a mix of drone piloting, actual space-walking, internal alterations and the job of co-ordinating it all together. Working outside of the station, I had followed Jimmy's instruction to the letter, but at the time had not had a clue what the strange box I was wiring up was supposed to do, I should have known better.
“With all due respect, and I know you don't want to here this,” A voice from the back, the class's acknowledged expert on signal processing, someone who could not be far from the centre of this little plot. He chokes off as Vicker's withering gaze turns upon him, swallows and then regains his courage. “I don't know exactly how it was done, but if it is anything like I suspect, I think I can turn it into a kind of unintended upgrade.”
“Really? Do you think you can do it within the hour I have before I need to make my report to the central office and make arrangements to deport the lot of you back down to solid ground?”
There are a number of gulps in the crowd.
I lose my balance and tip unceremoniously into the room, coming to rest uncomfortably close to one of Crabzilla's outstretched, but unmoving limbs. There is a smell in the air, something that would turn my stomach if I was convinced it was plumbed up correctly. It is horrid, but it convinces me that the monster is quite and irrevocable dead. I detach the lingering horror and replace it with curiosity.
“Some sort of robot, you said. A weapon, or do you think its into construction?” I ask Jimmy.
“If it is a weapon then we got shot down for a reason, I certainly wouldn't want that thing getting close to me if it was angry.” He crouches close to it. “Would you trust that thing to build your extension?”
“Fair point. Do you think they grow them or build them?” I swallow my revulsion, reach out and stroke my hand along the smooth shell.”
“Something between the two, that exoskeleton is probably an metallo-ceramic composite, and most of the muscles are probably artificial, but it certainly smells like a dead crab. Maybe his friend has some answers.” He straightens himself and gestures at the human corpse.
“Maybe she has a spare pair of legs I can borrow, this is getting tiresome.” I drag my carcase over to the dead woman. The overalls carry the name of Jun, her mirror shades are shattered, much like her spine, I stare at her legs before I work out the visual puzzle. “She has arms for legs.”
“Enhancement for zero gee work?” Jimmy suggests. “Meet the new humans.”
Bayard station has changed, other larger facilities have taken over its former duties as a base for the rock catchers and there is little left from its use as a wartime command centre. Nowadays it is home to Beyond Inc.'s experimental test labs, although their security division still maintains a presence. I estimate it is twice its original size, although as the transport approaches I catch sight of the memorial to Irena Ivanov we welded to the outer ring, metal stars and her old helmet, to remind us of her supreme bravery.
A new docking system catches the shuttle, cargo and personnel taking different routes into the station. Jason Vickers, now carrying the rank of colonel in the security arm of Beyond Inc.'s parent company, intercepts me in the disembarkation area with a hearty handshake, a little too hearty in this unspun area.
“Steady there, I've not acquired my space legs yet.” I grin, part of my soul ecstatic to be back in free-fall at last.
“Apologies, its not often I meet one of the old boys up here, most of our generation are now ground-bound. Talking of space legs, Medical want you to pop in for the final fitting on your new prosthesis. But before you get into all that I thought you'd like to meet the boys on your new crew.”
He leads me through the rotation lock into the spinning part of the station and then into a elevator that takes us slickly down, gaining weight. I recall the old elevators, slower and less reliable than the ladders. A short hike along the main outer corridor brings us to a small meeting room containing a small crowd of people I mostly recognise from their files and, mercifully, a small buffet.
“Richard Saunders, one of the finest drone operators on our books,” Vickers starts the introductions with an earnest young black American, they are all young. “Ikaro Itaki, propulsion engineer; Ilse Liefman, electronics and communications engineer; Roger Davis, materials science; Henrik Peterson, linguistics and diplomacy; Tseng Hueng, medical and biological science; Felicity Patrick, policy officer; Maria Fernandez, physics and navigation; and of course, Muhammed Mahdi you already know.”
“Intimately.” Says Jimmy, giving me a sandwich and a wink.
Davis looks me up and down with disdain, a scowl on his pasty white face.
