Forsaken

Obscure

Name?” she asked, clearly bored and just going through the motions.

Does it matter?” he sighed, not really caring enough to answer when even a digital answering services couldn’t be bothered about pretending to give half a shit. He idly wondered whether they came programmed like that, or whether the utter disdain somehow built up over time. It would make them much like having a real secretary in that respect. Her simulated form even looked harried and unhappy. “Could there actually be,” he thought, “a real person somewhere who had served as the real model?”

The screen image glared with a sort of dispassionate loathing. She replied, “not really,” before continuing the enlistment data-collection. There was a further stream of lengthy yet futile questioning.

It’s M.T.” he said.

The image flicked her eyes back with a weapons-grade level of venom. “What is?” she finally asked.

He said, “My name. It’s M.T. Stuart”

The program paused and continued with the long, largely irrelevant questioning. It finally flickered off and was replaced with an advert for fashionable, white jackets.

It was futile because there wasn’t much involved. The job he wanted involved very little: just handling odd jobs for the crew once they wake in the depths of space.

It was standard for a Fridgeship, where the crew would only be active once they reached a far-off planet. The advantage of cryogenic freezing in practical terms, after all, lay in the ability support a larger crew. What did it matter if you carried extra personnel when they were only active for a short while? Other ships, with far faster drives, carried smaller crews with far less room for unskilled workers. The crews on those ships usually stayed active the entire voyage.

He wanted to join the RSV (Research / Science Vessel) Curie, bound to explore the NML Cygni star. Distant telescopes located what might be small planetoids orbiting far around the supermassive star, potentially in the suitable band for life. If there were any useful ruins or colonizable planets, the rewards for the crew would be substantial. Cooks, naturally, wouldn’t receive a serious share of it, but there was still something to be had for the low ranks of crew.

And that was the position he was signing up for – cook. It might not be much, but it was something. It wasn’t as if there were lots of easy ways to explore the stars. You either needed powerful connections, a great deal of money, or skills and extensive education. Unless you were a cook.

Well, he had recipe books and some practice using an oven in zero-g (it was not easy to barbecue in space). It was even possible to grill if you knew how, although most kitchen setups had to contend with very dry air and a vacuum pump to wick away any moisture.

He’d learned these skills on a long stay in orbit for school. Some people survived on months’ worth of ration packs, but sooner or later most students broke down and begged for a meal that didn’t consist of tasteless soy-protein paste.

Now he was going into space for real – into the deep black. It might not be a grand adventure, but it was something worthwhile that a man could aspire to accomplish. And with experience under his belt, he might even achieve a better posting in the future.

MT turned off his video link and paced around the tiny apartment. It was all he could afford, a grey and dingy low-lying flat in an ugly neighborhood. It might have been called charming if it were at least clean and quiet, but the air scrubbers clanged and clattered all day long, but still left an oily residue over every surface.

Those surfaces were mostly the walls. Apart from a desk and couple pieces of cheap electronics, MT had nothing in the entire apartment. He thought back to the time when a burglar had broken in while MT was out, but hadn’t bothered to steal anything except an old coat. MT simply didn’t have anything worth taking.

He went to an alcove and removed a bottle of cheap liquor. Technically, there was no name for it; the substance was more of an industrial byproduct than a drink. It consisted of alcohol, enough water to keep it from killing the drinker, and an artificial citrus flavoring. The result was somewhat like lemon vodka, except extraordinarily vile.

It was time to visit home, of a sorts. It had been home, anyway, at one point in time. Those days were long gone, but that was true of a great many things.

PubTrans wasn’t quick, but had the advantage of being inexpensive and easily available. For a few NovaCoins and a little time, you could get anywhere in the ‘plex. Two hours and thirty-seven minutes later, he hopped off the plexbus a short hike from the family home.

The house – more of a mansion – had a long driveway set well back from the heavily wooded curb, along with a code-locked gate and sensors. Unfortunately, his code never quite worked properly. Fortunately, he snagged the master code back when the security system had been installed.

