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Deep Deck 9

Login ? Sci-Bin004

Psswd ? *********

Awaiting Command?? set_secure:ultra

Security set to ultra

Awaiting Command?? recompile 06801A-Moon Ranger

Poseidon Sci-Bin004, DistComp subrtneJJ64

Sample extraction file retrieved

A

Begin recompile

*******************

They say space is a silent place to die, but I never worked out why. Sounds like something a planet-sider would say. Someone never been to space, never heard the sounds it makes.

Poseidon’s Curve is coming up big in the window, far too big for safety. But that’s the general idea. It’s a red and orange thumbprint, with its hazy, gas-rock ring arching overhead. Civilization scars pock the surface; I used to live there, but it’s never been home. And there’s no time for nostalgia, the alarms will start soon enough. Smashed out a few, but some I can’t turn off, I already know we’re going down. We’re skipping into atmo too steep, moments from being a burning stone. And the ship thinks I need to know about things like that.

While the planet looms red and vast, my head is down on the floor, screwdriver rolling around on the GravDeck. I’ve barred the door, and I’m trying not to think about what’s behind it. This is too important. They’ll send the planet-side investigators for the crash-hardened black box after we’ve burned a long match strike across Poseidon’s crust. So I’m digging down in the Ranger‘s belly, going for the heart that holds those damn coordinates. The Junta can’t find it.

They can’t know where I’ve been.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

Lou gave us the mission: a trunk call salvage, twenty parsecs out. It was us then. Three tars and the Moon Ranger, just a standard fast-shuttle with a DistComp: distributed computer inner skin. Just capable of the distance, and certainly capable of the desperate need to go. We owed Lou a favour, and no one usually survives owing Lou. I guess that’s how he keeps his rep.

A trunk call: that’s what they call it when you’re going beyond the comms limit, where a small problem overnights into a Poseidon-sized cluster-fuck. And this job was twenty parsecs past the asteroid shell, a celestial graveyard given up by Zeus’s tidal pull. All the planets in this system are called by the old gods. The Junta thought that was a good idea; inspiring, nostalgic. Seems fitting to send the ship to die smashing into one of them.

Took two weeks to haul the Ranger out to the asteroid shell. There were stories about the shell. Find any old, red-wrinkled tar who’s toasted too many mallows around old-school reactors and they’ll tell you. The shell’s a place for renegades, anarchists and secrets: for people wanting out of the reach of the planets. After the first decades of just hermits and the two-parts crazy, corporations took their out-of-regs research decks out into the shell. Must have been hard out there; lonely. Endless drone of recycled air; endless waiting between service drops, and endless deep, Cold Space. The real frontier. Men went crazy and topped themselves, and sometimes took the platform with them. But back within the comms, within the Junta’s grip, there was no official word, only the stories.

So we never heard about Deep Deck 9.

At least, not until Lou did.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

There’s a shudder, and a red strobe blinks over my shoulder. That means the auxiliary life support’s gone. The Ranger‘s DistComp is keeping track of all this, and soon she’ll warn me of last-chance-to-correct. Until then, she’ll keep quiet. That’s the good thing about the DistComp, and the difficult thing too. On the way back, after the others were gone, I thought about a quiet death. Blew the scrubber lines to pump monoxide back into the bridge, make the Ranger my last locker. But the DistComp is pretty clever, and odds are she’d get down on her own, even with me screwing the inputs. Can’t let that happen.

Poseidon’s tower is trying to raise me. Guess they’re worrying I haven’t noticed the trajectory. But I’ll bet someone in the tower’s got the Ranger’s signature off the transponder. They know it’s me; I’m the best there is at course plotting, and sometimes I cut it fine for show. I won an award once, way back. I can bring any ship half way across the system within a length of where you wanted.

That’s why Lou gave me the job.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

Everyone knew about the corporations in the asteroid shell, but Lou heard a whisper about Deep Deck 9 and did the kind of digging only he could do. Angelo Deep, entrepreneur, richest man in the systems. A man who’d started in the Junta, but gotten exiled and made good elsewhere. A real pioneer, a visionary was what they called him. At least they did, three hundred years ago when he was last alive. The Deep Deck was launched from the shell, set in a long elliptical orbit and charged with a covert mission: new tech development, far from artful competitors. The Deck would spin out on its three hundred year orbit, and return with science built by a long-expired crew; on the vision of a man who wouldn’t live to see it. Because a deck in Cold Space has no resupply; even with the best recyclers, you lose water and carbon until there’s not enough left to run systems, until there’s nothing to eat but polymer and chrome. Sending men out into that was real vision. No wonder Lou was impressed.

