It was Marco’s bright-fuckin’-idea; swan up to water-haulers using stolen police codes, pretend it was an inspection run, find some ridiculous infraction and use it as pretence to ‘confiscate’ the cargo. There were so many governments in this part of space that you were always breaking somebody’s rules. Marco, with his droopy moustache and sad little eyes, looked like a harried bureaucrat. Three of ‘em would go in: Marco, playing a rule-loving police lawyer, Gilroy as the don’t-fuck-with-me spacecop, and Kat as their tech aide. Marco would find a loose wire, Gilroy would shout until the target was quiet and guilty, Kat would go onto their computers and erased any data on the ‘transaction’ so they were harder to follow.
“This is RimPol cruiser Hebe to control, please identify,” said Kat.
Nothing but static on the comms. Scans showed a water-hauler, probably Neo-French, heading to the outer rim colony worlds. Big slow thing, but well-crewed and well-armed. Gilroy paced up and down the bridge with his hands in his pockets. He wasn’t swearing, which was comforting and worrying in equal measure. The whole gang crowded the bridge. It was quiet enough, you could hear people chewing their nails.
Convincing the mark was always the hardest part: once they thought you were friendly police on an inspection run, they’d let you come and go as you pleased. There was a script, but it got hairy as soon as the target didn’t follow along. Silence coulda meant a lot of things. Kat tucked a strand of bleach-white hair behind her ear, and rubbed her fingers over the cross around her neck.
“Hebe to control, you’re in an unmarked zone. Please identify immediately, or we’ll initiate blade-docking.”
That usually sent ‘em running to cooperate. Blade docks were meant to keep the target ship intact, but everybody had heard a few horror stories about ships getting torn in two.
Nothing on the comms but silence. Gilroy’s magboots crashed across the grating. He was getting ready to shout; Kat ducked down and covered her ears –
– and the board lit up green on all corners. Their target ship rolled over like a cat waiting for a belly-scratch, and thrust out a docking tube. Everybody sank down a little, and somebody whistled.
“Busted radio mast?” said Gilroy. Kat nodded, and said nothing.
The docking tube was ancient tech: canvas draped over a steel lattice. No air, no grav. You can’t move too quickly in space, or you’ll start moving and never stop: every step must be precise. Kat gripped her cross even harder — only a few layers of canvas between her and the void. She could hear warm radio-static from her headset, and nothing else.
The depressurization room lay open before them, like a wound in the ship’s side. The lights were off. They stepped inside, and the doors slammed shut behind them. After the hiss of depressurization, sound returned, but it didn’t – just a different timbre of silence. The inner door slid open, and they stepped inside.
They walked through empty hallways, and the only sound was their boots clicking on the steel floors. The lights were on, the place was clean, and there was nobody to be seen.
“Doesn’t look like a fight,” said Gilroy. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Kat nodded. “Trap,” she said.
Their words echoed off the steel walls.
“You smell that?” said Marco. Kat sniffed the air, but it was what you’d expect — metal, grease, touches of disinfectant.
“Smell what?” she said.
“Oranges,” said Marco. He smiled, and laughed. “Oranges. I haven’t had them in years. I didn’t know you could even grow them this far out.”
Kat didn’t know what oranges smelled like, but she guessed they coulda smelled like spaceship hallways. She shrugged.
“Sure,” she said, “I smell oranges. Let’s get out of here.”
“No!” said Marco. “I gotta have those oranges!”
She grabbed Marco’s arm. He was shivering. His pupils were dilated and empty.
“Are you high?” she said. Marco laughed, then he punched her in the jaw. Her head cracked against the wall. She saw spots, and smelled the iron-tang of blood. Gilroy shouted something, and she heard the clank-clank-clank of boots running away down the ship’s hallways.
“YOU FUCKING, YOU-
SHIT,” said Gilroy. Kat felt somebody pulling her up. She opened her eyes. Everything was spinning. The smell of blood was overpowering, but she was happy to see there wasn’t a lot of it on the walls. She ran her fingers through her hair, and they didn’t come back as red and sticky as she’d feared.
“You alright?” said Gilroy.
She took a deep breath, and nodded. “Gotta g’mrco” she mumbled. The con wouldn’t work without him, after all. She took a moment to regain her composure, then radioed the Hebe. She began to speak, then realised there was no connection – only static. By the look on his face, Gilroy had figured out the same thing.
