The man with the gun spat in his palm and rubbed some blood
off his laser rifle’s barrel. Below the starry blue shimmer of
an artificial atmosphere, the campfire’s orange glow lit the
little craters of his face, deepening the shadows of its
wrinkles and cracks.
“So the guy takes off my blindfold,” said the young man prodding the fire with a finger of rusty rebar, “and there he is: Giant Barry.”
“You saw Giant Barry?” The man with the gun raised an eyebrow.
“In the flesh. Fifteen feet tall. Shirtless. Pustulent. Cooling tubes everywhere. Nipples the size of a regular person’s head. Says ‘Here big man, make’s a key to get inty Centro’s offworld servers and I’ve got a new life for yi waiting on Aaru.’”
The man with the gun humoured his companion. “And then what happened?”
“Well, I'm alive, right? Someone’s coming to collect me tomorrow, thank fuck. What you on here for?”
“Assassination, mainly,” said the man, in the ghost of a Russian accent. “But I do all kinds of things. Sometimes a bounty hunter, sometimes a thief, spy, whatever.”
The young smiled behind his bottle. “And how does the same old guy keep getting away with all that these days? Are you like a master of disguise or something?”
Someone in the dark approached the campfire. “You boys don’t mind if I join you?” An old man with a limp settled down just beyond the light’s reach, his face obscured by a Stetson hat.
“And what brings a dignified-looking gentleman like you to a place like this?” the young man asked.
“To the campfire? I'm on an asteroid hideaway with Andromeda’s most violent criminals and they’re all completely shitfaced in the same pub, this is literally the one quiet spot in the world. The asteroid? Longer story.”
“We’ve got all night,” said the man with the gun.
The old man paused. “You seem like...capable lads. Alright then. Either of you ever heard of a Siren?”
“Human mythology, yeah?” The man with the gun looked up at the stars in thought. “You and your boys are sailing away then you’re drawn to the sound of these gorgeous, seductive women trying to entice you into sailing over. Then once you get close, bam!” He clapped his hands. “Out come the claws and the toothy sluts are dragging you to the bottom of the ocean.”
“Oh,” said the young man. “So you’ve met my ex.”
They chuckled for a moment, before the old man tried to steer things back to his story. “Well, they’re not mythology, and if they ever were human they’re certainly fuckin’ not anymore. Siren’s Claw, you know it?”
“Ship graveyard in the middle of Aegea,” replied the man with the gun. “It’s in an...asteroid cloud, isn’t it?”
The old man smiled beneath his hat. “You’ve been around the block, haven’t you? Well you’re not the only one, friend. It just used to be some asteroid cloud, see, the name only started spreading around our kinda circles a few years ago. Nobody knows exactly when, but I can tell you how.”
“Go on then,” said the man with the gun, smiling. “Tell our young friend how a random patch of space dust came to be ‘Siren’s Claw’.”
“Very well, then.” The old man paused for dramatic effect. “Some tell it like a...rousing adventure of interstellar troops shooting up alien invaders. A tale of space exploration and pioneering derring-do, soldiers in mechanised suits of armor slaying monsters, defeating the odds and saving the day. But it’s also somethin’ of a ghost story, and it all started with the massacre…”
In the living area of the Treehouse, a circular room offset
from the walkway, Gwen sat in the corner of a large windowsill
reading downloaded articles and essays on a clear glass tablet.
Emily lay on the semi-circular sofa that ran around half the
sunken part of the room, nominally watching one of too many
boxsets, but actually observing Redacted’s demonstration.
“Okay, go,” they said, pointing two metal thumbs at themselves.
“They,” replied Odysseus, sat attentively on the sofa.
Redacted glowed white with polygon mesh for a moment, shifting from their default presentation to a blonde man with stubble on his strong jaw.
“Uh-uh,” said Redacted, closing his eyes and shifting to a woman whose face was heavily pierced, her head shaved at the sides leaving a strip of green at the top.
“She. Hers. Et cetera.”
“Easy, right?” Redacted flopped back onto the sofa, more flexible and expressive than before.
“That’s another thing,” said Odysseus. “Why d’you just stay in human forms sometimes? Doesn’t that use up energy?”
She mock-sighed. “Putting on clothes uses up energy yet you still insist on doing so, to hilarious consequences.”
Everyone in the room looked up, the Treehouse’s alarm was blaring. Emily shot up and looked closer at the screen.
Gwen audibly scowled from across the room. “We just got rid of this bi-”
“It’s not a direct call, the ship’s picking up a distress signal.” Emily pressed a button, and speakers in the roof hissed with growling static for a full 20 seconds.
“Must be nothing,” said Gwen.
“Hang on,” Odysseus held out a hand. “Can you tune this or something? It’s like there’s something under the noise.”
Emily adjusted a dial, and then they all heard it. To call it a ‘song’ would imply some kind of rigid structure or melody, this was something different. Simultaneously more natural, and beautiful because of it, but strained and haunted, alienating and authoritative. Even smothered by signal distortion, the sound was seductive in its fullness, enchanting in its otherworldly tremble. Emily looked out the window, and tried to see past her own reflection into the void. Dark was the song, which she felt in her chest - only for a moment - drawing her into the awe and the capital-B Blackness. If space made a sound, if icy dead planets sung in the cosmic wind, this was their voice, and it was gorgeous.
Dorian switched it off. “Well that was nice.” He walked over to the bar, dressed in a white shirt under a woollen waistcoat, and poured himself a drink. “As a native I can tell you these parts of Aegea are known for smugglers and pirates taking shortcuts through the asteroid clouds. If one hears a distress signal with no proper authorisation code, best to ignore and sail on.”
“Yeah, suppose you’re right,” said Odysseus. “Cool song though.”
Emily was still standing, a finger raised and frozen.
“Emily?” Odysseus leaned forward on the sofa.
“Does anyone else…did that not sound...weirdly familiar to anyone? I feel- I don’t know how but…” she trailed off. “I want to go.”
Dorian threw his head back and sighed dramatically.
“Odysseus!” Emily pointed at him. “You were the first one to notice, you felt it too, didn’t you? Like you’ve heard it before?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I heard it on TV ages ago,” he laughed it off and stood up.
“No, don’t hold back because you’re self-conscious about Dorian, this is important. What did it feel like?”
“Uh...weird and sort of terrifying, mostly.”
“But in the best possible way, right? Like, flying or falling in love or…seeing Earth from space for the first time.”
“I was thinking more ‘alien’.”
“Alien!” Emily clicked her fingers. “Are you sure that was even a human voice? How do you know we haven’t just heard some kind of…space whale, singing through the void?”
“Space whales?” Dorian interrupted. “Is that where we’re going now?”
Emily spun around. “That’s actually exactly what I’m proposing Dorian, yes.”
Redacted outright cackled.
Odysseus folded his arms. “Gwen?”
“Well…” she thought for a moment. “Which would you rather live with, getting into trouble for a bit or leaving people to die?”
“MAYBE, probably not, leaving people to die,” said Dorian.
“I think Dorian’s right on this one,” Odysseus said, wandering over to his side of the room. “Don’t you think you’re just creating some dire situation in eachother’s heads here?”
“Getting into danger would be a fixed certainty”, Dorian added. “Whereas you’d never have to find out whether or not you abandoned someone. Think of all the distress signals that we never pick up, that we fly just out of reach of. You don’t lose sleep over them.”
Gwen smiled. “But does the uncertainty not just torture you, Dorian?”
“No, actually,” he shook his head. He nodded his head. “Actually yes. Fucking hell.”
The Treehouse slowed as it neared the source of the
mysterious song: a military-looking ship with “THE PENTECONTER”
painted along the hull. The ship was completely dark, with no
signs of life. From a puncture in the back, a trail of fuel
shimmered and froze in the void.