Of course, memory fades fast in this system. Too much happens in these tech-driven worlds and the Junta help some people forget. But Lou found it out: about the mission, and that the orbit was coming back close.

The window was tight. Twenty parsecs meant we had to cart extra. Extra scrubbers, extra cyclers. We stripped the Ranger bare and had the extras crammed in every corner, and we still weren’t sure we’d make it back. Fuel’s not the problem once you’re out on your delta-V. It’s the air and water that’ll bring you unstuck. The Moon Ranger doesn’t have the farms and processing of an interstellar freighter. So we had to stick it. Calculate the orbit on a bunch of guesses and hope. The plan gave us thirty minutes. Five to dock on and off, twenty on board. Twenty minutes to rip the spoils from the Deep Deck and bring them back for Lou. Twenty minutes on a four-week-plus turnaround was a drop in the starfield, and we all knew it. But we went.

The trip out to the shell was lots of nothingness. We watched re-runs, soaked the solar cells; Drake wrote his novel. Charlie paced and pretended to smoke. We passed through the shell, ports black like everywhere else with only the readouts to tell us we’d come within clicks of a hundred other unseen ships and stations. Then we were out into Cold Space, already beyond comms, beyond the Ranger‘s rated limits. Drake and Charlie exchanged a look. They wouldn’t have come but for me.

Now, they’re gone anyway.

The morning we came up on the rendezvous, the DistComp began pinging after 0400. A lot of people don’t believe in Old Earth time anymore. There was almost another coup about it on Poseidon, but the Junta put it down. They do things like that. I’ve got reason to remember; there’s a chip in my head from fifteen years back. But I think we need things to hang onto in space. Time seems a small thing to keep.

After the alarms went off, we were up and quiet. I sat with my hand on the stick, but only out of habit. No one flies by wire on a course that long. If we were wrong, we were wrong two weeks ago, nothing to be done for it. Charlie drummed his fingers and stared out the bridge port. Not that there was anything to see. Drake didn’t bother: the Deep Deck should have run out of critical gear within a hundred years without resupply, and the space bugs eaten out the solar cells. She should be dead black against black; we wouldn’t see until she was right on us. Then I see it came croaking from Charlie’s throat. Drake snorted; he thought Charlie’d lost it. Funny thing was: Charlie did see it. The Deep Deck came dead-on in the window, burning bright like a star in the field, like no station I’ve ever seen. Drake digested the apparition with a slow chewing motion, then slapped me on the back, credit for the navigation. But we exchanged the uneasy look that was due, the one that silently asked how a three hundred year old deck was still running hot, whether it would have air that was poison, or what kind of madness would be on board. Every Old Earth classic space movie feels real in Cold Space, so I was trying hard not to think of face huggers and sentient ships, and knew Drake and Charlie were doing the same. Not that anyone had ever found other life in the systems; that fact was enough to prop up some dying Poseidon churches, folded some others. But it didn’t mean squat. Everything was real in Cold Space.

We locked on by 0408, started the timers, tested the comms and shouldered our salvage kits. We had twenty minutes to scramble before the Deep Deck dragged us out on her orbit, and it was three hundred years before someone else found our withered corpses stuck to her side. If we’d known then what would happen after, I wouldn’t have cracked the airlock. I’d have broken away and pulsed the Moon Ranger straight back to Poseidon, and to hell with Lou. We should have trusted that deep pain in our guts. A ship shouldn’t be running all bright and hot after three hundred years in Cold Space.

But we scented credit, and so we went.

We’d worried that the Deck would be a tardis: ungovernable and unsearchable, needing Ariadne to make it back to the Ranger. But she wasn’t. She was an antique with lots of moulded plastic panels in her long, ordered tunnels, built before the verse went ceramic and silicon. The air was thick, but breathable, so we had our masks off in seconds. The Deck was pre-GravDeck: her magnetic drive tugged hard at the shoulder suits we’d brought.