Inside, his parents, brothers, and sisters were all gathered in the large, open living room. They were chatting and sipping wine – no, champagne. His brother Garry was cheering his latest grand deal. There was his sister Maria, pleased with her new Mercedes-Fiat.

MT opened up the fridge and took out a bottle of real orange juice. No-one had noticed him, so he simply settled into a kitchen chair and waited for the commotion to die down as the evening wore on.

Three hours later, his siblings finally left. He waited until his parents came back in. It took them a few minutes to realize what was going on, when his mother finally gasped as she realized there was a strange man in the house.

She calmed down again when she realized it was MT. A brief conversation followed, most of which was filled with the commonplace pleasantries. Eventually, though, he got down to the actual point.

I’m going into space,” he said. “I’ll be gone for a year. Maybe two.” Even later, he wasn’t quite sure how they felt about it. They didn’t respond, but chatted about family and opportunity in vague generalities.

Lost

MT’s day started at ship time 0600. He then worked until ship time 00:30, when he collapsed into bed.

This was not actually the job the signed up for. He did have to deal with the cooking, as well as running scrubbers over the floors, walls, and ceiling for the entire general ship areas, assist the engineering crew with minor repairs, and finally pull cargo out of storage and haul it down to the science station. Long days were expected on a starship, but the real cause for MT’s trouble was that the ship tragically lost two crew after failing to launch with a full complement.

In early February, MT entered the White Sands Starport, mostly given over to various public and private research interests. New Mexico, a thriving support hub for space exploration. It was a beautiful, bustling port of white granite structures dotting the desert.

The crew of the Curie had to meet here and undergo pre-launch orientation, which including emergency training and basic first aid. And here the first of many problems started, since three crewman failed to appear. That left them short of two engineering staff and one general crewman, leading to a last-minute scramble to hire someone who knew the workings of the Curie’s TR6 Fusion Core.

The boost into orbit to ready the ship was perhaps the easiest part. For the crew who had never gone to space before, though there weren’t many, the boost was exciting and they chattered nervously.

That was a mere brief stopover before they reached the Curie, a fine if older ship. Once a freighter, it had been outfitted with enough scientific instruments to spot a rabbit in a cave from beyond the orbit of the moon.

Inside, MT quickly decided, the ship had been cleaned up quite nicely, all clean lines and white walls. The crew quickly acclimated. The ship was quite large, with three scientific bays, the engineering deck, two cryo chambers, the bridge, and the rec center. MT’s primary station was in that last zone, cooking meals for the crew daily. It even had partial gravity, thanks to the rotation used for the exercise stations. All in all, it was a fine little ship.

The Curie departed orbit less than a day later.

And then the trouble really started rolling. The first problem was that the ICE-8 cooling cells on the cryo units kept reading as empty despite actually being full. With a supposedly-empty unit, none of them could go into cryo-freeze. Then, just as they nearly had to turn around and return to port for repairs, the problem suddenly fixed itself.

The crew’s morale improved noticeably once it seemed they were making progress. But at a morning meeting for the engineering staff, one of the quartermasters suddenly began convulsing. Crewman Daniels before his shipmates could even call the medic. Captain Bowman gave a terrible eulogy.

Then, when the forty-man crew was finally readied, hopped into the cry chambers, and frozen… the ship automatically canceled the program after a mere week. Every crewman had to go through the standard decontamination and spend hours getting a medical checkup.

For M.T., stepping back into the cryogenic coffin after all the problems took more than an ounce of courage. But finally he managed it, situated himself comfortably, and hit the auto-program button.

One moment and five thousand light years later, he woke.

An officer helped him out of the coffer, as he shook himself awake from a sleep half a degree from death. There followed the usual battery of tests, taking up even more hours. Finally, though, he was able to sit down with a warm cup of coffee and relax. Eventually, he was told to go to crew bay 9 and wake up another frozen worker.

M.T. paced down the halls a tight-fitting white uniform. For all that it wasn’t the most glamorous assignment, but there was a noticeable spring in his step after everything.

