Despite my surroundings, my body relaxes. I can ignore the smell, my bisected body and all the horrors this day has brought. Sleep almost claims me when the ground once again decides to shift itself. The floor rumbles, the walls vibrate and the crab almost seems alive. I look up at Jimmy.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Nap time is over.”
The ship balances again at a slightly different angle and some loose items fall somewhere in the cargo chamber. Clambering over the rearmost legs, some of which seem to be armed with tin-openers or some kind of vicious bladed anchor, I get a look at the back of this space.
The bay should open out wider, but the floor has collapsed in, squeezing the room into a corridor. A couple of severed crustacean limbs poking out from the wreckage gives a hint as to what was once housed here. I look across a space covered in debris and what I assume to be items of crab-care, and there, as promised, is a cargo hatch. Closed, of course.
“Why is nothing ever easy?” I ask Jimmy.
“Plenty of things are easy, but you always choose the difficult options.” Replies Jimmy, shunting the latest fuel predictions across to my screen, they are not good.
We are so close to the artefact that the external cameras can resolve its image without much help from the computers. Only hundreds of kilometres of nearly empty space separate us, nearly empty because we have lost the race. Sino East's craft, the Emerald Challenger has beaten us to the prize, their gel-filled design has allowed them to survive greater forces of acceleration and now they sit between us and our goal, completing final manoeuvres to bring them alongside the alien ship.
My mood is a little bleak, due to the toll the constant acceleration on my body which is not as young as it used to be and due to having to sit a psychiatric evaluation a couple of hours ago. This is not the first time I have had to submit myself to such a test during this mission, and due to Liefman hacking into the program and leaking me the optimal answers certainly no hardship, but the implied mistrust of the company weighs on my mind.
On the positive side, our communications with home base are being disrupted. Some of this was electronic warfare from the Emerald Challenger, part of an ongoing cold war between the various missions vying for the same prize, this has seen some craft forced to abandon the chase and limp home, suddenly the reliance on human beings in our set up makes more sense. We suspect the majority of the interference is coming from whatever exotic particle reaction is powering the artefact's own drive, magnetic fields deployed imply it is using some sort of ram-scoop, but other than that our physicists have yet to agree on anything.
“Any suggestions?” I ask the crew.
“Open the window and throw someone at them.” Saunders says.
“Or use a drone as a guided missile.” Adds Jimmy.
“Too expensive, but not without merit.” My brain adds a few things up. “Number seventeen fuel tank is nearly dry, if we shut off engines for a minute or two and kick the tail out we can send it their way. They will be able to dodge it, but it should waste some of their fuel and give them a scare.” I start inputting the data into the system to create a simulation, Jimmy, Ikaro and Fernandez do likewise.
With no real objections from the crew, and four simulations giving similar results I let the computer do all the work. We get a brief period of blessed weightlessness, a quick sideways shove from the manoeuvring thrusters first one way, the other, and then the first again. The shuffle complete, the main engines turn back on. A camera tracks the ejected tank as it appears to drop away from us and towards its target, an illusion caused by by our deceleration.
Our craft, the Emerald Challenger and the artefact are strung our in roughly a straight line, all headed towards the Earth and all decelerating at different rates, with the artefact leading. The tank, tumbling slowly, free from any outside force takes nearly a minute to close the distance to its target. The camera, out on a boom and with the computer removing our exhaust's glare from the picture, zooms in.
“They're not reacting.” Jimmy observes, nervously.
“Dodge it, damn you!” I call, as the Emerald Challenger finally begins an emergency avoidance manoeuvre.
Too late. The tank clips the side of the ship at a closing velocity somewhere in the region of a kilometre and a half per second, there is a spray of debris and then something in their engines lets go, sending the ship out of control and causing it to fall towards the artefact. We watch in horror as the ship encounters the field of the artefact's ramscoop, which shreds it, scattering engine parts, communications equipment and crew into the vacuum.
“You reckon we can get it open?” I ask Jimmy as I begin to pull my way towards the hatch.