And she was silent as a corpse.

We headed for the bridge. If the Deck was still running there was fair chance all the data was fresh. If it wasn’t, we’d take only the solid-state memory and be done with it.

We passed endless windows showing lab space, all the glass frosty and glowing, benches bright white. Drake ran his fingers over surfaces and left no mark, which wasn’t right. Even the Moon Ranger raises dust a few weeks from port, fine stuff that gets into everything. But the Deck was brushed bright, like it was new from Angelo’s fab plant yesterday, not three hundred years in Cold Space. That was when we began to think there might be crew still here, or worse: another salvage ship with bigger thrusters docked round the back.

We reached the bridge in two minutes, empty beneath a yawning black sky port. Drake went for a console, found the keys fused, and plugged in another. It was the first sign the Deck was old, that this was real and not some Junta mind-spy trick.

There wasn’t time to go hunting for physical spoils; information was the digital gold of the Deck, and we found it fast. Charlie pulled the solid-state data banks for system files, and the GhostDrive for the data. Twenty banks of solid-state meant nearly five-thou gig of data. The GhostDrive would hold five times more. In Angelo’s time, GhostDrive was new tech; now, it was hideously obsolete, but we had it in under a minute. Thirty-thousand gig stolen in a few seconds. Enough to pay our debt to Lou.

Drake brought up the camera views, pocked and frosty. One by one they showed the ship, inside and out, up and down, and empty. And there was still sixteen minutes, time enough to look for more.

Drake and Charlie went. I stayed at the bridge and looked for the Deck’s log, which since the beginning of the verse has been stored with a HoloGen black box, somewhere on the bridge. Lou wouldn’t want it; it wouldn’t sell. I watched Charlie and Drake stride the long hallways, turning over trays in the labs. They stuck close, avoiding the quarters, recyclers, and plant rooms I saw from the frosty cameras. But they weren’t finding much—the Deck was empty. No evidence of crew. Maybe there’d been one generation, maybe two or three. Lou said there’d been a hundred launched with the Deep Deck, enough for a few rounds of science kids who’d never seen planet-side before the supplies ran out. Kids didn’t grow well off-planet. Didn’t grow proper anywhere but Old Earth according to Lou. But what did Lou know.

Drake’s voice came down the comms after five minutes.

“Creeps and crawls, boss,” he muttered. “Can’t hear the plant running.”

“Power’s on,” I argued, thinking as much was damn obvious.

“‘S’not running,” he repeated.

“She’s running on batteries then.”

In the tiny camera view, Drake scratched his balls. You’d never know he wrote romances. “This old? Shouldn’t be holding a charge at all.”

“Yeah.”

We all got the shivers. And with still ten minutes on our clocks we were heading back to the lock, feeling like we’d missed something. Charlie took the solid-state wafers in both hands and pockets, rubbing at his eyes with his shoulder. Drake had the GhostDrive, and I had the HoloGen black box under my arm. The data was Lou’s, but any man had the right to take something he thought might sell from a salvage. Or a trophy he wanted to keep. If Drake and Charlie took anything, I didn’t see it.

We were dusted by 0430. I watched the Deep Deck’s bulk pull away into Cold Space, still glowing bright like festival lights.

And there, as Drake and Charlie turned away, I was sure I saw them.

Faces, hundreds, pressed against the sub-deck windows. Staring with blank white eyes; slack-jawed leers and slashed skin. Looks I’d seen in a Zeus dope house. One moved, jerking. I froze, squinting as the pulse drive engaged. But as we streaked away I couldn’t be sure. I was damn glad for every parsec fraction between us, and glad it would be another three centuries before anyone would get close.

Except that wasn’t the end.

I had to knuckle-to for an hour: check the course plot for the two-plus week haul back to Poseidon while a correction was still possible.

Then, we got into the data.

Drake couldn’t resist a peak, no salvager can, really, even when the goods don’t belong to you. For the measly hours or days the stuff is in your possession, you want to know what you bought for the other guy with your sweat and adrenaline. Pays to know what he owes you, or in this case, to be sure we were even again.

So we cracked out the solid-state, asked the Deep Deck for her secrets.