“I don't wish to put a downer on this reunion for some of you, but shouldn't we be putting our piloting in the hands of someone with a little more current knowledge and experience.” He drawls, the accent too hard to place in today's mostly mobile population. Jimmy, my second in one too many brawls back in the day, puts his hand on my arm. Vickers jumps in with the iron edge that he used to discipline my squadron all those years ago.
“Captain Larkin has been recalled because we wanted someone not prone to making rash decisions and he beat the next pilot on the intercept simulation by a good six hours.”
“Besides,” I add. “I was probably consulting on ninety percent of the components in that tub we'll be flying as well as most of our likely competitors' birds, your own score in the centrifuge doesn't come close to mine from last week and any time you want to book a court for a game of zero-gee baskets we'll show you what a bunch of old space-farts can do.”
Jun yields no new clues. Nothing in her pockets, no terminal, if she has one then it must be internal.
“Looks like whatever we wanted to accomplish, we were doing it while leaving as few clues as possible. Helpful.” I resign myself to living perpetually in the dark, no-one wants to tell me anything.
“Probably doing something naughty, Bill.” Observes Jimmy.
“That's Commander Larkin to you, Group Co-ordinator Mahdi, wasn't it?”
“Ah, the glory days of directing orbital rock interception. Besides, if this was secret you were probably acting under some sort of codename, Commander Legless.”
“I've still got half a body more than you, Group Co-ordinator Realised Psychosis.”
“You'll remember eventually, just try...”
“Not to panic, got it. You realise we have no idea where the fuck we are in the galaxy, what the fuck we were doing here or how the fuck we are going to get out of this mess and we are arguing like an old married couple?” The ship moves slightly under me to emphasise my point.
“Just like old times, eh?”
“I'm not going back.” Saunders tells me.
“Don't be soft,” I reply. “Set the bomb and we'll be gone.”
“Bill, I can't do this any more, I feel like I've eroded away to nothing. There was two of me in here, now there are many, all of me talking at once. Each one take a little more of me away and I can't hold myself together.” He is wasting time, our drones are slowly being knocked offline by the counter-attack and before long we'll be vulnerable.
“Come on, we'll get through this together, Liefman and I can both help you.” My guilt mounts, he has followed me this far and I missed the signs that he was losing it, Hseng's coded message starts to make sense.
“What's the hold-up?” Liefman over the comm. “You're running out of time.”
“No, I'll defend the bomb, give you some time to get clear.” He is trembling, fighting his own nervous responses.
“He's too far gone,” Opines Jimmy “There must be a flaw in the Angel' work, Ikaro was complaining of something similar before he was captured.” Captured and dismantled, Jimmy is right, I just thought it was the stress of our whole situation, the implications start to creep across my brain.
“Saunders...Rich...” I am out of words to say.
“Go!” Saunders and Liefman in my ear simultaneously, our time has run out.
I sprint back into the connecting tunnel, a trio of drones cutting the air ahead of me. One of the drones succumbs to some sort of electronic attack, turns on its fellows and takes one out before it is disabled by the remaining quadcopter. Damaged, the final machine lags behind me and is lost in the gloom.
A countdown appears in the corner of my vision-enhancing goggles and I increase my efforts to avoid incineration. Something flashes in my vision to the right and I flinch away, but not fast enough to avoid an aerosol spray. My right hand catches a good amount of the spray and then I am past whatever machine just ambushed me. I see my glove starting to dissolve.
“Jimmy!” In the heat of the moment I forget just to form the words in my mind and it comes out as a shout.
“On it, invasive nano-compound, aggressive, might be a problem.” He replies.
“Safest and quickest is to lose the hand, separating at the elbow now, grab your knife.” Jimmy is calm, it is not his hand.
Left-handed I saw at my sleeve with my knife and then with a wince plunge it into the flesh at my elbow. Jimmy's work means the tissue parts easily, but butchering yourself is never pleasant, then pain is mostly but not completely dampened. Blood spurts sluggishly from the wound, then stops, cut off. I slice away the last of the fabric and the grisly totem falls to the floor, dissolving and becoming something else.
I increase my speed back up to that of a run, trying to protect my wet stump. The timer ticks down to zero.