“So, where now?” There is no obvious exit this end of the cargo bay.
“Well, this monstrosity managed to get into the room somehow...” Jimmy starts.
“It stands to reason there must be cargo doors at the rear of the bay.” I concur. “You want me to climb over Crabzilla, don't you?”
“You got any better ideas?”
“I suppose its too late to apply for a transfer.”
If we were able to crowd around the monitors were would have done, but we are under acceleration and moving about in the ship is dangerous. The pictures beamed back from the probe as it passes close to the incoming object are unimpressive in real-time, just a vague dot, maybe a blur, then a dot again. But the cameras are running as fast as technology allows and enhanced by the processing power back at base the stills are fantastic.
There is a continual stream of amazed exclamations and wild theories from the crew, the object is definitely not a natural formation, almost certainly not of human manufacture and although it does not show in the visible spectrum, slowing itself down with some sort of engine. A ribbed vaguely spherical body follows the more angular, flattened bulb of the engines. No markings, the surface shows up as black and slightly shiny, although in places it has been pitted by high speed collisions.
Ikaro, looking at images from spectra, gives us a rough estimate of the force, Fernandez uses this and the object's deceleration to give us a rough figure for the mass; this thing is heavy. We wait for better calculations from base.
I double check the fuel usage and course projection figures on my screen, no change from earlier. A relatively speedy trick to Saturn, loop around the gas giant and then leave the ecliptic plane to rendezvous with the object somewhere just within the orbit of Mars. Other points marked on my screen indicate other missions with the same idea, our rivals. Our ship is mostly fuel tank and engine, bigger and more powerful than we have ever needed before. Not for the first time I wonder what the company originally designed these engines for.
I slide myself up to what I suspect is Crabzilla's nose, trying not to look at it. I fail and realise that next to my nose is the horror's mouth parts, a ghastly maw I could easily fit my arm into. I steel myself and remember the sight of severing my own arm, suddenly it doesn't seem so bad.
“I said climb over it, not kiss it.” Jimmy says, saved from the stench by not being real.
“Its still more desirable than many of your romantic hook-ups.” I counter.
I place my hand on what would have been the underside of the crab's carapace if it had been the right way up and slide it forwards as far as I can. There are no handholds. I slide myself to the side and stretch to hook my elbow around the place where the first leg joins the main body, briefly wondering if this is a shoulder in a crustacean.
“I'm trying to think of some words of encouragement, but unless you want me chanting 'Mount that crab!' I think I'm going to remain quiet.” Encourages Jimmy.
“You know,” I say between pants and grasps at the legs of over-sized seafood. “If I knew it would come down to this I would have paid more attention at school.”
“I've just had a call from your school,” my legal guardian, a wild-haired, fifty-something, perpetual bachelor he was never prepared to take in two kids, but had been too in love with our mother to say no. “They've giving me a list of things you've done, you're suspected of having done or you've just plainly refused to do, they are threatening expulsion, unless I can get you under control.”
“Is this where you tell me how ashamed my parents would have been, Brian?” I respond with all of a fourteen year old's defiance and disdain. Behind Brian the next generation of lower consumption jet engine rotates as it shows the simulated effects of high velocity airflow, if he was not so irate he would be trying to explain the intricacies to me.
“No, Will, we both know how effective that approach is. I'm too busy to have a shouting match and there are things in the house that I would like to remain unbroken.” I pause, uneasy at this new tact, vaguely aware of some psychology being used, but unsure of how to counteract it. “I want you to take a look at this.” He holds out a tablet, displayed on the screen is a prospectus for a vocational course.
“You probably don't know the names of the people on the interview panel, but at least three of them know yours, they worked closely with your mother. I'm not guaranteeing anything, but you get the right academic scores and you're as good as there.” Absently I copy the document to my own devices as I scroll down open-mouthed.
“Orbital and interplanetary operations and zero gravity fucking engineering!” I forgot myself and who I am talking to. “How...?”
“The house server records more than your searches for porn, you know.” I wince. Brian continues. “This is bribery, if I see an immediate improvement I will send the application, you have my support and backing as you maintain a clean record. Drink, girls, drugs, parties, well, I know what I was like when I was your age, but if anything gets back to me, the school or the police its game over. Do we have a deal?”
“Imogen?” I suddenly remember my sister, the course, the job, its what I want more than anything, but it would mean leaving her behind.
“Imogen is doing well, unlike you she's settled here. By the time you're through with all the training and earning she will probably be starting out on a career of her own. Don't worry, I'm not going to kick her out in the cold, compared with you she's the perfect house guest.”
We shake hands, my teen-aged brain still trying to work out how it was possible to be both conned and to get exactly what you want at the same time.
I push another over-sized leg out of my way, it slides back and I have to catch myself before it undoes all my hard work and dumps me back on the floor. I let it know exactly what I think of it loudly and wait for Jimmy's wisecrack.
“You should take a rest.” He quips.
“Because a giant dead crab would make a comfortable mattress?” I ask, confused on his sudden switch. He gives me a funny look, as though I was attempting to scramble over a giant dead crab in the middle of a respectable restaurant.
“No, because you heart rate has become elevated and your blood chemistry is showing signs of extreme stress.” Doctor Jimmy is back.
“I really can't think what could be causing that, although I did miss going for a jog this morning and I've had a nagging feeling something is wrong and out of place all day.”
“Remember the old calming techniques they tried to teach us back in the day?”
“Oh, yes, they never did realise that I don't control my breathing very well when thinking about calm blue oceans.”