She was a research platform. Drake snorted as Charlie made the proclamation. Anyone could see that. Charlie blushed. Multidisciplinary, which surprised us at first. On Poseidon, the regs restrict corporations to one industry, been like that for as long as anyone can remember. In the early days, it stopped the massive enterprises with lots of capital being the only ones who could afford a foot out into the space systems and gave the Junta more control. But no one really thought it out, ’cause it just meant the deals went below ground. Business as usual. And it helped men like Lou become big. They’re the dealmakers, setting up arrangements between the biotechs and the med-scis; genetics researcher needing neuroscience? They’d fix you up. Nothing traceable because they did nothing themselves; webmasters for information and contacts. But the Deep Deck was before all that, and there weren’t any regs in Cold Space.

The Deck’s specs were all laid out in the solid-state. She’d had bio-labs, cryos, cyberface and astro-geo fabricators, soft condensed matter, nanoetchers and hi-funk computer power.

But we couldn’t find the mission plan, and no logs for research objectives. I’d done a couple of hits on research labs over the years, and that was a first. Charlie frowned, furrows etching deeper as he skimmed the docs. Eventually, Drake got bored and went back to his novel. I sat under the star panel, and the soft whizz of Charlie scanning through kept me company into sleep.

Charlie woke me hours later with a shake, his hand cold from hours outstretched on the track ball.

“I worked it out,” he said softly. A blinking green LED lit up his wild eyes. I was awake pretty fast.

Charlie led me back to the Ranger comms, his words coming in spurts, blocking and unblocking as his thoughts gave way in a tumble. “You can’t get a sense of it, not unless you look real wide, right? Well, but it’s in there you see, like, between the lines? What they don’t say, that’s the important thing.”

“Say what you mean, Charlie.”

The sight of Drake rubbing his ugly face injected more clarity.

“There was no mission plan,” said Charlie slowly.

“We know that,” said Drake, impatient.

“On purpose.”

Drake snorted. “You wake me up for this?”

Even I smiled a bit, but Charlie, for once, wasn’t deterred.

“They did it as a Push,” he hissed. A hand whizzed off into space in illustration. Drake’s face fell with mine.

“You sure, Charlie?”

Charlie nodded fervently. We sat him down.

A Push was an experiment the Old Earth military Juntas did when the space systems were new. Took a bunch of guys up by force, set them off in space. No mission, just supplies and random crap, and forgot to mention there was no return. Then, the Junta’s sci-boys would start their fun. They’d fail the life support or the GravDeck, just to see what happened; some were told their family was being held. Then, at some critical moment, the sci-boys would tell the crew they were on their own. Pushes were supposed to log character traits necessary for life in the space systems, but anything could happen. Bunch of desperate men in a boat means complex dynamics. Ships were lost. There was anarchy and suicide and kamikaze vengeance crashes. One crew brought their spacerunner down on the Apollo tower. There’s still a crater there. As a program, Pushes were spectacular failures, but the sci-boys were fascinated. Their models expected different results. Then the planet-side journos got wind of it and public pressure shut them down … or at least, made them quiet. But that was Earth. The Junta on Poseidon still flaunted the occasional Push on its books. For political prisoners, or a threat to anyone they wanted silenced. Charlie’s dad had gone on one, way back. That’s one reason Charlie’s the way he is. Almost got myself thrown on one years ago after I salvaged some secrets the Junta didn’t want known; instead, the sci-boys put a chip in my head so I can’t remember what I found. Guess I was lucky.

But the Deep Deck being a Push was weird. A Push was always done with an old ship, not far from decommission. Even the Junta didn’t waste new infrastructure on something that would likely crash and burn. And the Deep Deck had been better than new; it was new and expensive. Best equipment. A Push didn’t make sense … except if they’d counted on a rare exception. Sometimes, the Push environment drove people into a higher state: bonded, efficient, unstoppable. Of all the Pushes, Charlie only knew of two like that. One where the guys brought their ship back to planet-side and emerged telepathic. Who knows what the Junta did with them. And another where the crew handed the Junta a gift: the Jefe raised his eyebrows and no one saw them again.

All this passed between Drake and me in an instant, but Charlie was already working the track ball, showing us the systems architecture, the setup, the personal diaries. And it looked like a Push alright. A bunch of top-class sci-boys with no mission sent off into Cold Space.