“Something is powering the emergency lighting, so there's a fair chance the door release might work on what remains in the batteries. Besides, have you got anything better to do?” Jimmy has a point.
“I'm just a little worried we'll open the door and find out we're somewhere without a breathable atmosphere.” It has struck me that all my effort may be for nothing, prolonging the inevitable.
“I think you'll be fine, this boat must have been leaking its air since we crashed. I have not detected any problems with your lungs and air pressure seems fine.” Optimism, the refuge those just about to be unexpectedly shit on from a great height.
“A non-Earth planet with a compatible atmosphere? Now we've entered the realm of kids stories.”
The crush of adults wearing black, the ruffled hair and words of sympathy from people I do know know, I leave it behind me as I walk carefully and quietly down the strange corridor. In one of these rooms Imogen is sleeping, I should find her, make sure she is okay with all these strangers around. Finally I manage to undo the tie around my neck and throw it on the floor, ties are for grown-ups and they can keep them.
A couple of open doorways lead into rooms full of furniture and adult stuff, I briefly hide inside one to avoid someone leaving the party to go to the toilet. It is an adult party, boring snacks, horrid smelling drinks and all talking, no games. The day has lasted forever and there has been no fun in it, maybe there will never be fun again. I hold back a snivel, I promised myself, no more snivelling.
I push open another door, no Imogen, but there is a screen in this room. Maybe no-one will mind if I watch a show for a while, if I shut the door behind me then the noise will not disturb anyone. The remote control is lying on the sofa, so I climb up next to it, lift it carefully in my hands and concentrate on pressing the right buttons to bring up my favourite channel. The screen rewards my actions and comes to life.
The spacemen on the screen explore a fantastic alien world, full of adventure and mystery. It is a colourful world, far, far away from having adults constantly ask if you are okay, from being told it was fine to cry, from no-one telling you what was going to happen now, far, far away from wanting your parents but being told that they now live with the angels.
The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the route to the cargo hatch is paved with sharp objects, hanging cables and pieces of structural support that have done their job and are now having a peaceful retirement. The floor is nicely surfaced to allow good traction, but it is a shame that the floor is three metres above my head and I have to make do with the decidedly less tractive ceiling. It could be worse, I tell myself, but right now ravenous space vampires would be welcome company.
“Jimmy, what did I do that was wicked enough to deserve this?” I ask my companion.
“You want a list? I admit that while you have made many bad decisions, most of those were made with the best of intentions, however you do make exceedingly poor choices when you are bored, annoyed or have not had your morning coffee.” I admit that does sound like me.
“And I did something bad enough to get on your shitlist, too, but you're not going to tell me about that, I must remember it.”
“Yeah, well, we'll talk about that later, if you don't get out of here then its really not worth arguing about. Right now you need to get your hand on the stick, push that throttle forwards.”
“That would be a little easier if I still had my main engines.”
There is something wrong with the artefact, the output from its engine varies wildly, forcing us to constantly alter our own thrust to remain alongside. We can only assume this is due to damage sustained from parts of the Emerald Challenger passing through whatever mechanism lies inside the enigmatic craft.
The ribbed back surface bears no clues as to its origin, there are no visible openings and it defies our attempts to stick something to it. Radio channels suffer from both the interference from the engines and from some signal coming from inside the craft. Our computers decode this latter signal as an audio stream that sounds much like choral singing, a hundred voices all nearly singing the same song but with slightly different words. At times it almost makes sense and I find myself humming along.
Peterson has been working at decoding or translating the song non-stop, but has likened to so watching waves in the ocean, they all look similar, there seems to be a pattern, but really it is a chaotic system with no meaning. The artefact has not made any meaningful response to any signal we have sent it. Even without seeing his evaluation scores I know the stress of the mission has got to him and his failure to make any headway at the one task appropriate to his skills is bringing him close to breaking point.
Fuel usage is still an issue, we believe that base will have to capture us like a mis-thrown rock from the asteroid belt mining operations. All-in-all things are not going well.
“I'm registering some kind of oscillation in the artefact's drive output.” Fernandez breaks into my reverie. She sends data to everyone's screens. “Looks like its getting worse.”
