“You know, if I manage to get that door open this whole ship will probably slide off whatever precipice it is perched on and we will fall to our deaths.” I tell Jimmy.
“That's the spirit, a positive mental attitude.” I grin and focus on getting close to the door.
“Its not my attitude that's the problem, its the attitude of the universe to me.” Elbow forwards.
“I'm sure you're just its temporary plaything, sooner or later it will forget about you and you can go back to doing whatever it was you were up to when you brought all this down on yourself.” Ignore the sudden pain of a metal shard sticking into the arm.
“Which was what?” Heave.
“I haven't a fucking clue, but its going to be hilarious watching you figure it all out.” Other elbow forwards.
“My guess is that I as looking for a priest, I need someone to exorcise this bothersome ghost I've been saddled with.” Progress is graduate but definite, I wish I could say the same about my memory.
“Meanwhile, think you could stack enough of this junk up so that you can reach the door release?” Jimmy brings me back to the job in hand.
“Manual labour, just what I need, I was hoping for a management position.”
“No, I've check all the relays for faults, the result is correct.” Liefman confers with Fernandez about the gravimeter readings, we have been convinced that the instruments were giving false readings. We have been taking advantage of the break in deceleration to conduct drone flights and take as many instrument readings as we can. “The back-up unit concurs.”
“But that means its so dense, no wonder we can't even scratch the surface of its hull.” Fernandez has been disappointed by our lack of progress in making any sense of the object and it shows in new lines on her face. “What could they have made it out of?”
“Some kind of super-heavy stable element that we have yet to synthesise, or maybe even a shell of collapsed matter protecting a more conventional interior.” Interjects Davis, happy to see the conversation wander into his area of expertise.
“The song just gained a new element.” Peterson has been working hard on the signal the artefact broadcasts, so hard with so little result that I am going to have to get Tseng or Patrick to convince him to take a rest.
“There does seem to be some kind of repair going on.” Jimmy shunts two pictures to my screen, one of the initial damage, the second timestamped a couple of minutes ago, changes are circled like a spot-the-difference puzzle. “The thing is still alive, but its not going to be quick enough to avoid hitting the Earth and making lots of people very unhappy.”
“Someone do the calculations, how much thrust would it take to shove it out of its collision course with the Earth? I'll talk to the folks in mission control.” The cessation of the artefact's drive has brought communications with home back on line, allowing a sharing of data but bringing its own complications.
Ten minutes of talking with Bayard station, the signal lag both mercifully and terrifyingly short, gets me nowhere. The accident has been digested, regurgitated, dissected and finally taken out and buried, bad press the company does not want, now they will not agree to anything without a full committee hearing. Meanwhile they have missiles on standby, ready to take out the alien device before it causes damage. If they are lucky they might be able to grab one or two of the left-overs.
The figures tell me it can probably be done, depending on the accuracy of our mass reading, which has been called into doubt and whether our hull can take the stress of being used as a bulldozer, but we have to start now. I feel the urge to call my wife, but we spoke an hour ago, there is nothing I can add and it is just procrastinating, so I just write a three word message and mail it.
A message flashes up onto my own screen – You're the captain. Vickers.
“Right, we're doing this. You have two minutes to dock the drones, park the instruments and get fully suited up.” I made this mess, I am solving it.
“Hey, you can't go against the orders of base control.” Davis with the first objection. “The ship can't handle the stresses.”
“I don't want to die out here.” Peterson with the obvious.
“I am in command of the mission, if you don't like it feel free to file a complaint with H.R.” I have been wanting to use that line for ages.
“At least put it to the vote. We should all get a say.” Davis continues. I see Patrick in deep conversation over the radio and signal Liefman to instigate the procedure to break communications links restrict control access, something that was not installed when we left the station.
“A quick show of hands, then. Everyone for?” Saunders, Liefman, Ikaro and Jimmy all raise their hands alongside mine as I expected, Fernandez wavers and then joins us. “Motion carried, fasten your seat belts, people, this is going to be a bumpy ride.”
Moving stuff without legs is difficult. I grab the handle of an intact cargo cannister, a stackable box a metre long and half as wide, and pull it towards me. My effort succeeds in moving myself towards it. Bracing a hand on the ceiling gives better results, but its going to take far too long to drag it into position like that.