I got a cold wash when I understood Angelo’s vision. No one could claim they were just following orders. Instead, the strongest would win; progress and invention would be born and die to keep Cold Space out, and prevent it from eating the minds of all on board. And if it didn’t work, it would crash and burn like all the others. But out in Cold Space, no one would know or remember. Angelo Deep’s vision was fairly cut with crazy. Lou would love it.

“So what the hell did they come up with?”

We all turned to stare at the GhostDrives, but I had to put the idea down. GhostDrives were old tech and finicky.

“No. That’s Lou’s problem. We don’t jack ‘em here. If they’re blank, he can’t claim it was us that wiped it.”

“If they’re blank, he’ll jack us anyway,” complained Drake. But no one moved. No one was going to risk a GhostDrive in the dirty Moon Ranger ports.

“That why there wasn’t anyone there? ‘Cause of the Push?” Charlie said.

“Been three hundred years, Charlie.”

“Yeah.”

“Drake, you see anything when we was there?” Charlie asked in a small voice.

Drake shook his head. “Creepy but. The plants weren’t runnin’.”

“Yeah.”

Charlie didn’t ask me, so I didn’t say anything. Even if I had, don’t think it would have changed things.

We coasted back through the shell without activity on the comms. People who go out there don’t do it to talk to others, and the company decks don’t advertise they’re there at all. Then three days through warm space, on course for Poseidon and Lou’s hovel. We were still more than a week from planet-side, and about as far from help as you can imagine. Maybe they knew that.

Charlie came to see me just after the lights went down. We keep a 25-hour light cycle on board; a poor attempt to emulate hard-wired circadian rhythms.

“Boss.” Charlie only calls me that when he’s really distressed. When he forgets that he’s not supposed to sound like Drake, ’cause Drake doesn’t like it.

“What, Charlie?”

Charlie sat down on the edge of my bunk, rubbing his hands over his face. He was the grey of a sleepless man, but he couldn’t start himself talking.

“What, Charlie?” I said again.

“I think I’m seeing things.”

“What things?”

Charlie looked up at the ceiling, where a loose panel hung from three corners, showing the bright radiation shield behind. He rubbed at his eyes as he spoke. “Something ain’t right. Could have sworn, when we was on the Deck… I saw something funny… and now, well, something like the same. These ghosty things, here a moment, then gone again.”

“Charlie?”

He looked at me then, an empty cavernous look, eyes blank and staring. It made me pause. Charlie was a funny character, but looks like that don’t come from a person. It was a thing that made it; more basic than a person, more fundamental. A look of raw yearning, calculating for a primal need and deciding whether to kill you for it. I’ve seen that look before, but never in a man’s eyes. Charlie shook his head and the look was gone.

“Boss,” he croaked finally. “Did you see anything, out there? On the Deck?”

I’m not in the habit of lying. “Couldn’t be sure, Charlie. Maybe, but not till we were off anyways, even then I couldn’t be sure what it was.”

Charlie nodded, staring out the port into the big black. “Can we check the tapes?” he said.

That was bold for Charlie. The surveillance buffer was held on the Deck’s HoloGen black box. HoloGen’s run a buffer, but only actually record significant events, which includes the black box being removed, so it would show our salvage. But the HoloGen was my prize, and no one ever put a hand on someone else’s goods. Charlie would never have asked, the Charlie I knew. That should have been my first clue.

But I said, “Sure, Charlie.”

We went through every feed, watching ourselves and the otherwise empty Deck, three times through. We saw nothing.

“Maybe we should try—”

“Again,” said Charlie.

I sighed and reloaded. One more time. An hour later, Charlie got up and I watched him go. That’s when I caught it; just at the corner of vision. If I didn’t look directly at the screen, I saw a blip in the frame rate, like creases in feed, a presence hidden under some kind of cloaking. They were there all the time: those things I’d seen in the port as we’d pulsed away from the Deck. One followed Charlie as he moved through the labs, a holographic shadow touched him while he picked up some tubes. Another traced Drake as he opened a cupboard, lifting a book in a thermaseal case. Ah, fuck, they were everywhere. The whole time they’d followed, shadowed, touched. My stomach volunteered for a turn-out, and I had to look away, swallowing.

I had no idea what the hell they were. I watched myself on the bridge, but there weren’t any hovering shapes there.