I glance at the graphs and the output projection, make a quick mental calculation and come to the conclusion that it can only spell disaster.
“I'm moving us away,” I make a couple of adjustments to the controls and feel the additional force as our engines give us more power and the artefact begins to slide to our stern. Flickering light in now visible in the views of the cameras, we still have little idea how the drive works, but this is certainly not a good sign.
The readout gives our distance as fifty kilometres when there is a sudden brightening of the light. It goes out just as quickly. I turn to Fernandez.
“Was that...” There is a huge burst of incandescence and the picture from several cameras goes out. Several alarms go off and we have out hands full with damage reports from a variety of systems. Another display shows the artefact from an undamaged camera, the engine section looks slightly mangled and now that it is unpowered it is heading straight on a collision course with the Earth.
The door release is about a metre and a half from the floor, which takes it way out of my reach, fortunately there is an emergency release at floor level, unfortunately we are upside-down.
“Maybe it is voice activated,” suggests Jimmy, brightly.
“Door, open,” I call without expectation. “Let me fucking out of here.”
“If there is one thing working properly on this thing then it will not be anything useful.” I pause to catch my breath, looking over my shoulder I see a clear path amongst the debris, my snail-trail.
“You never know, you might find a fully functional cocktail bar.”
“My doctor has advised me against drinking, excess exercise and chasing ass, sorry.”
I nearly lose Davis in the maze of corridors. The others are clearing up in the lab, but we are having to move carefully to avoid tipping off the authorities to our presence, while I pursue what has become an increasingly personal vendetta.
Rounding the corner into another near-identical painted concrete access-way, I just catch the movement of a door swinging to. My sprint takes me to it before it closes fully and I catch a glimpse of the harsh sunlight, a fire exit. I quickly divest myself of any incriminating equipment, our presence here is covert and would not at all be welcomed, but retain a pistol and taser, what the discerning citizen is carrying nowadays. Pushing through the door I try to look as though I belong there while scanning the street for my quarry, I spy him half a block away, walking quickly whilst trying not to look as though he is in a hurry.
This side street is anonymous, flanked by the backs of buildings and intended for deliveries and refuse collection, but it still carries the monitoring equipment that is the price of living in such an enclave. Computer systems watch cameras for suspicious activity, atmospheric sniffers warn of airborne nano-virus threats and a private army protects the privileged from the nastiness that the world has sunk to, paradise for the few.
My glasses darken against the midday sun, and bring up the map of my surroundings. I am surprised to see how far from our entry point I have strayed, access tunnels and storm shelters linking in a labyrinth under the enclave's surface buildings. There is no evidence of a security response to our incursion, but I do not hold up hope of that lasting.
My stride lengthens, a man with a purpose, business to conduct and no time to hang about. My face has been altered and is stored in the local system; paramilitary styled clothing never fully goes out of fashion so I fit right in with the locals. I tell myself I belong here, but deep in my mind I know I am just building an ever taller tower of lies.
Davis turns onto a major street, taking him out of my view. I resist the temptation to hurry after him, the map shows there is nowhere for him to hide effectively before I reach the corner and my longer legs are slowly closing the distance. The map suggests he is fleeing towards a shopping mall, plenty of places to hide and people to get in the way.
“Bill, status, please.” Liefman's voice comes through the earpieces in my glasses “You've strayed from the area.”
“Don't worry, I've run into an old friend and I'm just heading for a little meeting. I'll make my own way home, you go on without me.” I am probably being paranoid worrying about lip-reading software, I imagine Liefman rolling her eyes and giving me up for a lost cause.
I round the corner, joining a trickle of people on a shaded boulevard. Davis is ahead of me, threading his way between strolling families and trying not to look over his shoulder. It is a comedy chase scene, neither of us wanting to attract attention by running but both trying to go as fast as possible. Ironically, the best thing for him to do would be to stand still, there is little I could do that would not end up in my detention, but he knows what has happened to the other clones and has let fear override his logic.