Gwen tuned the Treehouse’s communications and pulled an antique corded microphone down from its socket above her chair. “This is Captain Gwen Lambert of the Treehouse requesting permission to board, do you copy?”
“This is Captain Gwen Lambert of the Treehouse requesting permission to board, do you copy?”
“This is Captain Gwen Lambert of the Treehouse and-” she pulled the microphone to her lips “-YER MAW’S A BEETROOT IS THERE ANYONE IN? NO? RIGHT SEE YIS.” She let the mic go and it flew back into its port. “Well, must be a ghost ship or something, nobody’s home.”
“Someone’s definitely home,” said Emily, pointing to the Penterconter’s docking arm, which was extending towards them.
Gwen squinted and could just see a small figure waving at them behind a window.
“That’s a military ship Gwen,” said Redacted, her arms folded. “How many heavily-armed soldiers’ mothers have you just insulted? How many beetroots?”
The crew stood at the Treehouse’s door, waiting for the hiss
of the Penteconter’s dock to stop. Gwen flashed a ball of energy
on and off in her fist; Redacted stood still, not pretending to
breathe; Odysseus appeared calm and collected, reminding himself
not to fidget with the hilt of his sword, and Dorian finished
booting up Oppenheimer, a gun larger than a human child, which
he attached to a magnetic harness on his back. The ship lurched
as it clicked into the Penteconter, and the door unfolded open.
They stepped into the Penteconter’s silent docking station, a large, messy room lit only by a faint and distant star.
Emily looked around. “This ship’s pretty big, it should have crew all over. Where is every-”
Behind boxes and overturned tables, five soldiers popped out from cover and pointed their guns at the crew, blinding them with rifle-mounted torches.
Gwen spoke up, hands in the air. “Okay! Okay. We’ve all said things we regret, and I understand you all love your mothers very much, but in my culture…” she put a hand to her chest, “the beetroot is an ancient symbol of maternal-”
“Who are you?!” barked a soldier, stepping out from cover.
“Oh, right.” She straightened herself upright. “I'm Captain Gwen Lambert of the Treehouse, this is my crew, we’re here about the distress call.”
“Oh thank fuck,” the soldier gestured for the others to lower their weapons and stepped into the dim light, revealing a crescent moon-shaped scar down his bandaged face that started above his eyebrow and ended at the corner of his mouth. “Lieutenant John Livingstone,” said the soldier, shaking Gwen’s hand. “Behind me is Davies, our engineer, Jameson and Walker…”
The serious-faced identical twins nodded in unison.
“...over there’s Lewis-”
“Hi,” said Lewis.
“Yeah, and it was quite the call,” said Emily. “What was up with that weird singing?”
Livingstone paused. “What singing?”
“This,” she set her communicator to play at full volume:
“This is Lieutenant John Livingstone of the Penteconter, requesting immediate assistance from any ships nearby. There are sixty of us left out of a crew of a hundred, our systems have been sabotaged and we’re under attack from some kind of-” he was interrupted by a scream in the distance that crackled over the microphone. “Our security has gone into lockdown and cut us off from the command bridge, our shields are down and the ship is drifting into the path of an asteroid cloud with hours to spare. If you receive this mess-OH JESUS-” the message cut, leaving only static, and no song.
“That’s how I got this,” said the Lieutenant, gesturing to his scar.
“But…” Emily turned to the rest of the crew. “We all heard the song, though, didn’t we? I'm not imagining…”
“We all heard it,” said Gwen. “Must have been a glitch or interference or something. So there’s forty people still left on this ship?”
“No.” the Lieutenant stated. “That message was recorded ten hours ago. There’d been an explosion at the engines, outside the hull. We wondered how anything got through the shields, then it attacked the command bridge from the outside and cleared the room out. The captain deployed the lockdown, maybe, nobody knew where he was but we just assumed...but that trapped everyone in their own little box. Next ten hours we just sat in the docking station listening to the comms, keeping a mental map of where the screams were coming from, the whole ship going quieter and quieter. We’re most likely the only ones left.”
“Well,” Gwen paused, hands in pockets. “I'm sorry for your loss but that does make our job a little bit easier.” She gestured towards the Treehouse’s open door. “Come in then, we’ll get you patched up and take you back to your nearest outpost.”
“It’s not that simple, Captain.”
Gwen sighed. “It never is, is it?”
“This isn’t just any military ship, it’s an ambulance. We’re carrying forty critically wounded soldiers in cryostasis pods down below. This ship has to get home, and the only way we can do that is by reaching the command bridge.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
“Over here,” the Lieutenant walked over to a large screen in the wall showing an outline of the Penteconter with a control panel below. He pointed at a small section labeled “Docking Station”. “This is us,” he said. “The security has gone haywire, probably the creature’s doing, so the top two floors locked down behind us on our way here. That leaves us with this route through to the bridge.” He waved his finger across the middle floor of the Penteconter, past rooms labelled “Med Bay” and “Rec Room”. “Even if we get there, we’re defenceless without the turrets online, so a group’s going to have to down into Maintenance and fix the power, then we regroup back at the Green” he said, circling his finger around a large room near the back. “Finally, we go upstairs to the Command Bridge and take back control of the ship. If we get the defences back on and kill this thing, if you capable-lookin’ lot haven’t handled it already.” He nodded towards the gun on Dorian’s back. “Sound good?”
“Huh.” Gwen thought for a moment. “So the basic problem is overriding the ship’s computer, right?”
“Yeah,” Redacted sighed, walking over to the control panel. “Oh, there’s actually a port for robot soldiers. Whose army is this?”
“Elysium’s,” said the Lieutenant. “But we’re from all over Aegea. We’re taking wounded back from busting Medusa nests all over the Yanartas system.”
Redacted plugged her finger into the port and felt her way through the systems. “The actual firewall’s pretty strong but if I work around the power systems I can-” The control panel sparked and the screen exploded, sending Redacted flying back as Gwen threw up a shield to protect everyone from the shards of hot plastic and metal.
“Red, are you okay!?” Gwen rushed over to her.
Redacted shot up, grinning at the wreck. “What the hell’s a clever girl like you doing in a ship like this?”
“Not you, the computer!”
“Oh of course.”
She stood up. “The only actual hardware for identifying personnel is some facial recognition cameras throughout the ship but none of them are working-”
“Creature’s doing, ripping them apart as it goes,” added Livingstone.
“-yet the ship’s computer already knows we’re intruders, I didn’t even feel it running a check or anything it just KNEW-”
“Red…” Gwen intoned as everyone aimed their weapons at something outside the window.
“-To assume intrusion-by-default would be silly because otherwise nobody would ever be able to use anything because there’s no actual checks for that, so this ridiculous brain must be somehow-”
“Yeah?” she asked, as a shadow flitted across her face, being followed by the aim of everyone in the room. She reached into her chest and pulled out a pistol, waiting for the shadow to come back into view.
“Where is it?” Gwen muttered.
The Lieutenant whispered. “Above the roof, probab-”
An explosion burst one of the large windows and there was a roar as the air was sucked out of the room.
“THROUGH THERE!” Livingstone pointed to a corridor as the hole started sucking debris out into space. Everyone made it except Redacted, clinging to the corridor’s edge as the room emptied. Before she could shout for help, Gwen ran over and grabbed her hand, pulling her up and using magic to launch her over at the rest of the group. Gwen slammed a button to shut the door and ran to catch up.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT THING!?” she shouted.
“LET’S HOPE WE NEVER FIND OU-”
A small window in the roof of the corridor shattered as the clawed monster dived in and grabbed Phillips by his intestines. The soldiers shot with their laser rifles but all their bolts were hoovered out into the void. The creature took a swipe at Davies but Gwen grabbed him and launched back with her magic. “Here!” she shouted and everyone on her side of the creature dived into a side-corridor, whose door automatically slammed behind them.