“Well, try to imagine something that is not a calm blue ocean, and just take it a little easier.”
“Yes, oh guru, should I become one with the crab?”
“I don't think she's really your type.” I shake my head, take a deep breath and continue my efforts in a more measured manner.
I cast my eye around the crew as we all pretend to be busy, but really we are all bored. Fed up of the constant vibration of the engines, the force of the acceleration, of each other's habits and company. The excitement will begin soon enough, but the day-to-day is living in close, crowded proximity, with little to do that we have not already been doing for the last few months. More than once Jimmy's casual word has kept me from harsh and rash utterances.
The last few notes play over my headphones, it is a rearrangement of some tune I should be able to name, but cannot place, my latest message from home. The accompanying text reads -Latest effort, watcha think? I grin to myself and reply -Too much plink, not enough plonk. I forward the track to Fernandez, who enjoys jazz and Jimmy, who hates it.
I glance over at Liefman, I look of intent concentration on her face as she pretends to be running a diagnosis on the main communications array. Pretty, in a compact sort of way, astute and smarter than me, she is the sort of girl I should have probably fallen for thirty years ago. Thirty years ago I might have fallen for her if she was a guy, I remind myself. But, concussed and confused, I had pinned everything on a strange and funny pianist, who just happened to turn out to be the most marvellous creature in the world. I start to wonder when was the last time I missed her this much.
Liefman's real efforts are to find a way to intercept messages between base and certain members of the crew without anyone noticing. I already had my suspicions when she contacted me using a repurposed debugging tool with her own, the company is not telling us something. Once again I tell myself that I am too old for this and should have resisted the invitation.
Finally I half slide, half fall off Crabzilla, panting and lying in a uncomfortable heap between yet more giant legs. I am halfway through an attempt to right myself when I realise that this particular motion relies on the leverage gained through having lower limbs.
“Okay, that's it. This is your last warning, you either rest now or I am going to do something to make you.” Doctor Jimmy waves a finger at me.
“Like what? Jazzhands? Naked interpretive dance? Jimmy, you're not real.”
“Don't tempt me. Look, are you getting good advice from any of your other friends? No, because just right now I am the only one caring for you.”
“Don't get your knickers in a twist. I'm too knackered to go anywhere for a little while.” I shuffle myself around a little, close my eyes and try to forget that my pillow is a giant monster from beyond the stars. “Tell me a bedtime story.”
“Once upon a time there were two boys, they were the best of friends and maybe a little bit more, they went everywhere together. But then one day one of the friends grew bored of his chum...”
“Jimmy, if this is about my wife, you knew we would never last, you told me to go for it.”
“No, Bill, this is much later than that. He locked him in a tall, tall tower.”
“I'm sorry, Jimmy, I'm not going to start feeling guilty about something I don't remember, I have too much going on in my life right now.”
“But one day he hurt himself and really needed his friend. The friend didn't know how long he had been locked in the tower but he knew his chum really needed his help, so he did everything he could and hoped he wouldn't get put back in the tower.”
“You suck at stories, Jimmy, but I appreciate the company.”
There is another crash from the inside of the room Liefman is using in our latest hide-away. I knock loudly, but get no response. The handle doesn't turn and using my watch to over-ride the lock yields no more success than asking her to let me in did. I change tactics, hoping the door is of similar quality to the soundproofing, and apply my left foot liberally.
The door is sufficiently parted from its hinges by the fifth or sixth attempt to render the lock mostly useless. I wrestle the now dented door out of the way and enter the room like the conquering hero to find Liefman alone and crying, sat on the bed. The room is mostly wrecked, but in typical Liefman style the electronics equipment is stacked neatly, wires furled.
“Er...” I start, unsure. “I...er...thought...” I stop and park myself next to her on the bed, feel awkward for a second and then place my arm around her and pull her closer. A couple of people, weapons drawn, peer through the wreckage of my ingress. I wave them away with my free arm, it briefly occurs to me that I should probably know their names, but things have been too hectic lately to make friends.
We sit like that for a while. I think about the things we have lost, friends, favourite places, freedom, there is no surety, no constant left in the world. Everything is a maelstrom and we are at its centre. Jimmy shows himself, but can offer no help.
“Hseng's message.” She says at last. We had picked up the message, distributed widely through the nets as though she wanted everyone to see it, eight months ago, before the Indian outbreak. A short video of Hseng herself shutting off all of the safeguards and throwing herself into the molten heart of an orbital smelting furnace, over the upsetting visuals played a message sung in the language of the Angels – More and more, but less and less, broken, failing, mistake.
“Ikaro said he was fragmenting, Saunders told me there were more and more of him inside his head. Jimmy thinks that there's a flaw in the Angels' work.”
“She was talking about the Angels themselves, they were sick, what happened to Ikaro and Hseng and Saunders and probably some of the others as well, that was what was happening to the Angels. They were looking for others of their kind, to try and find a cure.” There is a sense behind it, Jimmy thought them lonely or lost, desperate fits better.
“And how about you, how are you coping with that?” In many ways Liefman has become the crux of our shambolic resistance, I realise how much I rely on her.
“Its odd, we're the same person so I don't always know where I end and she begins, but we have now come to an agreement, no conflict, I always was my own best friend. I hope that's enough for now. And you?”
“Its different, I think.” I hope.
“So what can we do?”
“Finish it. Hunt Davis down, the real Davis, destroy him and then go hide somewhere until this can be fixed and we can't cause any more harm. You think Davis is suffering?”
“Yes, but every time he fragments he just shunts it into a new clone.”