He entered the crew bay and froze even more stiffly than when he’d been on ice. In the cryogenic pod lay a body. Bloody fingers were frozen, not by cold but rigor mortis, as they scratched vainly at the glass. The desiccated corpse lay locked in an eternal scream. Crewman Barnes had been the second to die, and no one even realized it till now.

M.T. never did entirely let that go. The fact that he had to make three separate verbal reports to different officers didn’t help. The fact that Captain Bowman gave a motivational speech so bad as to make him feel worse didn’t help, either.

After a long sit in the dark, the only real solution, such as it was, required MT to focus on work. This proved surprisingly easy, because the ship was so short on labor he had many more duties assigned.

Among those was listening to the captain’s mad ranting in the guise of inspiring speeches. “M.T.,” he would say, “Our destiny is to do something out here. Something important. Maybe. We need to accomplish the kind of important thing that people accomplish when they’re out here on the frontier, where we should do something, somehow, and sometime. M.T. would patiently wait for his opportunity to go back to endless, exhausting labor.

At six, he had to get up and begin work almost immediately. (Really he should get up earlier, but he had no energy left.) He had sixty minutes to ready breakfasts.

Scrambled eggs were relatively easy: the egg was from powder and thrown into a bag with defrosted milk, shaken vigorously, and placed in the oven. Potatoes, on the other hand, took some doing. You couldn’t crisp them in a pan, so the best method was to shake them in thin sauce and heat them for a bit longer and hotter than planetside. Fortunately, most sweetbreads and pastries worked pretty well; the mixes were sticky enough to not fly off in zero-g and easily molded and baked.

Lunch, being packets of warmed soups, flatbreads, and cheese and meat slices, came easily. Dinner, on the other hand, utterly sucked and took hours to cook properly. Cooking a steak with no pan to sear or a grill did not work right. Boiling pasta was even worse.

Then came hours of moving cargo and running errands, cleaning equipment and minor maintenance. It was during a rare break that he took look out one of the few windows.

That… doesn’t look like a red giant star,” he thought.

Stray

Yes, Captain, NML Cygni is supposed to be a Red Giant. That is a White Dwarf. You can tell because it’s small and white.” said the XO, whose name was Arnold Edger.

The Captain took a long, thoughtful look out the porthole. He replied, “If this is a White Dwarf… and it’s not NML Cygni… then we must be somewhere else.”

The XO nodded and said, “Yes, sir. Very astute, sir.”

Captain Bowman turned to M.T., who had a slightly confused look on his face, and said, “You should be commended for bringing this to our attention. Who knows how long we would have drifted here.”

M.T. cleared his throat awkwardly and finally replied, “More than welcome, sir.”

The Captain gazed soulfully into the stars and asked, “If you were me, and I were you, what would you tell yourself about what I should do next?”

M.T. had to think carefully, as he wasn’t sure what this lunatic might be thinking, or even capable of. Finally, he muttered something about checking the star charts to find out their actual location in the galaxy.

Bowman got a strange look in his eye and said, “That is an excellent suggestion. We should do that. Commander Edger, make that thing happen.”

Bridge to Captain,” came the smooth voice of the day’s bridge officer, Akashatsu, on the intercom. “Captain!”

Captain here,” said Archer.

Akashatsu said, “We just picked up a planetoid, sir. We may have signs of structures on the surface.”

Message received,” closed Bowman. He turned to the two guests and said, “Thank you, gentlemen. Dismissed.”

Outside the office, M.T. turned to Edger and asked, “Is he always like that?” – thinking that the captain might be slightly stupid. Or possibly out of his mind.

Yes,” replied Edger with dewy-eyed gaze. He’s a great man and my personal idol.”

M.T. did a double take, before nodding gamely and walking away. The XO might be just as mad as the Captain. Then again, that was no surprise since he spent most of his time making sure things looked clean and didn’t apparently have the slightest clue what was going on apart from that. This had annoyed MT on multiple occasions when he dropped by with his checklist in the middle of dinner preparations, when things were necessarily not especially tidy or polished.