The cannister is locked electronically, I take a guess and put Peterson's terminal close to it, the option to open appears on the screen and I confirm it. The lid hinges back automatically revealing neatly stacked plastic boxes, each with a sculpted handle and a sealed lid. The terminal, taking a cue from some chip in the cannister displays the identity number and inventory.
SUDU887654-6 Contents: 16 Jars of Bees.
“That's a handy way of carrying your bees, I'm surprised no-one thought of it before.” Jimmy imparts.
“You know, I think I'm having one of those days where suddenly discovering sixteen jars of bees is not the pinnacle of weirdness.” This is a mystery that I just do not have the energy to fathom. “Still, they should make handy building blocks.”
“Are you not even tempted to open one just to see?” Jimmy implores.
“If I had a field full of flowers crying out for pollination, then maybe. Do you see a field full of flowers?”
The flowers sway in a simulated breeze, an entire meadow of digital daisies soaking up the electronic sunlight and vying for the attention of coded insects. Of the three screens Liefman has set up in the back of the truck two are dedicated to this picture, the other is showing the displays from a mix of local traffic and surveillance cameras. Again I glance at my watch, showing the feed from the truck's reversing camera, no sign of pursuit.
“Pack it in, Bill. There's nothing you can do at the moment.” Liefman says without looking up from her screens. “Rachel and Idira know where we are going and are not going to attract any attention. You're just not very good at doing nothing.”
“Never had much practice.” I switch my watch to a local news channel and catch live pictures of our hideout billowing smoke while soldiers maintain a perimeter. A tap sends the feed to my glasses, the better screen allows me to pick out the insignias on their uniforms, a mix of local militia and the circled man of the Weathered Sun Alliance. I pull my glasses from my face in disgust. “Fuckers.”
“Do you mind? I'm trying to listen to twelve different channels simultaneously.” She hits a switch and suddenly a host of people speaking over each other is audible over speakers.
“And you can hear anything in this racket?” She sighs, shakes her head, flicks a couple of controls and the audio changes to a slightly atonal procedurally generated song, the sounds of the meadow, flower jazz.
“Its the way the angels listened to stuff, a thousand voices, all talking at once. They gave us the capacity, I've been teaching myself to use it.” While I have spent my time chasing down clones of a maniac and hiding from authorities.
“I let Jimmy handle that, I can barely pay attention to one person speaking at a time. So what's with the flower screensaver?” The dancing flora is beginning to get on my nerves.
“Its a combination of monitoring program and simulation of the angel form of consciousness, combined with my own theory on ecosystem management.” I blink at her. “It reads and listens to a lot of things and then sorts out trends and anomalies.”
“And the flowers?”
“Its a visual interpretation of the infosystem, and a simulation using the noise of the data as a kind of random number generator.” I give her my best blank look. “I like flowers, okay.” I never buy her flowers.
“So, is it actually useful?”
“Its what has been tracking Davis and his activities. Gone are the days when we could rely on sympathisers and moles in his organisation, he's become so secretive. Nowadays its all pattern recognition on signals, freight traffic movements and posts by worried citizens on forums.”
“I see. Say, when was the last time you had any actual fun? You know, with another real person?” I ignore Jimmy's raised eyebrow.
“Last year, with that biologist in Oslo.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember that. Whatever happened?”
“She joined the Weathered Sun Alliance.”
“No, I persuaded her to take her work to them.”
“What? Are you losing it? Remember what happened to Ikaro? Who do you think the New Humanists are working for now?” The truck brakes suddenly and there is a second while we regain our balance.
“The WSA have weeded out the radicals and terrorists, they are the one group that seems to be doing any good. Have you seen the progress they have made on the Californian blight? They have a working counter-agent for the Ivory Coast pathogen and rumour is that they are looking for money from the orbital consortiums for a serious effort on India.”
“You seem to have a very short memory for whom is trying to chase us down at this very minute.” I flick my watch back to the feed from the rear-facing camera, nothing but Seville's ruins and construction traffic.
“Bill, we're the terrorists nowadays. We don't ask for permission, we just go in and smash things, then get out and hide. All this crap is down to us, it all came out of our blood.”
“I am just frightened that they might get whatever Davis is working on before we do and conveniently forget their saviours of the world stance.” And deep down I worry whether Davis is right, should we unlock the full horrors of the Angel's gift?
“Don't worry about that. You might have notice how focussed we are nowadays.”