The rotating glass door of the mall swallows him up, but it is a matter of seconds before I following him inside. My glasses adapt again to the change in lighting, bringing up a map of the mall as well as links to special offers, a touch from me cancels this distraction. I take advantage of a knot of people, crouching slightly as I edge around them, trying to avoid being seen whilst keeping lookout for Davis. I pretend to look in a shop window, scanning reflections and side glances.
“Nice cut, but not your colour,” opines Jimmy. “Stick to something darker to match your expression.”
As I relax my face I catch sight of Davis, not scuttling for the far exit, but browsing jackets, maybe hoping to disguise himself and double back on me. I take a circuitous route towards him, but I am spotted and our slow motion chase begins again. As we had back towards the entrance there is a ripple of noise that passes through the shoppers, gasps of shock and horror.
A man in a long black coat is standing in a ring of free space, he seems confused and a little desperate, his eyes imploring, his skin wan and sweating. The coat has fallen open revealing a bare chest. A deep red mass, the size of two spread hands clings to and enters the skin, purple tendrils snake off it, entering his body at other points, the whole thing pulses rhythmically with his racing heartbeat.
There are screams in the crowd as containment shutters drop down and then the sharp, flat smack of a handgun as someone chooses to protect themselves with reactionary violence. I use the confusion to get close to Davis, his hand nervously toying with something in his pocket, entranced and repulsed at the same time. For all his being at the centre of things, he has had little exposure to to results of his work.
A voice over speakers asks us to remain calm, explains that we will submit to tests and decontamination and that there is nothing to worry about. Small flying drones arrive, separate us off into small groups and begin shepherding us through an unmarked door. I manage to stay close to Davis.
“Looked a lot like the Indian outbreak, is that what they were working on here?” Jimmy ponders. It did indeed look like the infection that had destroyed the population of the subcontinent and had only been brought under control by drastic measures.
“Davis was too startled, if it is related then it must be something much subtler.” I think back to him. “And we still don't know what their goal really is.”
We are held in a small room while men in biohazard suits run portable sniffers over us. Jimmy assures me we have nothing to worry about until they take a blood test at which point all the alarms will go off. The technicians give me disapproving looks as I use my glasses to call Liefman, but I am not the only one making a call.
“Could you try making things easy for me once in a while?” She asks. “The game's up when they take a blood test, use the confusion to try and get out, I'll see how I can help you.”
“Just caught up with something that wasn't my doing again, honey. Shouldn't take long, see if you can book me an air taxi and I should be able to make up to time. Missing you too.”
Scenes like this are common enough in the enclave that everyone submits to the blood test without discussion and no moves are made to search us for weaponry. I exchange a surreptitious glance with Davis, a shared memory and common knowledge of what will happen next. The blood samples are fed one by one into a device, the results come up on a screen and the next candidate is let out of a door with advice on his cholesterol level and a thank you for his co-operation.
The screen flashes up an message in red and an alert sounds, the technicians start to react, but I am ready, drawing my pistol and putting a shot into the screen to distract them from sounding the alarm. People recoil from me and I step forwards and grab Davis by the arm, hustling his surprised form out of the door pointing the gun at anyone looking like they might make a move.
“You can't escape, we're both trapped here.” He tells me.
“I don't care, taking you out is my only goal.” I reply. I pull his arm from his pocket, in his grasp is a stubby ten centimetre vacuum flask, a containment vessel for something nasty, I rip it from his fingers. “What are you working on? Why do you need a lab in a city?”
“Its the big picture, its nearly here, you can't begin to realise how important this is, this could make it all worth while.” Typical Davis, he flaunts his superiority while quaking in his boots.
“All those deaths? The only thing worthwhile now is stopping whatever it is you are after, and this is a big clue.” A siren starts to remind me of the urgency of the situation.
“The golden age is c-.” I use the remains of my gun's clip to paint his brains onto the wall, pocket the vial and start to run.
“Definitely a clone,” adds Jimmy. “An old one, all the signs of deterioration were there.”
“Shame. Can you get me my hearing back? I might need it.”
“Sure, I'll do that, you find us a way out.”