I have not choked from lack of a suitable atmosphere, seems like my luck is turning. Jimmy urges me on with boyish excitement, he never was one to leave the wrapping paper on a present for long. The light flooding in from the open hatch displays how dim my surrounding have been up to now.
“C'mon, I want to see this!” Jimmy is nearly dancing in his eagerness.
“Then either go ahead, or give me a push.” While I have gotten the hang of legless locomotion it is still hard work.
My first glimpse of the outside world is a shot of a blue sky dotted with cloud, it feels so out of place I stop there and nearly turn around. A wash of sounds sweep through the opening, but I can't make sense of them.
We lie on our backs and watch the clouds ease their way across a perfect sky. After months of intensive training it feels odd to have nothing to do, but there is break in the academy schedule and everyone is scurrying home to their families dotted around the globe.
“You're just going to stay here? There's nothing to do.” There is nothing to do that we have not already done and been banned from repeating.
“With the unrest and all that its better I don't go back to Cairo. I'm not sure I want to see all my family, anyway, we don't really get on.” I do not understand Jimmy's family, even though we tease each other daily in electronic communication, I cannot wait to see Imogen.
“Then come home with me.” We have only known each other three months, but now it seems we are never apart.
“Won't your, er, none parental guardian mind?”
“Brian? No, he'll be happy there's someone there to keep me out of trouble. You can help me work on my orbital rates calculations, I'll not have Irena Ivanov beating me in the sims again. I bet I can even get him to spring for the ticket.” He will just sign it away when it appears on his credit card statement.
“You do that and I'm there. I might visit my old boarding school while we're over there.”
“I always forget you're such a posh twat.”
“Not posh, just one of your betters.”
“You can call yourself better when you can open an airlock without outside help.”
“Hey, it was broken!”
The breeze which blows through the broken airlock is delightful, fresh, clean and carrying scents which remind me of Earth. It spurs me on and I manage to reach the speed of an arthritic tortoise carrying a heavy load.
“What do you reckon we'll find?” Asks Jimmy, nearly bouncing up and down with anticipation.
“A jungle full of giant, man-eating hyenas with laser eyes,” I reply, once again aware that I am the one doing all the work. “Or worse, a massive tea party, full of excitable imaginary friends who want me to eat pretend cakes with them.”
“Mister spoilsport isn't allowed any cake because he is too grumpy.” Says Jimmy in a sing-song falsetto.
“You know, I'm so glad that I have not crash landed on an unknown planet with you as my only companion.” I get back to the task in hand, actually making it to the opening. The crashing, warbling, wailing, whistling sound continues to confuse me.
I close in on the opening, a sweat covering my body at the exertion. The cowl and exhaust of an engine juts out below the hatch, covered in a grey and slightly scorched heat-resisting material. The thought occurs to me that, being upside-down, the ship is probably not very easy to alight from, but the promise of being able to escape this topsy-turvy wreck draws me on.
Another push and I can finally see the outside world properly. I scan my eyes across the vista, the sweat on my body turns to icy, I start to shiver and shrink back into the ship. The ship lies teetering on the edge of a cliff, below us is a churning, seething, angry ocean, threatening to seize me and drag me into its choking, pressing, dispassionate fathoms.
The arm around my neck presses heavily on my windpipe. The embrace is suffocating and a part of me wants to panic. I ignore that part of me and listen to what Jimmy is whispering in my ear.
Around me there is confusion. One of my assailants lies on the floor groaning, apparently unaware of the low gravity self-defence training they put us pilots through and exactly what strength I have in my new leg. Saunders, who burst through the door behind me stands mouth agape considering whether he should get involved. The technicians are trying to protect their equipment and selves from the melee. The regular security are too friendly with me and too afraid of the interlopers to join in on either side. Peterson crouches in the corner, babbling to himself about how he is not real and watching in horror as his finger slowly rebuilds itself.