“Yeah, our hit rate on Davis is fantastic, I didn't think it was just down to luck.” I am just not that lucky.
“I have friends in the WSA, we share intel. They get all the nano chop-shops and gene butchers, we get Davis.” I decide she was waiting for the right time to tell me this, my temper has not been at its most level recently.
“And this raid?”
“Notice that we got out in time? I couldn't warn you, you would have tipped off Ashley. We won't be working with him any more.”
“Another of my friends turned dirty, I should have guessed.” I sit back and decide to take a snooze, more and more it seems my life is not in my own control.
“I bet you never even played with building blocks as a toddler.” Jimmy watches me drag to cannister up to the wall and then start to pile up jars to form a rudimentary staircase.
“I guess I was always more into smashing things than building them.” The jars are sturdy and do not rattle when you shake them, something tells me that you should not shake jars of bees, but if they have not been shaken by the crash then there is no shaking these bees. This is what it feels like to finally give in to your madness.
“That figures.” There is another slide, the craft vibrates around me and my makeshift tower vibrates but does not fall.
“Do you think anyone would mind if I ignored the safety aspect and forgot the handrail?”
“Lets just get this over with, quickly.” Jimmy agrees.
She is not in a good mood. She hates these corporate hospitality events more than I do, but it fell on the one night she could not legitimately be otherwise occupied and she owes me for attending some awful modern jazz award ceremony. At least I can do business here, she has to be sparkling and witty and the perfect trophy wife. The best I am hoping for is sarcastic and snappy and the perfect drunken strife.
Outwardly her mood only shows in the way she grips my arm, otherwise she is a shining star. The long, tight dress glitters in the lights, showing that she has gained precisely no weight since the day we married. There may be a few lines on her face but they were earned with smiles and laughter. Her make-up is minimal, an honest lack of vanity. Her hair is rebellious, full, streaked with grey and, as ever, doing its own thing.
The lawyers are still ironing the creases out of the contract, but everyone acts as though the deal is done. Even Birgit Hausmann has dropped the stern disapproval she customly wears as Benexwell's head of procurement and greets us dressed in a smile. The result is a bunch of high powered aerospace industry executives making small talk and trying not to be caught eyeing up the buffet, while a string quartet plays something classical, elegant and dreary.
“This is all very....tasteful.” She comments, knocking back her drink and waving embarrassingly at the waiter for another.
“The epitome of high class living,” I agree. “I bet the crab cakes are from some endangered species.”
“Exquisitely killed with a diamond headed hammer.” Glancing around she spies the grand piano sitting unused by the musicians. “Check out baby! I'll just...”
“Remember look but don't...never mind.” She is gone before I can warn her not to do anything that may jeopardise my chances of being called in as a consultant on future deals.
I turn away and join in a discussion about the increased tension between companies and the trend for branching out into a more self-reliant model. The waiter has just about recognised me signalling for a refill when I hear the open bars of Whiskey Shack Shindig played on piano with the unusual accompaniment of a string quartet. All eyes turn towards the sound except my own which I bury in my hands.
“Is that your wife? She's something else.” Birgit Hausmann homes in on my distress.
“She is that. Fancy a dance?” It appears we are playing the embarrass each other in public game again.
“I'm afraid I don't dance very well.”
“I only have one leg. Fancy a bad dance?”
“Ah, a long stick, and excellent choice of implement, classic lines, elegant design, truly a prince in the world of poking stuff.” Jimmy applauds my selection of part of a shattered composite rod. My hastily piled construction is still not tall enough for me to reach the door release so I have decided to resort to the old stand-by of hitting it with a stick.
“Shouldn't you be warning me about my heart rate and not trying to raise my blood pressure with your commentary?” I lean the stick against the wall so that I can reach it from the top of my tower and start to lever myself up the first step.
“Don't worry, I'm just remembering some old tricks, although we might have to find you some sustenance soon.” Taking another though, I turn around and pull myself up backwards, supporting my weight on the stump of my torso and then sliding it up to the next step.
“Food? That should be interesting. You realise that I don't actually have an arsehole, present company excepted.” It is heavy going and my breathing get heavier, but there is little of the crushing tiredness climbing the crab brought.
“You'll just end up full of shit as always.” A slight wobble makes me slip, I teeter on the brink of crashing back down to the ceiling and then regain my balance. I try an experiment.