M.T. didn’t much care, as he had too much to worry about than to care about the bad attitude of a demented martinet. Still, it formed yet another of the minor irritants which made up his adventure in space.

Now he went off to take care of the dinner hour – or rather, hours. The dinner service required three hours to allow all the crew time to move through the dining room and eat, plus another two hours for cleanup. Of course, that didn’t include the prep time, either.

Finally, late in the evening, M.T. had finally cleaned up all the day’s tableware put away the leftover food. It was a time of day he enjoyed most, with only a little more work left until he could finally sleep. He had a brief moment even to sit down and eat himself, enjoying some lukewarm water to complement his exquisite meal choice of a leftover soup packet with a tube of bread dough, filled with preprocessed meat and cheese in the middle.

Of course, it wouldn’t quite a complete day without a “surprise” visit from Commander Edger. The XO managed to starch his clothes until they moved as fluidly as cardboard. He strode into the hall just as stiffly as his clothes, with a standard datapad in hand.

Crewman Stuart, you are hereby ordered to report under SpaceCore directive nine point two point one point seven point four dash C dash dash dash,” he exclaimed. He then turned about, still ramrod-straight, and began striding out of the kitchen almost before M.T. could stop him.

Wait,” he said, “What exactly am I reported for?”

Edger rolled his eyes and said, “Obviously, you are going with the planetary exploration party.”

M.T. was too surprised to object as Edger walked away.

Thirty minutes later, he found himself dropping planetside in a standard reusable shuttlepod, along with the entire senior officer complement, the ship’s doctor, and the person of one crewman Akashatsu.

They landed just outside of the unknown alien structure. Although made of some dull, greyish metal, it was clearly heavily worn over the ages. It appeared to be a stepped pyramid, but with five sides and sort of columned, covered entrance. The planetoid orbited the star at high speed, with just enough red-tinted lichen to provide a thin atmosphere, even pleasant with an oxygen mask. Outside the field centered on the pyramid, however, it would be too hot for humans to live very long.

The Captain stopped them, but mercifully avoided making a speech about how historic the occasion was. Instead he simply ordered them to split into three teams. Under the circumstances, an order to divide into small groups easily lost or ambushed was a pretty solid idea. Anything which put him far away from the mad people seemed good to M.T.

He and Akashatsu were assigned to investigate “that area over there.” And they intended to do just that, despite having no archeological training, experience with alien technology, or any kind of useful instruments.

Somehow, it went worse than expected.

Specifically, as M.T. was walking about randomly and looking vaguely at a structure large enough to contain an amusement park and older than human civilization in a vain attempt to feel useful, he suddenly felt the dirt give way beneath his feet.

With his mind leaving his mouth to its own devices, M.T.’s hands gripped vainly and the sliding dirt and he dropped down into the darkness below.

Akashatsu only saw the briefest glimpse of the vanishing crewman. “Huh,” he said, “I really didn’t see that coming.”

M.T. repeated his meditation mantra on the way down: “Oh shit, oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit, Oh shiiiiiiit!”

He hit something hard with a sickening thump and felt his left arm crack just as he passed into unconsciousness.

Misplaced

M.T. woke up to a splintering pain in his left arm, so sharp he couldn’t even breathe properly. He lay there gasping and tried to roll onto his back, only to yelp as he wrenched his arm even further.

For a moment, he thought he had gone blind, only to realize it was instead completely dark. He fumbled for the small flashlight on his belt, one of the handful of tools everyone of the landing team had been equipped with. Flicking it on, he realized he was in some kind of underground space.

He sat up and took stock of the area nearby, only slowly realizing he might be trapped. His arm spasmed even more. He was at least able to figure out it was likely a shoulder break instead of the arm itself. The arm was mostly numb by this point, dripping blood in spots.

Unfortunately, without a medical kit there wasn’t much he could do. The only real option was to use his belt a kind of makeshift split. This felt just as pleasant as one might imagine, but he managed to avoid passing out. Barely.