“Bit ‘Deus Ex Machina’, isn’t it? The door closing like
that,” said the young man.
“What?” said the old man.
“Deus Ex Machina. Literally ‘god from the machine’, it’s a storytelling convention originally described in ancient Greece where-”
“Are you a fuckin’ poof or something?”
The young man leaned back slightly. “No.”
“Then don’t interrupt the fuckin’ story. Right. As I was saying...”
The gunfire and the shouting on the other side faded away.
Gwen buzzed Emily on her communicator. “What’s happening?”
“We’re being chased through the corridor, one of the soldie- Oh,” she paused to take a breath. “There was a terminal for the door, he managed to lock it with a password or something.”
“Yeah, the door we went through just closed on its own, which is...inconsistent.”
Someone spoke in the background. “Is that Lambert?”
A crackle as the microphone moved.
“It’s Livingstone. Where are you?”
“We’re...we escaped into a side corridor. There’s…” Gwen looked around for any kind of sign, spotting a red cross on a wall in the distance. “We’re in some medical area.”
“Right, who’s with you?”
“It’s me, Redacted, Davies, and Jameson.”
“Oh, good. Jameson’s the engineer out of us and you’re close to the maintenance section. We’re at a disadvantage in the dark, get down there and restore power to the ship’s systems. That’s your priority. We’ve got the door passwords on our I-Cameras,” he said, fiddling with an eyepatch that generated a tiny HUD around his eye. “Get Davies to send them to your communicator in case you get split up again. Once that’s done, head over to the Green and we’ll meet you there. Copy?”
“Um, yeah. Copy.”
Livingstone let go of the communicator, still attached to Emily’s arm, and picked up his rifle. “Let’s move. Keep your eyes and guns on the windows, that’s where it likes to strike.”
“Any idea what ‘it’ is?” Dorian asked as they walked through to the next room.
“Well, it can survive outside without a suit. That’s fucking freaky enough. It’s fast and, worse, intelligent. That explosion back there? Second time it’s pulled that stunt. No idea how.”
“It’s a military ship, have you checked the armory? Maybe it’s taken explosives or-”
“With the ship on lockdown it can’t get through without the door passwords, and we changed those just last week. That’s why it has to stay outside.” He entered the password for a door labelled “REC ROOM”. “It’s weak, that’s why it has to pick off stragglers.”
The door hissed open. One of the slanted windows in the Rec Room had been sealed by a metal covering above a puddle of smashed glass. That side of the room was dotted with laserfire burns, the other was decorated with guns, and painted with corpses.
“Oh, shit!” Livingstone rushed over to check for signs of life.
“Another thing,” Dorian continued. “Windows. Why’s a military ship got so many bloody great windows?”
“We had shields that wouldn’t let anything through,” said Walker. “Til the bitch cut the power off.”
“‘The bitch’?” Dorian asked.
“Walker says it’s a girl,” Lewis replied.
“Yeah,” Walker protested. “Saw its long hair floating out in the void.”
“Whatever it is,” Livingstone interrupted, “it killed these seven men, slowly. Ran them through and left them to bleed.” He stood up, straight-faced but frantically tracing the chaos with his eyes. “Come on, no time to mourn. Stick together,” he ordered and marched through the dark corridor, ahead of everyone else.
Odysseus picked up a rifle from the mess, and immediately aimed at a creaking pipe in the roof.
Walker laughed. “Hey, Lewis, you hear that?”
“Fuck off,” Lewis muttered.
Walker turned to Odysseus and Dorian. “He says the ship’s haunted.”
“I never said that,” he clenched his rifle. “I just said I was in the engine room the other night - alone - and heard what sounded like bare footsteps echoing down the corridor. I even said at the time there was probably just a leaky pipe.”
“Aye there was,” he grinned. “You’d pissed yourself before you’d run back to the barracks.”
Emily quietly caught up with Livingstone. “Hey.”
“Where are you from?”
Livingstone screwed up his face. “We’re being stalked by a monster in total darkness and you’ve split off from the group to make smalltalk?”
“There are worse reasons to split off from a group.” She stayed close as they crept through the black together. “A captain not wanting to look weak in front of his crew is one of them.”
“Why would I look weak?”
“Because you’re scared. That’s fine, that is absolutely the correct response to this, but you’re holding up well, nearly everyone else in the universe would have given up by-”
“I'm not the captain. Lieutenant. Nobody’s seen the captain since the attack started, presumed dead. I'm in charge of that lot back there, which means I'm probably in charge of the whole ship.”
“Which makes you captain.”
“If that’s supposed to help me feel better, it doesn’t.”
“Then let’s talk about something nice, where are you from?”
He smirked. “Fleuron.”
Emily’s small, reassuring smile withered. “Oh...”
The lieutenant laughed. “Well, got what you wanted.”
“Livingstone.” Dorian interrupted, startling them both.
“We’re close to the armory now,” he said, looking at the blips moving across his tablet’s map rather than the corridor in front of him. “There are maintenance airlocks around the ship which would serve as optim-”
“Hang on,” Livingstone interrupted. “How the hell do you have a map of the ship on your wee device there, that’s behind military-level encryption!”
“Oh that’s what that pop-up was,” Dorian nodded. “Right. Well there are maintenance airlocks around the ship which would serve as optimal entry points. I'm no tactician, but what if we got explosives from the armory and rigged the airlocks to explode if anything tries to enter? It’s just a glaring security flaw, is all. It’s like your IT guy in that way.”
“The computer handles lockdown security, but the lockdown means they’re nonfunctional. Still, once we’ve taken back control of the ship, it’s an idea.”
“D’you not think the monster’s too clever for that?” said Lewis.
“D’you not think you’re overestimating the intelligence of a creature whose M.O. literally consists of bringing knives to gunfights?” Odysseus replied, smiling.
“And winning.” Dorian added.
“Here’s one now,” said Odysseus, stepping through a doorway to get a closer look at the airlock. “And it looks like it got here before us.”
“What do you mean?” Lewis pointed his flashlight at the little console by the door.
“There’s scratches all over this thing,” Odysseus replied.
Dorian hurried over. “Let me see the exact markings on the-”
There was a hiss and Walker shouted, jumping back as another security door came down like a guillotine blade in front of him.
“Oh, shit!” Lewis ran over to the door, gave up and ran to a window to the corridor. “SIR! OVER HERE!” he knocked on the glass.
Livingstone, Walker and Odysseus appeared on the other side, Dorian inspecting the scratches on the console.
“Fucking computer’s lost it!” Livingstone shouted through the window. “Hang on! Maybe I can get the others to override it! Can you see the armory from where you are!?”
Lewis stepped back, looking down the long corridor. “Yeah boss, I think I can see it.”
“It’s one of the safest rooms in the Penteconter. There are two doors, one on your side and one that Walker and I can access from around the other side of the ship. We’ll meet you inside, alright?”
Lewis nodded, and Livingstone set off, two fingers against his earpiece. “Jameson.”
“Where are you?”
“We’re coming up to the electrics now,” he said.
“Thank fuck,” Livingstone muttered. “Any casualties?”
“Lambert and the robot are still with us,” he replied, an orb of energy in Gwen’s hand lighting the corridor ahead in crimson light. “No encounters with the creature, it’s been totally silent down here. You?”
“Just corpses, faulty fuckin’ doors splittin’ us up”, said Livingstone. “See if you can get the computer working normally again from down there.”
Jameson stopped a sigh. “The computer has never worked normally, Lieutenant Livingstone. Secondly, this is the power mains, not the AI core, the best I can do is maybe redirect power from the AI to the rest of the ship.”
“Then put the bitch to sleep.” The signal cut off.
“Hey Lambert,” Jameson shouted down the hall.