Then, I got a crawling sensation, enough to make me look around.

Charlie stood over me, frozen, his face blank and fixed. He had a galley knife in his hand and drool slicked in a long string from his mouth. He wiped his mouth slowly, and stared at the knife like he didn’t know what it was.

“Charlie?” My voice shook, a rare thing.

Charlie put the knife on the table slowly, then sat. Blinked twice. “Hm?”

“What are you doing?”

He looked up and down, confused. Went white, like he might vomit. “Think I’ll go and lie down, boss.”

“Good idea.”

I got Drake.

While Charlie slept, we cracked the GhostDrive. Drake drank cup after cup of the foul brown liquor he’s fond of. I just got high on the fumes. The research logs were long and stopped suddenly eighty years after the Deck’s launch. Long before that, the entries acquired a Cold Space-soaked lingo that made it new-space Dutch to me. But Drake was educated. He worked it out.

“They locked them in there, you know,” he said.

“In the Deck?”

Drake looked around to see if Charlie was back. He wasn’t. “Yeah. They didn’t tell ’em about the Push. They brought ’em out here, told ’em it was a job in the shell maybe. But then, they boosted the Deck and left ’em there. That’s what I reckon.”

“Yeah?”

“No thrusters. Anywhere.” Drake tapped the plant layouts. “So no steering, no orbit change. Committed and helpless.”

I shuddered. “Wonder who they pissed off.”

“The sci-boys? I don’t reckon they did nothin’, ‘cept being the best at all this shit.”

“Why waste them on a Push, then?”

Drake didn’t answer but laid out the Deck’s starting streams. He showed me how all of them—the biomeds, nanotech, physiology, psychology, microgravity—had run together and become indistinct from the sci-boys themselves. There was one all-consuming objective: to get out. They’d tried every angle to change themselves … viruses, machines, pharma, … ways to be consumed and remade, remembered and reformed, over and over. Trying to become something that would last.

Drake rubbed his eyes. Squinted at the dregs in his cup. Rolled his tongue around like he’d just noticed the liquor tasted foul.

“Those smart sci-boys and all their tech on a Push means you’re probably gonna get high-tech fighters out of it, right?” he said. “I mean, biomed, nanotech, physiol, all that stuff … Angelo probably expected they’d finish up self-experimenting. Might make sense if you wanted trooper mods, like the Junta does. But what I don’t get? Why the hell would you do it on a Push for three hundred turns? What comes back might not want to play no more.”

Yeah was all I could say.

Drake glanced around again, looking for Charlie, then stared me right in the eye. “Why would Deep do it? I mean, the Junta hated him, right? Why try to make something they could steal?”

I didn’t know.

“If it was you,” said Drake. “Whadda you reckon you’d want if you got out after all that time?”

We looked at each other.

“Revenge,” I said, feeling a cold wash replacing Drake’s liquor in my guts.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

Finally, the alarms are going. There’s two—one slow whoop for the approach vector, one rapid bleep for the life support. That means in twenty clicks, the DistComp will mayday the tower and take over.

She can try.

By then, the Ranger will be a heartless shell, spinning helpless towards Poseidon, because I’ve got the black box. It’s the size of my thumb, wires adangle.

I hear dragging footsteps out in the passage, steps made on inhuman legs. A dull wet thump counterpoints the steps. Then there’s a metallic crash against the door.

He’s found a tool then. It. It’s found a tool.

And I’ve got to worry about that, because Drake was always smarter. And that seems to make a difference.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

Charlie never came back from his bunk. Drake went to look about 0930 and didn’t find him. We started a watch.

We were all strung up, expecting attack, but we didn’t see it coming.

Without so much as a photon out of place, Drake took a heavy hit, went down fast. The thing that had done it flickered, and I saw it.

It was Charlie.

Or at least, something like Charlie. It stood leering, teetering, fixing Drake with one white eye. The moment stretched eternal as I saw: flesh hung from the other eye socket in stringy threads. His fingers were moth-eaten, knuckles split to the bone with the flesh dry and raw.

The white eye swivelled round to me. The thing reached, and stumbled. I choked on an acid heartbeat and went for the door. By then, once-was-Charlie was vanishing again, his skin going milky then clear. The transparency wavered as if Charlie was fighting against whatever was taking over his body. He took two steps, then fell through the door face first, ending up unconscious on the GravDeck.