The asphyxiation has gone on for long enough, I go limp. The arm remains for a while, enough to make sure I am truly unconscious and then lets me slump to the floor. I make my move. I grab an unsuspecting arm, twist and and use the leverage to slam his head into the nearest solid object.
There is a shout from the door, a voice long used to giving command and long ago drilled into my psyche as one to obey. Vickers enters the room as though he has found his cadre of cadets up to their usual tricks. Keeping my eye on my opponent, I lower the large blunt item that has found its way into my hand.
“There will be no brawling on my station. Anyone care to explain?” He has gone bald and the company uniform is no longer so overtly military, but every nuance is the same. Jimmy, seen only by myself, mimes quaking in fear.
“A member of my crew has been taken without my knowledge, experimented on and apparently injured.” I face him like a completely rational man who was not just about dash someone's head open with an improvised mace.
“You two,” he indicates my attackers. “You can get yourself to quarters, or I can get you to the brig. I'll have someone come along to check out any injuries. I know you are not under my command, but you are on my station, we can argue jurisdiction later. Now, Bill, you come with me. Everyone else, clean this mess up.” He turns and does not wait to see if anyone will obey.
“Saunders, look after Peterson,” I say on my way to the door. Behind me Peterson starts screaming about how he is dead and no-one else can see it.
A third of the way around the outer wheel there is a little cubbyhole, a wasted space due to the removal or displacement of some system during the last refurbishment. It also acts as a hole in the security camera coverage, unless there are cameras that do not tie into the main security grid. Jason Vickers stops me here.
“Listen Bill, you're going to have to be very careful. The company we fought a war for doesn't exist any more. Those thugs report directly to the top management and the management wants results. You're not an employee now, you're an asset, and if half of the things I'm told about your new bodies are true, then they will do anything to unlock those secrets. I know all you wan tto do is get home to your wife, but that isn't going to happen any time soon. So play nicely, fairly soon I expect them to offer me a very generous retirement package and I intend to take it. You tell me that you carry a version of Group Co-ordinator Mahdi in your brain, he was always the level headed one, pay attention to him, you're not hacking the autopilots on RZ320s just because they dock too slowly now.”
He leaves me standing in the cubbyhole. Since the Angels left us everything has been too strange and new for me to fully comprehend just where I stand, suddenly any new abilities I have gained seem like small change in a big money world.
“See,” Says Jimmy. “I told you he knew about the autopilots.”
“Bill, listen to me.” I don't know how long I have been clinging to the edge of the hatchway, my fingers ache slightly.
“Bill, you can't sit there all day. Fucking hell, man, wake the fuck up. I'd slap you if I could.” Jimmy is frantic. I blink at him. “Listen, the cliff is slowly crumbling, the ship will drop into the sea. Now I know you don't want that. I know you don't like the sea. But we have to get off the ship, you have to move.”
With effort I manage to prise my fingers from the metal. A tremor passes through my body, I have no idea whether it is me shaking or the ship sliding further.
“That's good. Shit, I've not seen you like this since, where was it you made that aquatic landing?”
“Martinique. I didn't realise we had settled on the bottom, I thought we were going to sink,” Jimmy had reported in that I had suffered a head injury in the emergency landing, I was still shaking the following morning.
“The nasty, horrid sea didn't get you then and it probably won't now, so get your hand on the stick, push that throttle forwards.” I could hate Jimmy for pushing me on this, but he is right, I did not make all this effort just to stop now.
“Sorry, its been a stressful day, it just sort of overwhelmed me for a minute.”
I force myself to look out, mentally blanking out the waves, telling myself the deep blue is just more sky. Edging out a bit I see that the cliff is topped by a strip of inviting green meadow. This means nothing if I cannot get there. There is no handy disembarkation ramp, I get the feeling it fell off into the water when I tried to open the door.