“Stop here, we’re at the power mains. On your right.”
Gwen looked right and reached towards the door, lighting the room up. “Ooh, shit.”
Jameson hurried over. “How bad is it?”
She widened her eyes and sucked in stale air through her teeth. “At’s a jobbieanahalf at is.”
“What?” Jameson arrived. “Oh.” He surveyed the flayed mess of live wires, dead wires, circuit boards, fuse boxes, dripping coolant, and bite marks.
“When we realised we were being attacked, the power was the first thing to go. Makes sense.”
Gwen continued, shaking her head: “See at’s whit am sayin av nae got the right tools for iss-”
“Hang on,” Redacted interrupted. “When you ‘realised’ there was an attack? Wasn’t there any kind of alarm?”
“No. Which was either due to a power failure,” Jameson muttered as he ducked under a wire into the cramped room, “or it hacked into the system somehow and managed to pass itself off as a friendly. That’s what I'm trying to find out.”
He vanished into the tangle, and Davies leaned against the door, keeping his rifle close. “I would like to have a private conversation with my colleague, please.”
Gwen folded her arms. “Did your captain not tell us all to stick together?”
“You seem like you can handle yourself, soldier,” he nodded towards her hands.
“These are civilian-level implants.”
“And what’s coming out of them ain’t civilian. It’s a personal matter, we’ll just be two ticks.”
Gwen pushed off the wall and walked over to Redacted, who hovered around a door labelled “Suspension Room”. Without speaking, curiosity had walked them in. The room was black, barely lit by the opaque green vats on either side of the two-storey T-shaped corridor. Through the glass they could only see the most indeterminate outlines of human figures, some made uncanny from the severity of their wounds. Each vat was numbered at the top, and each had a backlit screen with information: “#37, Sgt. Diego Álvaro, human, male, age 25, assumed-fatal wounds from explosion, extensive and fundamental structural repairs necessary”; “#14, Madeline O’Neil, ????, female, age 17, multiple lacerations, shattered radius, gene therapy in progress”.
Something squelched below their footfall, and at the intersection of the corridor, a vat was missing. #26. There was still a white light set in the top, shining over ragged glass and a spiderslegs of autonomous medical equipment.
“Must be the goo from in there,” Gwen muttered.
“Chemical analysis indicates compounds suggestive of being, what’s that phrase you use, fucking bogging?”
“It’s ‘boggin’, and it’s cultural appropriation.”
Redacted smiled, then stopped. She’d had a simulation of fear installed decades ago (for a boy, obviously) and, overcome by the idea that someone new was standing just behind her, the hairs on the back of her neck stood appropriately.
“You are intruders, leave this place.”
Redacted spun around with a horrific sloshing noise. “Oh, it’s you!” She walked around the spectral green hologram of a woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform, visibly delighted. “You are the Penteconter computer, yeah?”
“Correct, and you are intruders,” the computer declared, its empty facial expression never wavering. “Leave this place.”
“Where are we?” Gwen wondered, staring slack-jawed at the vaulted metal ceiling. “Why are these people cryogenically frozen?”
“They are not,” replied the Penteconter.
“I know, I was just annoying you into making conversation.”
“These are not cryostasis pods, these are automated emergency medical intervention apparati. The people contained within were injured, so I make them better.
“What about this Cheese String-looking fucker, number 37. I'm seeing two flaps sharing a waist. How are you making him better?”
“Sergeant Álvaro’s body is damaged beyond my regenerative abilities, but his brain is intact. All of my patients are kept in a pleasant virtual reality dream-state for the duration of their stay here.”
“Would it not be kinder to let him go?”
“That’s his decision to make,” replied the computer. Gwen was startled by the sound of a child’s laughter behind her. “Grandpa look!” shouted the young girl.
Gwen turned and saw an old man and woman reclining together on the air just above the floor, watching their granddaughter blow bubbles.
“Sergeant Álvaro, you are fully aware of your circumstances, yes?”
The old man looked up at the nurse, right through Gwen. “Only when you pop up to remind me of them.”
“Are you happy?” asked the nurse.
“More than ever, why?”
“Just a routine checkup,” she smiled.
The holograms vanished, and the computer’s bedside manner with them. “Leave this place.”
“Okay, we’ll go, but we need information first,” Gwen stepped forward. “The Penteconter is under attack, and we can’t defend ourselves with no power and security doors blocking all escape routes. Are you able to lift the lockdown?”
“I am able to lift the lockdown,” said the computer.
The computer smiled politely. “Security measures will be lifted once intruders have been eliminated. Leave this place.”
“We would if you hadn’T BLOCKED THE FUCKING EX-”
The hologram vanished as the lights burst on.
Gwen stopped, looked down, and sighed.
Davies and Jameson came barreling into the room. “I fixed the lights! I redirected power from the-”
“Lads...” Gwen intoned.
“-Penteconter’s computer mainframe and wired it all up into essential systems, but you’re thinking ‘Davies, how could you have possibly done that when all the wires are snapped?’, well, it turns out that in the code of the-”
“Lads, where was your captain last time you heard from him?”
“He was headed to...this...here, actually, right where you’re…”
Gwen pointed down at the carpet of red paste and flecks of bone she and Redacted were standing in, which formed a trail to the glassy jaws of pod #26.
Odysseus walked slower than Dorian and Lewis - gawping at
spherical turret pods that hung out from the hull, guns the
length of three people hanging impotent in the void - watching
dust speckles drift through sunbeams unfiltered by sky, catching
the shadow of something floating past in the distance.
“Hey guys, how long until we hit the asteroid belt?” he wondered aloud.
“Over an hour, why?” asked Dorian.
“I saw an asteroid’s shadow drifting past the window, is all.”
“ARE YOU AN IDIOT!?” shouted Lewis, running over to the turret and nearly slamming against the window to look outside.
Odysseus stepped back to avoid him. “Well-“
“Fuck. Okay.” Lewis whispered. “It’s here.”
“You seem uncharacteristically calm about that,” said Dorian.
“I think it’s trying to break into the maintenance airlock, but it’s fine. They need passwords to open, passwords the creature doesn’t have. It’s fine.”
“Oh!” Dorian slapped his mighty hands together like he’d forgotten something at the supermarket. “About that.”
There was a hiss at the end of the corridor, the airlock squealed open.
“OH, FUCK!” Lewis shouted as they all rushed to the armory door.
Odysseus readied his scavenged laser rifle as the creature floated around the corner, strings of either rag or flesh trailing across the floor. It rushed through the blocks of light, then returned to its slow and savoured hunt through the dark. He held the trigger to charge a shot and fired a red bolt at the creature, whose jagged black outline shimmered as it exploded against its skin. The creature rushed through the light again, the distant sun catching what seemed like a smile.
“Hold it off Odysseus, I need a minute,” Dorian muttered as he heaved Oppenheimer off his back. The weapon hummed as he cranked up the dials and the huge, segmented chassis throbbed and glowed as it extended in front of him, clear plastic veins filling with blue liquid. Odysseus rapid-fired at the creature, which swayed from side to side in a lazy play at dodging. “Lewis, what’s taking so long!?” he shouted.
“I KNOW THE PASSWORDS JUST NOT WHICH OPENS WHICH DOOR!”
“Dorian!” He took another failed shot. “Any chance you could blow the thing off!?”
“THE DOOR’S TOO STRONG!” Lewis interrupted.
“-Not without incinerating everything on the other side. Observe.” He lifted the colossal, radiating weapon, let the onboard computer take aim at the creature’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
A deafening burst of light tore through the air and gutted the hall, chunks of corridor squealing in the heat as they were torn apart. Three tremors shuddered through the bones of the ship as three walls burst open in white-hot liquid explosions.