They staggered back to the airlock, Gilroy with his arm around a limping Kat. She tried to access the holo-interface, but the doors stayed resolutely shut. The off-centre crack between them seemed to sneer at her. The smell of blood was overpowering now. Could she have internal bleeding in her brain? If that was the case, she was a dead woman walking. It didn’t seem like such a little punch could do that, but human beings were terrifyingly fragile things.
“Get me to the bridge,” she said. “Can probably crack into the ship’s systems from there; surely somebody left a terminal open.”
“Aye,” said Gilroy. “Looks like the crew here left in a hurry. Bridge it is.”
He drew the gun.They didn’t actually have any bullets, but a fake-policeman needed a gun on his hip. It’s little details like that that tend to trip people up. You could walk in with a full cardboard uniform and nobody would notice, but God help you if you got the shoulder-insignia wrong.
She leaned on her boss, and they staggered up the polished hallways. The only sounds were their boots, and her heavy breathing, and static on the comms.
The elevators were off, so they had to take the winding stairs up the bridge. There were smears of fresh blood on the wall here. Very fresh – Marco’s? She thought the idiot was clean, but apparently not. Once a junkie, always a junkie. Up and up they went, and the rank smell of blood cloaked everything: too much smell, not enough blood.
“You smell that?” said Gilroy.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
He looked confused. “Yeah,” he said. “H-horrible. That’s it. What was I thinking. It reeks. It’s like rotten butter.”
Well, she didn’t know what butter smelled like either. A rich man’s food and no doubt. Gilroy had been military, and army lads got fed better than kings. What if must have been like, to go back to civilian life.
The stairs planed off. The doors ahead of them lay wide open. As they approached, Marco leapt at them. Kat and Gilroy both fell back against the wall.
Marco stood over them.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. He grabbed a nearby i-beam, and rammed his forehead against it. Bones shattered with a wet crack.
“Beautiful.” he muttered. He leant back. Gilroy stood to stop him, but he wasn’t fast enough: Marco smashed his head against the wall one last time, then slumped and went still.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Gilroy. “Holy fucking, I mean, – FUCK.”
“Yessir,” said Kat. “We are in accord.”
She stood and brushed herself off. Marco had left a slick grey-red mess on the wall. His skull lay open like some grotesque bone flower. They stood a moment in silence, then moved on. There was nothing else to do.
The bridge was practically stoneage tech — still running on some old Window OS. She’d never seen anything like it before, but she had a knack for these things. The network’s secrets unfolded before her. The logs were standard up until two days prior, when they picked up a floating object in space.
CRYSTALLINE STRUCTURE. SCANS NOTE POTENTIAL BIOLOGICAL ELEMENTS; REACTS TO WATER LIKE IT’S ORGANIC. EQUIPMENT ONBOARD NOT UP TO THE TASK: KEEP IN HOLD. SURELY SOMEBODY WILL PAY FOR IT.
nothing. Empty logs. The automated systems registered escape pods leaving and —
The world was blood — the reek of it, the play of it across uncut skin. She cried out. She wasn’t on the bridge any more. She was floating, and something hung above her. It was different, though the word hardly does it justice: it was totally different in ways we have no words for, because we spent words like “totally” and “different” on cheap imitations. It was other, weird, alien, unknown.
And she realised it wasn’t blood. It was speaking to her, in its own language. Blood was a word, though she didn’t know what it meant. Oranges were a word. Butter was a word. It wasn’t malevolent, but it was con
dused it was lost it was not
In its rightful place it was be
autiful it was awesome as God is awe
some it was terrific in that it brought terror
it was panic in that it was like Pan — truly alive, and terrified
Lashing out and
Gilroy shook her awake. The world around her smelled of metal and grease, with touches of disinfectant. It smelled of nothing. You cannot thrust somebody into God’s light, then cast them back down to earth. She screamed, and there was something heavy in her hand, and there was the rich, beautiful reek of blood as she brought it down on Gilroy’s head again and again
For a moment, she could touch heaven. She smiled. A nearby radio crackled to life. “This is Hebe,” it said. “We sent crew aboard, but have had no contact. Unknown vessel, do you read? We’re sending another crew aboard. Please open your airlock or we will be forced to blade-dock.”
Kat staggered to her feet, and to the ship’s ancient controls. She smiled, and went to work.
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