The official directive for being lost was to send up a flare and wait for assistance. Since he was underground, a flare wouldn’t go far, and he wasn’t likely to get any useful help from Captain Crazypants. Therefore, the only option was to find his own way out. If they didn’t take off and leave him to die of thirst first, of course.

He had to get out, and whatever he’d fallen into had somehow shut behind him.But looking around, he could see that there were weirdly angled doorways and rooms with distorted proportions. Still, none of that mattered.

The light he had didn’t help much, but the gloom was oddly helpful. A small light went much farther in the pitch blackness. Apart from looking for a way up, he tried to feel for any breeze.

Perhaps the oddest – most disturbing thing – was the complete lack of any decoration of object. The halls appeared utterly barren, without even a desk. It didn’t feel like an inhabited place. Then again, it’s possible that no living creature had walked these halls since before human civilization even began.

More and more frightened by the moment, and passing imagination that conjured up more horrors in every corned and through every door, M.T. finally stopped. His breating went in and our so heavily he had nearly fainted. “And really,” he told himself, “There wasn’t anything here to be worried about.”

Then he stepped on bone. Or whatever the several hundred dead aliens that lay before him used instead of bones.

To no one in particular, he whispered, “This is no temple… it’s a tomb.”

It took several minutes to recover his wits after that, one foot caught in the middle of crunching a bone. Finally, he kept on, stepping around the long-decayed corpses gingerly.

The next chamber held the first decoration he had seen. A set of solid tables, or perhaps altars, made of the same black metal as the structure itself. Each one held a strange object of one sort or another. One appeared to be a strange sort of gyroscope, not obviously moving. Another held a golden sphere. The third had a kind of crescent blade, though it was unclear whether it was made as a tool or weapon, or had some other function entirely. The final altar held what appeared to be a sort of mace with a five-pointed head with a red jewel in the center.

Caught in the moment, he briefly forgot about the pain. He had never seen an alien artifact up close; any noteworthy finds on Earth were locked away in museums, private vaults, or the property of exotic research firms.

He approached the golden sphere, since it shined brilliantly under the flashlight’s glow. He stared at it and reached out to brush it gingerly with his fingertips. A long breath later, he turned away, a fleck of blood splattering against the orb.

When he turned around, M.T. remember there was a loop on his left shoulder for the flashlight to fit into, which would be much more convenient even with his broken arm. It was awkward to manage and involved several more painful spasms, but he finally managed.

He turned to leave the room and continue looking for a way out. Then, out of the gloom behind him, he thought he heard a slight scratching. M.T. turned around, but saw nothing. There was the gyroscope, the blade, and the sphere – wait, where was the sphere?

M.T. approached the altar gingerly, not seeing anything. He leaned over slowly, and there was the sphere, fallen on the other side. It was cracked, and M.T. felt a twinge of guilt that he carelessly knocked over a priceless artifact.

The sphere twitched.

M.T. froze.

Something began poking out between the broken egg and the floor.

He leaped back, falling over the altar behind him as he scrambled to get away. He gasped for air, grabbing the only object at hand as a makeshift club.

Whatever it was poked its own head (if it had one) above the far altar.

M.T. ran hard, not bothering to see where he was going.

He fled through chamber after chamber, barely pausing long enough to look for the next exit, not even listening for any telltale scrabbling sounds behind him but imagining them with frightful vividness. Then he heard the sounds.

First came the humming, a high-pitched whine that deepened into a low rumble that passed right through his muscle and bone. Then came the light: an inhuman, orange glow began the light up the temple, almost blinding M.T.’s eyes, now used to the gloom.

The temple was waking up.

There, ahead of him, the sweating would-be explorer spotted a ramp upwards. He took it immediately, hoping it would lead out of the alien megastructure.

There! A vast doorway was even now opening in front of him, and several crewmembers were watching as it lowly and soundlessly slid open.

The last thing M.T. heard before they shot him was, “He’ll do nicely.”

Sacrifice

M.T. woke up in a wooden cage. This surprised him greatly, since this planet had about as much lumber as the average moon. Upon a closer inspection with blurring eyes, he realized it was made of bits of furniture from the ship.