Eyes jammed shut, Odysseus saw the red glow between his fingers subside as the room sizzled. He blinked, adjusting to the relative darkness, the twisted and flimsy-looking corridor glowing red and dripping onto the warped energy shell surrounding the grinning creature.
“THE HELL WAS THAT?!” Lewis screamed, squinting.
“Basically the most powerful handheld weapon money can buy,” Dorian replied, watching the gun hiss with coolant before returning it to the magnetic harness on his back.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!? What…” he looked back at Dorian and the creature, lost. “What do we do?”
Dorian extended a hand to the soldier. “Your pistol, please.”
“Why?” Lewis looked up at the towering minotaur. “If that didn’t do anything to it…then…that shield’s from the armo- I’ve not been in the armory before how does-“ the man’s voice failed as tears welled up in his eyes, the creature patiently hovering at the corridor’s lip.
“Please, Lewis,” Dorian insisted. “I think I know how we can get out of this, but you have to do as I tell you.”
Lewis, eyes fixed to the ground, handed over the small raygun.
“Thank you,” said Dorian, as he put a hand on the man’s shoulder, and the gun to his head.
Odysseus’ eyes widened. “Dorian what the hell are you doing?”
“BANG!” the old man’s arms flailed outwards in every direction. “Brains fucking everywhere, what’s left of his face still has that same defeated expression. His body just kind of...flops to the floor, very calmly and still. Davies runs over to the body, tears in his eyes, but Livingstone holds him back. ‘There’s no soldier there to mourn, Davies,’ he says. ‘That’s a coward’s way out.’ In the other room the soldiers are thinking-
“The hell was that?!” said Emily, her stomach quivering with
the trees at each tremor.
“Nothing good,” Livingstone muttered, picking up his rifle. “Come on, it came from the armory.”
Odysseus stepped back from Dorian, who - unfazed by the pool
of blood enveloping his hooves - had his eyes fixed on the
“So energy weapons don’t work on this critter, right?” Odysseus tossed the rifle to the side. “Looks like we’re gonna have to do this the old fashioned way.”
He drew his sword from its metal sheath and clicked a switch on the hilt, the segmented blade dropping down to its full length and starting to burn red from the inside. He extended his left arm, clenched his partially gloved fist and a circular device on the back fired a blue energy shield from its side.
“Oh no we’re fucking not,” Dorian commanded, arms folded.
“I know for a fact you understand English…” he replied.
“Well fuck you too!”
“…and you have demonstrated that we cannot possibly hurt you now,” he continued, turning to the creature floating in the dark. “So we’re just not going to try anymore, are we Odysseus?”
“Speak for yourself.” Odysseus raised his sword and shield and approached the creature, which looked tense and ready to launch at him. He drew his arm back to strike, which Dorian grabbed and used to hammer-throw him to the back corner of the room.
Dorian repeated: “We are not going to try to stand against this woman, because she has no intention of hurting us.”
The creature shot past Dorian towards Odysseus, who grabbed his glowing sword and jabbed it at the air in defence.
“Put your sword down,” said Dorian.
“Because she’ll kill you if you don’t.”
“And if I do?”
The creature leaned in closer to Odysseus, strings of goopy saliva catching the light of his sword.
Dorian shrugged. “Why shouldn’t she?”
Odysseus, hands shaking, slowly put down his sword. The creature swiped it away, and hovered closer.
“Don’t resist,” said Dorian, stepping closer out of concern or morbid curiosity. “Try taking your shield down.”
“Dorian there’s a crazy-“
The creature shrieked at Odysseus’ face. He pulled the shield up to cover his head and retracted into a foetal position, trying to cover as much of himself as possible.
“Remember that soldier at the beginning, Odysseus? How she ran through his guts with her fingers? I don’t think that’s going to work against her. I think the only way either of us is getting out of this room alive is if we demonstrate that we aren’t threats.”
“You shot her with a fucking nuke-gun and she didn’t flinch.”
“Exactly, so you’re harmless.”
Odysseus failed to control his breathing, and - almost accidentally - unclenched his fist, switching off the translucent veil between him and the monster. His arms folded in to cover his tear-stained face.
“Which makes this personal,” Dorian mused.
The creature reached out with one finger and stroked Odysseus’ arm with a bloody claw, visibly enjoying his terrified yelp. She straightened up and turned to Dorian, hovering out into the dim light which glistened across her impenetrable, crablike skin and caught her red jagged outcrop of too many long and pointed teeth. Her fingers were held straight by the ten-inch claws that rose out of the skin of her knuckles. A ragged, sodden white dress was fastened to her by a bandolier of grenades and pouches; a shield-generating metal exoskeleton and a near-silent ionic jetpack. Dorian didn’t breathe as she came up to his face, inhaling the scent of soldier’s blood on him through tiny gills where nostrils should be. She opened her eyes as wide as their solid lids would allow and inspected his body: huge, but still fragile, and alien just like her. She floated around him in a circle, his hands glued to his sides, then looked him in the eyes.
“Do you speak?” He said, carefully.
The creature turned to the console beside the armory door. Dorian noted the thick ropes of her long, black hair, held together by some kind of dried fluid that covered her body, and the military earpiece she wore.
She ignored him as she clumsily entered a password, pressing the keys down with the tip of one claw, and the door began to hiss open. She pointed into the room ahead, and Dorian walked in. Odysseus picked his sword up off the floor, retracted it, and looked down as he hurried in behind him. The creature pressed a button, and the door locked shut.
Odysseus sighed, collapsing against a slanted wall. “What the fuck was-…fuck.” He wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Where, where do I even start with that?”
“Ask me why I killed that man. Emily would ask me why I killed that man.”
“Where was that gun on Albion? And with the werewolves? And the-“
“If I ever fired Oppenheimer and missed I’d cause a fucking Live Aid. But to answer your first question: I really should put ‘mercy killing’ at the front of this sentence but in descending order of importance I had a theory about what the creature wants and how she’s operating, we were going to die anyway so it was worth a shot pun slightly intended, mercy killing.”
“I imagine she’d have killed us first then drawn out her alone-time with Walker.”
“Lewis. His name was Lewi-“
“BUT! Did you see that earpiece the creature - let’s call her Jane Doe - was wearing? Only the ship’s crew know the passwords for the doors, so unless Jane’s a former crew member - notice the mess of this armory…”
Odysseus noticed the mess of the armory, which was lit by a roof and floor of white panels and had been raided in a hurry.
“…another likely explanation is that she’s getting assistance from the Penteconter’s computer, the system on which the passwords are stored, the system that seems really intent on splitting us all up with this lockdown. Like I said, she’s invincible, this is personal.”
“But why?” Odysseus asked, trying to stand up then leaning over with his hands against his knees. “Why would the ship want its own crew dead? There’s safeguards against that sort of thing.”
“It’s 4192. All human militaries have an equal-opportunities policy on throwing people into meat grinders. So where are all the dead-“
The door on the other side of the armory started to turn.
“Trust none of them, play along,” Dorian whispered as the two halves slid away into the walls.
Livingstone marched into the room, over the mess of guns and cartridges. Before he could speak Emily rushed over. “Dorian! What the hell happened!?”
Odysseus stood up, straightening his back. “The creature found us and managed to break into the airlock. It killed Lewis, tore the poor bastard up into chunks right in front of us, enjoyed it. Dorian shot the thing with Oppenheimer, but it managed to dodge somehow, that caused the tremors you all probably heard. He did buy me a crucial second,” Odysseus put a hand on Dorian’s arm, “to open up the door and for us to hurry through here. But we wouldn’t have made it without the brave soldier who sacrificed his life to save ours.” Odysseus made the sign of the cross. “R.I.P. Jameson.”
Livingstone strode over to the armory door, checking the terminal that read “SECURITY LOCKDOWN”.
“How did the monster manage to dodge THAT?” He wondered, pointing at the still-cooling gun on Dorian’s back.