My body moved without me, doubling back for the bridge where we keep the arms all salvagers carry. I closed the bridge port and went to Drake. He breathed shallow; where his head had hit the wall was a bloody spot like a sun. I shook an Armour Special from the arms locker, felt the barrel’s weight. Approached the second port with the Armour cocked and ready.

But Charlie was gone. I kicked around the floor. Not just invisible. Gone.

Not knowing if the thing was already inside, I sealed the bridge and changed the door codes. Did a sweep, passing down the passageways like marine guys I’d seen on the telefeeds. Around corners, barrel out. Scared shitless, but desperate.

Nothing.

Charlie’d done a runner, probably holed up in some hull crack. I got to thinking, and I reckoned Charlie passing out had been the last of his will power. Next time we saw him, there’d be no trace of him at all. So I went back to the bridge and got sealed inside. Only then did I check the Armour. Not loaded. Fuck. And no ammo in the arms locker. Cold Space settled in my stomach; there’d been ammo there when I opened it. And Drake was still out cold. No-longer-Charlie had been back while I was away and swiped it. That’s when the pings started for planet-side approach. Talk about fucked up timing. Poseidon was still several hours and we had a problem to contain. I got tools and started ripping panels.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

The black box is ended, boot-shaped dent in it. I shredded the HoloGen and the GhostDrive with a plasma cutter. Can’t have Lou getting profit outta this. But there’s still the thing behind the door. The planet-side research bins are pretty sharp, they’ll try to study it. So if it gets down, it’ll be out, no question.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

Drake woke eventually. Came round groggy, one pupil fixed and dilated. He didn’t make much sense. But I knew what he was trying to say. That we were rooted and never going home. That the Deep Deck’s tech was taking over. Something superior, a survivor. He mumbled about picomachines and reworking the body. About regeneration and spreading, things I hadn’t read in the logs, but he had. In a conscious moment, he railed about the sci-boys on the Deck; that whatever was left of them hadn’t come with us because the Moon Ranger was too small for mass escape, but they could send agents. So, if I landed, it would be as one of them, and the rest of the verse to follow. I told myself he was damaged, that he wasn’t making sense, but he was.

I did another sweep once those pings came on, buoyed up on a swig of Drake’s brew. I wanted to know what lurked in the Ranger; I wanted to end the problem. I wanted to believe I was going home.

I found Charlie. He was lying on the GravDeck, near his bunk. He’d taken a knife to his face and gouged out his temple, soft pink brain dripping red into a puddle. Made me think of strawberry sauce at a Poseidon candy bar, so I spent a minute heaving up nothing on the GravDeck.

And Charlie had done it all right. One last courageous act. I told Drake, and he mumbled about disinhibition. He said the disassemblers started in the front of the brain, where they could start pulling apart. Drake reckoned that’s why Charlie was seeing things, why he’d gotten bold. The things got in through the eyes, optic nerve like a pipe to the brain. And as they went, the disassemblers couldn’t avoid setting off signals. Then, they got into the frontal lobes: undoing the brain parts that keep you socially in line. Eventually, it would remodel everything it wanted. That’s why the skin looked all raw and dry. Wasn’t cut up at all, just being stripped for parts one angstrom at a time. The Deck sci-boys must have thought they were immortal, but once your brain gets taken over, there were no rules anymore.

I didn’t touch him.

But I got to thinking about why the thing would try to kill Drake. Ah. I stopped. Got a notion: bold Charlie, knows he’s done for, but tries to kill Drake, the smartest guy on the ship. Because he knows the things are already working on Drake.

I got the cold chills again, but this time, the ones that come when you know you’re alone and being hunted.

Went back to the bridge.

The gun was gone. And so was Drake.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

He’s gone quiet out there, but I can hear the keypad bipping as he pushes keys. I’d shut down the system, but the doors failsafe to open. And even without the thing, there’s not much air out there, and I won’t choose to suffocate. That’s a joke around the ship ports. Way back, when the boats were first on the ocean, a sailor’s death was drowning. Now, out here, it’s bug-eyed death in the vacuum.