There is no way to climb up the craft and across the skyward facing underside short of ferrying out more cargo cannisters and building one, a task that would take far too long. The engine I am sat on is the only ledge sticking out and it is facing the wrong way. The rest of the ship from this angle looks like the stern of an upturned flat bottomed boat, all smooth curves and slippery surfaces. Looking towards an edge I do not really want to contemplate I see some panels are missing, exposing some of the guts of the engine.
Carefully, I slide myself for a closer look. It is difficult to judge whether this is over solid ground or something I do not want to think about, but it looks like it might make a serviceable ladder. It is certainly my best bet.
I grab a pipe of unknown use, shake it to see if it is solid and then gingerly ease my body past it so that it starts to dangle over the curve of the cowling. My torso slides slightly and then I am supported entirely on my arms. My legless weight less than it might have once been, but instinctively I scrabble for purchase with my feet. There is another pipe below the first, a near-ladder of five pipes, easy going with gravity on my side for a change.
It gets a little trickier after then; a box containing some sort of sensor; a hole whose edges I have to grasp; some sharp shards that are part of a something that has been mostly ripped away; some hoses that feel loose. I realise that I have rounded the curve of the engine and my body is now hanging freely.
Then it happens, the ship judders before me, the hose supporting my weight moves a little and there is a ripping noise. I fall for maybe a metre, the hose jerks, trying to pull itself from my hands and my grip slips, only desperation arrests my movement. Against all sense I look down. I am swinging, first over land and then water, back to land and water again.
My heart hammers. The noise of the wave sings to me a welcome. Something approximating a whimper escapes from my mouth. I take a few seconds to learn the timing of my pendulum world. Then I drop.
I land straight on his head with both feet and we both tumble to the ground. Gaining my feet quickly, I do not bother to check if his neck is broken, just plunge my knife into his chest to make sure he is dead. No-one comes to investigate, so a quick search of his body yields a small pistol. There is no insignia on his clothing, no clue as to whom has penetrated our defences.
I have arrived back at our hideout too late, just as we are getting close to tracking Davis down someone has manage to pull the same trick on us. My mental list of things that I need to rescue runs to two items, Liefman and our research, everything else and everyone else can burn.
Two corridors prove empty, I do not waste time with the abandoned offices of this partially ruined factory. The doorway through to the production hall has the silhouette of one person guarding it, I edge closer, sticking to the shadowed side of the hallway. My foot nudges a stone, but I am close and lunge forward, connecting with my knife and then the weight of my body before they manage to complete a turn in my direction.
As we hit the ground I roll away, aware of the easy target I am making, taking refuge behind some derelict machine. No movement. I risk peeking from behind my shelter. The hall is lit by the holes in the roof, a play of brightness and dark create a scene that would be deemed moody and atmospheric if I had not just killed two people in cold blood and was scanning for more targets. There is evidence of prior violence, walls showing the scars of gunfire, a couple of piles that look likely to be bodies.
At the sound of incautious footsteps and I withdraw my head. Someone calls out. Not getting an answer, they call again, followed by a stream of syllables that make no sense to me.
“They've got what they came for and are ready to leave.” Jimmy tells me “You should really learn Arabic.”
The footsteps get closer, pause and then there is an almost audible sense of alarm as my second victim is discovered. Knowing caution and stealth have played their parts, I leap up and let loose three shots with my stolen pistol. One of them connects, spinning my target around. Half a dozen steps gets me close enough to issue a coup de grace with a forth bullet to the head. I stop long enough to claim a machine pistol and spot the tattoo of a rose on the woman's neck, the Riding's Alliance, a militia with no clear agenda other than hostility to others.
The shots bring a quick response, I use the new gun to dissuade several people from rushing through a doorway, but I am outnumbered and it will only be a matter of time before they co-ordinate their efforts against me. Back into cover I rack my brains for a better solution than anger and desperation.
Liefman has yet to set up her usual array of defences, which is why this attack has caught us off guard. Still, some countermeasures are less subtle and take less to set up than others. Keeping an ear for sounds of an impending rush, I open then networks menu on my watch. Our private network is still up. I fire off a couple more shots and then dig into the drone section of the device menu. A trio of defence drones are still active, dormant for some reason I cannot fathom. A couple of selections enables the emergency code that makes them hostile and lethal to anyone except Liefman and I.