“It’s using an ionic jetpack, that’s how it’s floating around inside the ship, which was probably stolen from this armory.”
Living made his way over to a large box. “Sure enough,” he lifted it up like it was nothing and dropped it on the ground. “Empty. When the attack first started we were trying to get in here for shields and armour. The thing must’ve got here first and taken everything for itself.”
“‘Cept the guns,” said Walker, dropping his rifle and picking up something bigger from the rack.
“Right, take anything you like the look of.” Livingstone glanced around at what little was left. “The power’s back on and the others are headed over here, let’s go.”
In the brightly lit park, a shallow river recycled itself
around the waiting survivors. Livingstone kept his finger on his
gun’s trigger, eyes trained on the large glass roof. Davies
scratched an itch behind his ear and stabbed at the keyboard.
“INCORRECT PASSWORD ENTERED, FOR HELP PLEASE CONSULT PANACEA, YOUR SHIP’S ONBOARD CENTRAL COMPUTER.”
“INCORRECT PASSWORD ENTERED, FOR HELP PLEASE CONSULT PANACEA, YOUR SHIP’S ONBOARD CENTRAL COMPUTER.”
“Couldn’t the robot just hack the thing?” muttered Walker.
Redacted sighed, playing with the cartoon koi tattoo that swam around beneath the skin of her forearm. “No, because she’s not a computer, she’s a military artificial intelligence. Computers have security measures, Panacea has an immune system. What was she like before the attack?”
“Quiet, mostly. Other than the usual, its only job is to look after the people in the pods.”
Gwen, sitting in the shade of a tree, spoke up. “I still can’t get over that virtual reality stuff in there.”
“Why not?” asked Emily. “It’s not uncommon.”
“You could be in some absolutely fucked up situation, people getting blown to mince on all sides, then you get wounded and locked in the virtual world and suddenly you could be anyone, doing anything.”
Dorian paced around the inside of the river, arms folded, his front still covered in blood. “Somebody destroys you and your friends’ lives, you recede into a blank canvas world where you can do anything to anyone with impunity, what do you do?” He wandered over closer to the group, glancing at Odysseus. “What do you decide to become?”
“Got it!” shouted Davies.
Livingstone’s attention snapped back to the ground. “Right you lot, back to work.”
Now the Penteconter’s halls were lit, they could see the
scratches and bulletholes along the walls. A floor grate had
been thrown down the hall, and a few steps later a maintenance
tunnel was stuffed with a corpse. There was a darker patch where
laserfire burns covered the roof and fidgeting lights, and a
vent in the roof was burst open.
Over a pile of guns and gore, the command bridge door was still open. As the crew stepped through, Livingstone spotted a shut door down the hall. “Lambert, me and Phillips are going to the engine room to see what we can see. Jameson, Davies, you try an’ get this shit moving again.”
“Aye, cap’n,” Jameson muttered as he navigated the pile into the control room itself, with one of its large windows blown in and a raised platform in the centre, where Gwen and Redacted were inspecting a console.
“I’m gonna try and get the turrets back online,” said Davies, searching enclosures of computers and displays. “Don’t touch anything that looks important.”
“Cool,” said Gwen, running her hand over a row of rectangular sockets labelled “PANACEA v4.1” - all empty but for one marked “Essential Functions” - and Redacted slid her fingers into circular ports on the holographic interface for robot uplinks.
“What are you doing?” Gwen asked.
“I can’t do anything ‘til the AI’s actually online,” Redacted replied. Then she stopped, taking in a deep simulation of breath, closing her eyes and arching her back a little, connected to everything, as the lights dimmed. “So I’m diverting the power from everything that isn’t her.”
Davies looked up from his dying terminal. “What the fuck!?”
The door slammed shut against the floor, a projector in the roof glowed white and - standing above the floor, toes half-buried in the absence of sand - the spectral form of a woman. She had long black hair, wore a light dress and stared intensely out at something behind Gwen. The hologram landscape covered the room: an outcrop of rocks by the door; the fluted, faded columns of an ancient ruin by the window; the sound of a nearby ocean here in darkest space.
Gwen stepped carefully towards the woman. “Hello? Are you alright?”
Panacea appeared behind the woman. “Thessa.”
Thessa turned around, fist clenched. “Yes.”
“You don’t know what I’m going to ask you.”
“I do, and I have long since made my decision. How long have you waited now, a month?” She visibly concentrated on her breathing. “How many others do you think they’ve...”
Panacea stepped forward, her movements heavy and sad. “It’s been hours, in reality. Time runs faster in your world because you needed it. I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind, then.”
“The process would be irreversible. If I made these changes to you, your body would be transformed, for the rest of your life, if you aren’t shot and killed within minutes of leaving your suspension pod.”
Thessa folded her arms, turning back towards the sound of the ocean. “Tell me my injuries, again.”
Panacea sighed, eyes closed. “You don’t need me to-”
“Extensive bruising across your arms, legs and face, vaginal and anal tearing, a broken nose, muscle damage to-”
“Yeah, the list goes on, right?” She blurted, tears in her eyes. “So can you honestly say this wouldn’t be an improvement?”
“You are 19 years old, Thessa, you have your entire life ahead of-”
“I know!” She shouted. “But this isn’t just about me, this is about everyone else who’s trapped on this ship, everyone else who those fucks just haven’t got around to yet. If anyone else was coming, I’d wait. If anyone else was able or willing to do this, I’d let them. But nobody is. You, of all people, should know that by now.” She took a breath, the last of hesitation leaving her. “So do it.” She wiped her eyes with her palm. “And while I’m waiting, take me back to the ship simulation. I need to learn more of the layout of this place.”
Panacea nodded, after a moment, and the pastoral scene switched to a metal corridor. Thessa set off, taking in the pipes along the walls and the door marked “Engine Room”, the sound of her bare feet echoing down the corridor.
Thessa and her surroundings vanished, leaving Panacea alone with the crew again.
“What the fuck is this?” Jameson strode towards the hologram threateningly, as if he could do anything to hurt it.
Redacted’s mouth moved as Panacea walked up to the raised platform, speaking in a voice not quite her own: “That was a week ago. Thessa Sampson was spotted for her beautiful voice, and was offered a job singing on a luxury space cruiser. When the man who offered her the job offered to fly her out there, he took a turn off the charted course and took her here, to the Machaon.”
“The Penteconter,” said Jameson.
“That’s what it was called before your captain stole it and sanded off the serial numbers.”
“Surely you’re not believing this shit, right?” He looked at Gwen and Emily. “Right?” He looked at Odysseus.
“I don’t know,” said Odysseus. “A computer that dreams up VR worlds on the regular could easily have fabricated that little scene, and of the two sides to this discussion only one has been trying to kill us all thus far.”
“I’d show you the video if the intruders hadn’t destroyed the security cameras years ago.” Panacea stepped towards him. “Would you like to hear the audio recording?”
“If you actually do hav-”
“No.” Gwen held up a hand, eyes closed and one arm wrapped around her chest.
“What?” said Jameson, as she slowly walked towards him, an orb of red light burning on her palm. “Hey, now, you heard your friend there right there’s no actual evidence to prove any of what this haywire, lying murder-computer is trying to make you believe and-”
Davies joined him and aimed his rifle at Gwen. “One more step, and we’ll shoot.”
Gwen brought up a large shield in front of her and her crew, and kept walking towards them. They opened fire on her, shots either bouncing off and hitting the roof or being absorbed into the shield itself, before they both had to reload. Gwen dropped her shield, and strode towards Jameson.
He dropped his clip as Gwen threw two bolts that melted the barrels of their rifles shut. “Okay okay look we give up we surrender just don’t hurt u- I SAID WE GIVE UP WE SURRENDE-”
Gwen clasped her hand around his mouth, silencing him. “I don’t care.”