“A tenner says I manage to open the door without falling off.” I form the words in my mind without saying them aloud and push them to Jimmy.
“My tenner says you crash and burn and the door stays shut. Hey, you're relearning old tricks, maybe you're not a dead loss, after all.” Another push and I am at the top, I prop myself up against the wall and retrieve my stick.
The door catch is covered by a little door, it takes a couple of swipes of my stick to open that, all the while feeling my balance. My perch is not as stable as I would have liked and leaning against the wall makes it less so. I prod the revealed button a couple of times to no avail, it is difficult to see it from this angle. Stopping to steady myself, I take the time to study it.
“Looks like you flip open that handle and then pull it.” Jimmy decides to be helpful for once.
The end of the rod has broken into a rough point, it takes me several goes to insert it under the handle and then it slips out when I apply leverage. I swear at it.
“Slow and steady, Bill.”
“You want to do this yourself?”
The point trembles as I push it in again, the motion hampered by my position.
“Nice one, now...” Jimmy is cut short as a shudder passes through the ship's hull. The cannister shifts underneath me and I feel it parting from the wall. Pushing with what strength I can apply I feel the switch move, but gravity has won this round. My balance is suddenly lost and I am perched on thin air.
Crashing down heavily, I lie winded for a few seconds, expecting to feel the stabbing pain of broken ribs and see a blood-covered metal spike sticking through my body. It hurts, but I am lucky. There is a continual grinding noise. I swivel my head expecting the worst, but it is only the door jerking open, fighting against its own damaged mechanism.
I pull myself from my demolished pile of jars and towards the aperture, peering through the opening. A short corridor ends in what has to be the outer door, it makes sense that a space-worthy vessel would have a airlock, I just had not considered it. I sigh.
The door keeps grinding until it halts, there is a gnashing sound and it halts, leaving a slight burning smell. A faint whirring gets louder and louder, culminating in a bang. Something falls and the room floods with light.
I awake with no remembrance of having slept. There is no grogginess, no phantom ache from my lost leg, no clutching for the alarm. The after-image of a dream floats away from me and there is something I should recall, something important.
The room is small, nothing more that a six foot cubicle with no door or furnishings, the walls are a dark grey, slightly soft to my touch. I am already standing, as though I slept that way. Jimmy stands opposite me, but not Jimmy, young Jimmy, looking and dressed as he was on my wedding day, all those years ago. I open my mouth to ask him what is happening but his puts his finger against my lips and then taps it on the side of my head.
Everything floods back and I am danger of drowning in a torrent of memory. The desperate rescue; fighting for control of the ship; the stresses, strains, breakages; Jimmy's death, my own; victory? I sink down to the floor under the weight of it and hug my legs like a child. Two naked legs, I do not appear to be wearing clothes.
The wall of the cubicle fades away as though it was never really there. I scramble to my feet, determined not to be seen in a state of weakness. Replacing the wall is a depth of inky darkness, somehow I know I cannot enter it. Motes of light swim in the murk, as though tiny organisms deep beneath the surface of the sea and I sense that something huge lurks just out of my sight.
Just as I start to turn to ask Jimmy what it means, a being floats up in front of me. Its head is featureless, its body emaciated and tapering down to a flat tail. Three pairs of long, thin arms emerge from either side of its chest, they each end in six many jointed fingers with barely any hand. Jutting from its back is a pair of large, translucent wings. Its skin is a deep maroon, but studded with many little points of white light, so that it shines like a delicate cluster of stars in the night.
It is an angel, it sings to me. Many small orifices open in its chest, each with its own voice, a choir of one. I start to protest that I cannot understand, but realise that I can, each voice is another aspect of the message, they flow together to produce a picture of the whole. It is too much for me to take in at once, but Jimmy helps me with the translation.
“You gave your lives for ours. We return them to you. The one we could not fully save is now the other part of you. As you wished. Go now back to your people. We are old and become more of us. We just find those who can repair us. Goodbye. Grow and become fuller.”
The walls all fade away. There are eight others, all naked like me, all staring at the angels. We stand in a larger space. The angels swim away and we are left looking at bright motes floating in darkness again. Some of us murmur to ourselves, some are silent, one whimpers and pleads that he is dead. With nothing better to do we file slowly through an opening, an incongruous doorway into a station airlock.