I start moving before my new allies are discovered. A cloud of dust rises as automatic fire trails my sprinted steps. I reach cover again, pause a few seconds and hear the unmistakable scream of a miniature anti-personnel rocket, followed by a human scream. I wince, having been on the wrong end of that type of ordinance more than once, but unlike me the victims will not be putting themselves back together.
I flatten myself against the wall and edge towards the doorway. There is a series of shouts and shots as my machine allies come to my aid with deadly intentions. Risking my head in the opening, I take a peek, three fresh bodies and a drone that chirps in greeting at me and then heads off. I take a different corridor than my new best friend, towards Liefman's new lair.
At the top of a staircase I recoil as someone puts a shot over my head, squashing myself into a small recess in the wall. The sound of movement suggests more than one person, but I decide to let fortune favour the bold and take a dive through an open doorway. Gunfire assaults my ears and I empty the machine pistol at the movement I see. Two people fall to the floor, riddled by bullet wound, I breathe a sigh of relief at the unequal exchange.
“Graze to the left shoulder, bullet through the right calf and one still lodged in your abdomen, didn't hit anything vital.” Jimmy tallies up for me, not such an unequal exchange. “I'm keeping the pain off, but don't put too much weight on that leg.”
Liefman's room is messier than usual, parts of her equipment have been trashed. Three screens are still running; an exterior feed showing armed people retreating on various vehicles; a repeating loop of video shot inside this room, Liefman is grabbed and then someone in a mask shoots the camera; Liefman's flower meadow.
“Fuck! What do I do without you, Liefman?” The bottom of my stomach drops out and my innards fall into a pit.
Over my shock the flowers sing, a minute passes and then their message in the language of the Angels managed to pierce my comprehension.
“Davis,” they sing. “He's on 2017RT.”
The ground is solid, stable and hard. For a moment to pain is too great for me to open my eyes. Whatever I have left in my body is now probably broken. The pain abruptly switches off. I open my eyes and watch in wonder as the ship completely fails to slide off the cliff into the sea and sink into the briny depths.
“You might want to take your time when you next need to dismount from an inverted spacecraft.” Jimmy tells me. “I am doing what I can but you've made quite a mess of your insides.”
“Sorry, I panicked. Never did quite get that whole sea thing under control.” I think of all the money I wasted on a psychologist.
“I thought we had the conversation about not panicking.” Something in the scar where the ship disturbs the ground is moving.
“Its my first day at the job, cut me some slack.” I peer closer.
“Its certainly not your first day at being a complete arse and not listening to a word anyone else says.” Insects and worms, swarming at the point where the ship touches the ground. I recoil and start pulling myself away. “Woah, that's nasty.”
A breeze starts up as I drag myself into calf-length grass and knee length flowers. Something plays on my mind and then I realise.
“Its Liefman's bloody singing meadow!” The wind brings the song of a million flowers, subtle variation of tone lend different voices to different tones.
“Holy fuck! The whole ecosystem must have been altered or bio-engineered from scratch.” Jimmy dances a little jig of amazement. “Might take a while to decode a message, if there is one, though.”
I look back at the ship, seeing it for the first time from the outside. It is a streamlined, almost fish shaped vehicle, sporting the remains of stubby wings and with an engine pod sticking out of the rear. Damage is heaviest at the front and on the bottom, which indicates it was probably brought in shallow and rolled on landing. It is remarkably intact, considering, but unlikely to ever fly again. It is a good deal bigger than anything in my memory.
I imagine our descent, trying to bring it in slow and shallow, but rapidly running out of room before the ocean. An aquatic landing might have saved the ship and crew, but I cannot guess whether I decided against it due to fear of water or some less obvious reason. Beyond the ship a column of smoke implies further action, likely the result of the interception as detailed on my wrist terminal.