His eyes widened and he started hitting her, screaming through the flesh of her hand which glowed red around the black shadows of her bones. There was a faint hiss on the ground as his liquid muscle and skin hit the cool metal floor, dribbling down his chest.
“So the soldiers are trapped in the control room, the
creature clawing on the metal door. Davies tries to get the
defences, turrets and drones and the like, online while Walker
is backing away, towards the window. And he says ‘should we go
back? Captain Livingstone’s a dead man out there’, and Davies
tells him to shut up and listen, so they’re both standing there
in the dead silence, not a breath in the room, not a sound
coming from outside the door. There’s so much adrenaline in
their bodies, so much focus on this one thing, that they don’t
notice the shadows in the room moving. The machinery in the door
starts to turn, and they point their guns at it, ready to give
this fuckin’ thing hell in their last moments. The door lifts,
and standing there, armour ripped open by a bloody great scar
down his chest: Captain John Livingstone.
Walker lowers his weapon and runs over like ‘oh no, Captain you’re injured!’, and Livingstone just stops in his tracks and says ‘that’s the least of our worries, soldier’. And he points out the window, and out there in space, floating and smiling…”
“Captain Lambert,” Panacea and Redacted chimed in unison.
Emily drew on her bow and kept it trained on Davies as Gwen wiped face-muck on her coat and turned to speak to the hologram. “Yeah?”
“Our direct control of the ship’s systems requires hardware that was removed by the intruders’ captain.” She gestured towards the empty sockets below the console. “The ship’s engines have been repaired, so we’re going to-”
The door opened. Livingstone, in front of a large group of soldiers, took a step forward. The door closed, crunching down on his foot.
“-so we’re going to resupply them with power, but you’re going to have to be the ones to manually send them into full thrust from up here.”
“Wait...you’re going to crash the ship into the asteroid field?”
Gwen folded her arms, tapping her fingers. “The Penteconter is your...body, though. You’ll be ripped apart, and once the power fails…”
“Destruction of our body is a loss, but something of our mind may yet grow.”
“Gwen, are you sure you want to kamikaze this thing with us still on board? And all the soldiers still trapped in the pods?” asked Odysseus.
Panacea turned to him. “There are thirty-one living females and five living males inside suspension pods right now. Here they are,” she said, as Redacted shifted between the forms of everyone kept in the suspension room: some human, some not, some visibly wounded, some not, all civilians. Panacea pointed towards a terminal at his side of the room. “They can all be opened from over there.”
“Odysseus?” Gwen ordered.
“Yes captain,” he turned and set off towards the console.
The door opened and two soldiers shoved a metal crate beneath it. A few stuck their pointed guns through the gap and followed them in, forming a barricade in front of the room’s only exit. Livingstone was pulled below the door and hoisted up onto one foot.
“Well the good news is, this group hiding away in the engine room turned their comms off to avoid detection. We’ve a good twenty-” he paused, noticing Jameson lying dead on the floor.
“Monster did it,” said Gwen. “Just flew in, shot a laser, flew out. Should’ve seen his face, like a deer caught in headlights: everywhere.”
The soldiers aimed their guns at Gwen, and she shrugged. “Yeah, okay, the jig is up. Panacea and Thessa told us everything.”
“Told you what?” Livingstone asked, laughing. “Are you actually going to believe a glitchy computer with most of its brain missing?”
“Yes,” Gwen replied. “And why is that, exactly?”
“Captain thought she was getting too big for her britches and I’m inclined to agree. Who the hell even is ‘Thessa’? Why the hell would you listen to this psycho’s side of the story over ours?”
“Because your side has all the guns,” said Emily, bow aimed at Livingstone.
“I am inclined to believe the intruders when they claim not to recognise her name,” said Panacea. “The distress call they sent out is being blocked by a signal jammer Thessa installed under that console,” she pointed, “as per my instructions. Plug in the video port for me, Captain Lambert.”
Gwen felt around the bottom of a console, totally disregarding the guns trained on her, and inserted the loose plug.
A large, invisible screen at the front of the room fizzled into existence and showed a young woman with long black hair singing on a stage, a news ticker below reading “Talent Show Auditionee Disappears”. The snippet of commentary faded to the uninterrupted clip of the performance. To call it a ‘song’ would imply some kind of rigid structure or melody, this was something different. Simultaneously more natural, and beautiful because of it, but strained and haunted, alienating and authoritative. The sound was seductive in its fullness, enchanting in its otherworldly tremble. Odysseus’ entire body felt heavy, yet physically and involuntarily pulled towards the actual screen, just by an unconscious step or two. Dark was the song, which he felt in his chest - only for a moment - drawing him into the awe and the capital-B Blackness. If space made a sound, if icy dead planets sung in the cosmic wind, this was their voice, and it was gorgeous.
He snapped out of his daze as the entire ship lurched below him.
“The FUCK WAS THAT!?” Livingstone shouted, falling on his mashed foot.
Dorian popped out from behind the captain’s raised platform. “Good news, everyone! I got the ship’s engines back online, just like Lieutenant Livingstone originally asked. We are now speeding directly towards an asteroid cloud with no shielding or defences to speak of.”
“You’ll kill everyone trapped in the cryo-pods you fucking idiot!”
“Actually,” said Gwen, in the most insufferable voice she had in her, “they’re automated emergency medical intervention apparati and, no we winna, because we just released all of them.”
Livingstone was quiet for a moment, then leaned back over his carrier’s shoulder. “Everyone not on this side of the door get to the fuckin’ pods NOW!”
“You wounded Thessa, so Panacea made her better,” said Gwen.
“Better how!?” Asked Livingstone, unable to hobble under the door towards the action.
“In so many ways,” Dorian expounded. “Thessa’s skin has been thickened into a hermetically sealed shell of what I imagine is pure cartilage, nothing new going into the DNA whatsoever. As well as making her unfuckingkillable by any normal assault, this, the shield bubble and other probable alterations allow her to survive in the void of space for extended periods of time. Assuming she consumes the bodies of men like poor Phillips on the regular, I would imagine her nervous system has been immunised to the effects of prion disease - not an uncommon genetic trait of cannibalistic societies across the galaxies. Compounded with the slightly extended mandible, general dental reconfiguration and massive fucking murder-claws, what we have here is a creature unlike any other in the universe. Rather than preying on a whole species or subspecies, whatever Thessa has become, you have helped usher in something totally unique in all of intergalactic biology: a species designed with the sole evolutionary purpose of killing YOU,” Dorian pointed at Livingstone excitedly. “Specifically!”
“Men have used her meanly,” Redacted intoned, detaching herself from the console. “She will eat them.”
“Livingstone, the window!” Davies pointed, gripping onto a railing.
Everyone looked, and before they could fully register the blinking bomb floating outside the window, the sound of an explosion and the glass shattering was sucked out into the void of space in a vortex of debris and the crew and laserfire and stationary, the not-soldiers’ bodies flailing in the silent dark.
Gwen held her hands over her mouth and eyes and crossed her legs, bootcamp lessons burned into her muscle memory. Emily and Odysseus saw this and copied, just before the air punched out of their mouths and their eyeballs popped. Redacted wrapped her arms and legs around Dorian’s neck and chest, firing her jetpack towards Odysseus, who was closest. Before they could reach Gwen and Emily, Thessa flew up towards them, taking one under each arm, and gestured for Redacted to follow her down to an open maintenance hatch in the roof of the ship.
They slammed into the metal floor as the airlock shut above
them. Thessa flew down the hall ignoring Odysseus, who was
projectile-vomiting on his hands and knees.
“Come on!” said Gwen, sprawled on the floor laughing and catching her breath, red lights blaring all around and a voice intoning “COLLISION IMMINENT”. “Consider it your induction ceremony, you’ve passed with flying colours! Did you remember to clench?”