It’s the one thing I can’t face.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

With Drake gone, I finally believed him. The Deck things hadn’t taken the Moon Ranger when we were docked because they weren’t stupid. A lot changes in 300 years, and not enough spots for all to escape, so safer to keep the crew human until they knew where they were bound. They’d sent an agent, or agents: parasites. To make more of them. What the plan was from there, who knew. Rescue mission? Takeover? It didn’t matter.

I blew the life support lines. Anything I could jettison from the bridge, I tripped. Air went rushing out of the Ranger, all but the bridge bubble. For a few minutes, I thought I’d done some good, but the footsteps started up.

Like a dead man, slow and steady.

Drake was far beyond needing to breathe so much. The undead don’t need it.

I thought about snuffing out. Not suffocating exactly; I’d let the core monoxide bleed back into the bridge. Breathe my way to quiet cherry-red death. He was going to get in here anyway, and there was nowhere else to go.

I got as far as the final switch, a big red fucker marked with danger: maintenance use only. Then I paused for comforting routine, and ran my fingers over the re-entry checks, which made me look at the hull cams: I saw a bright buff around the life support exhaust pipe. Now, ceramometalic ship hulls like the Ranger‘s get a space patina: a dull skin shot-peened by tiny flakes of this and that, and slow planet-side oxidation. But the metal around that pipe was bright and glowing, like the Ranger was a clean-skin again, fresh from the assemblers, not five decades in service. Just like the Deep Deck, scrubbed clean with pico-who-knew-what-machines. The things were beyond just us. They had the Moon Ranger, headed for Poseidon. Where there’s a thousand other ships, and thousands more hapless tars like me.

So I tipped the entry too deep, and set a trap inside the door. Got my heavy tools out and went hunting for that black box so no one could trace us back. The only problems now are the Junta and Lou. Because there had to be nothing left to tempt them, and if any fragment of the DistComp survived, they’d have the answer and send another mob. Pull out the stops and find a bent ship with bigger boosters than the Ranger.

They might just make it.

***Stitching non-concordant thought stream***

The keypad entries get slow and deliberate. I think Drake is fully gone now, the thing just riding on what’s left of his grey matter. And the Armour’s out there too, though somehow I doubt he’ll use it. I know he’s after me alive. Another body to infect. Become a dead host for pico-assemblers, hive machines with an appetite for brain and a hunger for revenge.

Bip. Bip. Bip. Bip. He’s trying combinations in order now. Pity; in the reset I hurried and set 0-0-0-3.

So two more goes and the door shoots open with a burst of flame: Drake’s liquor in its only useful function. A fireball flares around an invisible mass. Drake flickers visible. His skin lights in places, but mostly it just glows bright. Raw flesh hangs from his neck, flames leap through the gaps.

The heat mixes with the hot cabin air, rushing out into the void.

It stumbles forward.

The ship shudders. Alarms are going off everywhere. I silence them all and they become red flashes on my retinas. I put my hands on the Ranger‘s controls. Outside the port, the air glows: white hot plasma superheating in our stream. The ceramic won’t last much longer.

Something cracks.

In my rear-view, Drake’s white eyes go to the instrument panel, then to my throat.

But it’s too late.

The port streaks and melts. Thick hot air burns my insides.

The thing in Drake knows it’s too late, but it comes on anyway.

There’s time to think silent apology to the Moon Ranger for this death, before a ragged, half-seen hand grips my throat. Before the tingling invasion of disassemblers burrows into my jaw. One more host. A chance to survive the crash.

But I’m the best there is at course plotting.

She cracks again, and the bridge is a plasma hot breath. My body’s gone, silent, a captain’s death.

But the last thought is hope. That Lou doesn’t send another team. That this ship burns so nothing’s left. That the Deep Deck finds a comet on her long orbit, or some other means of destruction. That she’s not still there when the Poseidon system expands itself into Cold Space, ready for invasion.

 

**********

End. Recompile terminated near subject expiry.

Neural Ship Log on chip series 0041-A.

Recompile:0426 Poseidon Sci-Bin004 DistCompsubrtneJJ64.

Subject: Parker, J.

File 06801A-Moon Ranger

Awaiting Command??

A bit about the author:

Charlotte Nash is the author of speculative fiction short stories, spanning multiple genres, and a best-selling author of romantic Australian fiction novels. Visit author page