I glance at the terminal and see it blinking the message that network links have been restored. As my fingers reach to query it and get some location information it trills, asking me whether I wish to accept an incoming communication.
Officially we are banned from the communications grid, but people transit to and from the station
on a continual basis and we have many friends, colleagues, sympathisers and people willing to turn a blind eye within the company. Brian from the security team hands me a memory stick surreptitiously as we pass in a corridor, neither of us acknowledges the exchange.
Back in my room Jimmy urges me to browse the contents immediately.
“It might be private,” I tell him.
“We're the same person now, or at least I'm kind of a part of you.” He reasons.
“You control the Angel's nano-machines in me, I make the decisions.” We have argued this on and on. On one hand it is comforting having my dead best friend on twenty-four hour call, on the other it is odd feeling to never be able to be alone. “Sorry, Jimmy, I know it was my fault we all died and the Angels couldn't save you completely and I am sorry that the best they could do was make you my conscious and health consultant. Its been a long day and I would appreciate a little space for a while.”
“Are you asking me to switch myself off for a while?”
“No, I'm just asking that you be discrete for a bit. I appreciate your opinion and insight, I would just like a little quiet time.”
“Sure thing, captain.” Jimmy gives me an ironic salute and his image fades from my vision.
I link the memory stick to my personal tablet, there is just one file, a short video. I tap to play it and sit down on the edge of my bunk.
The video opens fading in with a piano piece playing, my heart leaps on recognising the notes played and the hands playing. She sits at the baby grand that nearly fills the conservatory, the light of a summer afternoon floods the windows and the large potted geranium is in full bloom despite our best efforts to neglect it. The tune ends on a sombre note and she turns towards the camera.
“Will,” Her voice is a salve for my soul. “Some friends of yours have leaked me some footage and so I have asked them to get this to you. The company were very close-mouthed about what happened, your survival is a miracle, a miracle that I have only just learned of. I saw footage of your death, I watched you die, Will, and it broke me in a way I cannot describe.” She pauses to swipe the stray strand of hair out of her way and wipe away a tear.
“And that was it, there were empty condolences from the company and the most amazing support from everyone else, but you were dead and that was the only thing that mattered. I went completely to pieces. I've watched you go off and do some utterly stupid things in our time together, but you have always come back to me, if not always in one piece. This time you didn't.
“I don't know if you remember, but when we married you had a, erm, sample frozen, just in case you never made it back from a mission. Then I discovered I couldn't have kids. I was watching something on ex-utero births and something snapped, I missed you so badly it was like being encased in ice. I still do. I took your sample and part of the settlement from the company to a clinic and...” She pauses again to brush hair out of the way.
“We have a daughter, Will.” She reaches out and takes hold of the camera, turning it to look upon a cot, in the middle something pink squirms. “This is Imogen.” It seems all the old human emotional responses still work, tears drip unbidden down my cheeks.
“This is hard for me, Will. I know it is the right thing to do, which is why I have to take the coward's way and do it long distance. You don't know what it is like down here on Earth, you've been away two years, there is war about to break out all over the place. The corporations want what the aliens have your company, that means you, Will, and that means that I am in danger and so is Imogen.”
“I never minded the closeness you shared with Jimmy, but they tell me he is part of you now. You are no longer quite the man I married. I saw the footage and there you were, you look like our wedding video, so young, so handsome, all your hair! We grew older together, Will, but now I'm old and you are young again. I'm sorry, Will, I don't want to, but I have to leave you for my own sake. Don't try to find us, Will, we have some people to help us disappear. There are storm clouds gathering and I don't want to be caught in the rain.” She wipes her face with her hand and puts her hair into complete disarray.
“Will, I..., I...” She breaks down and fumbles to camera off.
I sit there for a moment, the tablet asking if I want to repeat the video.
“Laura!” The scream is ragged, torn from my throat. “Laura!” I scream and pound helplessly at the wall until the guards come running.