Emily lifted Odysseus up, his face completely white. “What? Clench?”
“Yeah, did yi see the guy wae his stomach fleein oot his arsehole? Nae a role model.” She stood up and grabbed him by the arm. “Let’s go!”
The crew ran and Odysseus power-stumbled towards the suspension pods, where Thessa addressed a crowd of women and men covered in goo. “-tell them who you are and where you came from, they will take you there. You’re safe now.”
She stopped talking when she saw the crew at the door.
“Right,” said Gwen. “Come with us. Your former captors are on their way but if-”
“I have left you a trail of corpses and guns,” Thessa stated with some visible difficulty. “Follow it out the way you were brought in, arm yourselves.” The crew ducked as she spread out her claws and flew back out the door, back towards the sound of men and trampling boots.
Gwen stepped back and gestured down the hall for the former prisoners to start running. “Dorian, stay at the back and keep that gun pointed at anything that tries to follow us. Everyone else, with me!”
Gwen ran through the Penteconter’s trembling corridors with a
small army behind her, some of them picking up guns and
equipment off the dead smugglers. Emily kept up alongside her,
pointing the rooms she remembered coming through.
Down the line, one of the pirates who’d run ahead burst out from a corner, firing his rifle at the roof. Before he could address the mostly unarmed escapees, one of the women elbowed him in the stomach and another jammed a shotgun against his throat, pinning him to the wall.
The man dropped his rifle, his wide eyes fixed on the sodden, dripping fury in front of him. “Please, don’t kill m-”
“WHY NOT!? WHY THE FUCK NOT!?” She pressed the gun harder against the bottom of his jaw, his head tilting up to the roof.
“Because we’re not killers, Jen.” Said another woman, holding the tip of the gun then forcing her fingers between it and the man’s head.
“D’YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHERE WE WERE GOING FOR FUCK’S SAKE!?” She spat, tears mixing with the yellowy-white fluid all over her. “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT HE WAS GOING TO DO TO US?!”
“Yes.” She replied. “And you’re not going to kill him. You’re not going to kill anyone.”
Jenny, entire body trembling, weighed up the memory of someone’s head blowing up into chunks in front of her face, and slowly lowered the gun, still gripping onto its handle.
“You’re not a killer.” The woman held Jenny and guided her forward, glancing at the man. “That’s the Sirens’ job. That’s what monsters are for.” Dorian grabbed his head and underarm-threw him to the back of the room, waiting for everyone else to pass by.
They all ran through the Treehouse’s side door as Gwen
gestured for them to hurry. “Come on come on!”
Davies and three of the fastest pirates appeared at the end of the corridor, sprinting towards Gwen. “NAW, YOUS CANNAE COME!” Gwen shouted.
“THE ESCAPE PODS YOU DAFT BITCH!” Davies screamed. “WE’RE GETTING OFF THIS THING AND WE’RE GOING TO FUCKING FIND YOU!”
Gwen stepped into the Treehouse door, glanced up through the window in the roof, and smiled. “No you won’t.” She pressed a button and the door sealed shut, leaving the three men alone in the docking station.
Three men, and seven shadows.
“ooooOOOoooOOoo,” the young man smiled, waving his fingers.
“That was the first time,” said the old man. “And that was just the one of them. To this day, that area of space is still used by pirates, smugglers and fugitives, but it is no longer nameless. The anonymous asteroid cloud now known as Siren’s Claw became a graveyard of dead spaceships. The creatures are still there. Some tell tales of them reclining on meteors, brushing eachother’s hair and waving at passing sailors, but in reality they probably haunt the silent halls of ships they killed, hijacking their distress signals to sing their song. And there’s treasure there, god knows what riches they might be protecting: all those lost cargos, all the bounties that never made it home, trapped in all those doomed vessels that heeded the call of the Siren.”
“Well, sir, that was very spooky,” the young man downed the last of his bottle. “I’ll be sure to stay clear of both asteroid clouds and murderous singing-ladies in future.”
“Oh no,” the old man laughed. “That story wasn’t meant to scare you.”
“Are you SURE?”
“That last part was the most important.”
“With the guy’s guts and the…” the young man blew a raspberry and waved his hand around on a limp wrist.
“No no no, the gold! All those riches just sitting there, waiting for someone with the balls to go there and take it. That’s why I'm telling you all this.”
The young man raised an eyebrow. “But why’s an old guy like you so determined to risk his life for some scrap and leftover stolen goods? And why would we?”
“It’s a job like no other, boys. Take everything you can get your hands on, because I'm not in this for the money.” The old man leaned forward, his face lit up by the dwindling glow of the fire, illuminating an old, crescent moon-shaped scar that started above his eyebrow and ended at the corner of his mouth. “I'm in it for the revenge. I got a good, small but fuckin’ tough cruiser ship a while back, armed to the teeth. All I need now is the right crew for the job, are you not a thief?”
The young man tried not to recoil. “I'm a hacker specialising in corporate espionage in the neurological enhancement sector, so yes, but no thank you. Sex-trafficker-revenge is...not my genre.” He stood up, stretching in the glow of the campfire. “I'm away for a piss lads, it’s been real.”
He walked away, leaving the man briefly known as John Livingstone and one other, the unknown man with the gun sitting across from him. “What about you? You seem like a tough old bastard, what are you hiding out on this rock for?”
“I'm not surprised that you wouldn’t recognise me,” said the man with the gun. “I’m an assassin, a bounty hunter, sometimes a thief, spy, whatever. A master of disguise in all trades. The same, however, can’t be said for you, Paul Shannon.”
Livingstone froze. “...what?”
“Paul Shannon, your real name. For a while there I wasn’t sure it was really you, what with that finely-spun tale you told.” said the man with the gun, resting the long rifle on his knee with his finger on the trigger.
“Who are you?!”
“When Panacea opened up to Redacted — you remember Redacted, yes? Girl with the green hair? You just never mentioned them, is all. They invited her to store something of herself inside them. She compressed a basic personality configuration in there along with memories of you and all those you travelled with, and all that you did after you killed her crew and invaded her and used her tools of healing as prisons for your victims. Your ‘merchandise’. She lay dormant for...some time, just sleeping in the back of Red’s brain. I think… we saw something on the news, didn’t we? Some story just woke everything back up. I trawled criminal records and was shocked to see how many of you were still out there, amazed to find that the survivors of The Massacre went on to abuse and destroy countless others, and got reported, and got released. So we thought ‘oh, it’ll be a hobby’. You weren’t terribly difficult to find, we just followed the stories of Siren’s Claw back to where they’d come from, and here you are, and here am I.” The man’s skin began to shimmer, glowing white with polygon mesh that spilled down from the back of his head and settled into the long brown hair of a woman in a nurse’s uniform.
Paul sat in silence for a moment, trembling. “You… what do you want from me!?”
“Just run,” said Panacea. “Just...try. I’ll give you a shot.” She tapped the trigger of her rifle. “I’d hate to see you go away, Lieutenant,” one corner of her mouth turned up. “But I’d love to watch you leave.”
Paul was still, terrified. “Why? Why not just kill me here and now, where you can see me?”
Panacea grinned. “She likes it when they run.”
“Who? Redacted?” Paul looked confused, and then he heard it, and kicked up sand as he hobbled away into the dark.
Panacea picked up the gun, and aimed at his head. And aimed, and watched as he took exactly the wrong turn, running far away from the pub and the camp, far away from where anyone could help him. She put the gun down again, and relaxed into her chair. She sat back and watched the stars roll across the sky, and enjoyed the warmth of the fire, and listened to, from the dark, a song.
The adventures of Captain Gwen Lambert
and her crew will continue...
Episode 4: The End of the Rainbow