He was shoved up against the side of the main hall. His leg was shackled with a study rope tied to the cage. That didn’t matter much. M.T. coughed feebly and found he could barely breathe, let alone move.

Moving his head to the left, M.T. realized his arm was not looking so good, having been first crushed under his falling body, stuck an alien soil for some time, bound with a belt and without antiseptic, and finally left to fester. The flechette shards didn’t help.

In fact, M.T. decided that his current semi-dissociative state and complete apathy about his predicament was due to the fact that he was clearly feverish and likely going to die of blood poisoning.

Fortunately, Edger was at hand to reassure him. Good morning, crewman!” he said, “We hope you’re doing well.”

Been better,” M.T. grunted.

Edger nodded gravely and ticked a box on his checklist. He said, “Unfortunate. But, always look on the popular side of things. Once we sacrifice you to the Dark Ones Who Dwell Beyond, I’m sure everything will work itself out.”

M.T. had to mull that over for a moment before replying, “I should be surprised, but that’s mostly just what I expected. Sounds just about right for today.”

Edger beamed. With a hearty fist pump he said, “That’s the spirit we expect from crew.” He performed a stiff salute and returned to… whatever the hell he did.

Before M.T. could pass out, Akashatsu suddenly appeared in front of him. He called to M.T., “Psst. Hey! Wake up!” Then he stuck a syringe into M.T.’s leg. The quick relief helped the sick man breath easier and took away some of the fugue, so it must have been some kind of medicine.

M.T. was able to at least get up and lean over near the cage, trying not to jar his arm. “Aka?” he asked, “get this thing open, we’ve got to get out of here!”

Akashatsu hemmed and hawed a bit before admitting he liked it here. He continued, “I mean, really, I like the new direction the team is going in. There’s some real opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something great.”

M.T. gave him a hard look and said, “What?”

Yeah, Aka replied, “look, we both know this expedition was horribly doomed. I figure, which side am I on, really? Just saying I’d prefer not be sacrificed to the Dread Masters.”

I can see the appeal… for you,” said M.T.

Hey, when we sacrificed the Captain on the Altar of Blood, I didn’t get his skull, but hey, I promise to turn yours into a, like, a shoulder pad and wear it with pride. You deserve it, buddy,” said Akashatsu.

M.T. stared and said, “Y… you… You’ve all gone stark raving mad.”

Well, replied Aka, “what can I say? I’m a joiner. And I don’t want to die screaming.”

There really didn’t seem to be mcuh to say on either side, but Akashatsu was kind enough to leave M.T. several more pain suppressor syringes.

There didn’t seem to be much else to do but wait to die. Even with some stims, M.T.’s tools had been taken and he had no strength left to do anything. Even if he had been able to escape the cage, there was nowhere to flee to.

So he waited, and used some painkillers to feel halfway decent. This was the last time in his life to feel good at all. Maybe it was really the first time, too. Somehow, the thought of dying didn’t seem that bad, really. After this voyage of the damned, a lifetime of disappointment, and whatever bitter discontent he felt – well, M.T. didn’t pretend to be a saint. If his death made the universe just a slightly worse place all around, perhaps it was only fair: misery for misery.

M.T. watched as the starship began a landing sequence, burning into the atmosphere and come to a gentle, graceful landing. Judging by the ominous pseudo-Latin chanting and the fire being built behind the altar, he didn’t have long.

But as often happens in life, it’s just when everything seems most certain and set that everything changes in a heartbeat. M.T., in a half-doze, heard a familiar skittering.

He saw the little alien horror staring back at him, mere inches from his face. It was not as fearsome as at first glance. Apart from smoking slightly, the beady little eyes were almost adorable on a body the size of a medium dog.

It had the strange mace gripped in its mouth. The critter cocked its head to the side and chirped politely, then dropped the artifact. The man and the alien looked down at the artifact, then looked back up at each other.

M.T. kept expecting the alien to attack, but it didn’t. It even gently pushed the item towards him, as though the creature expected something. He wasn’t exactly afraid anymore, as even the worst fear exhausts itself in time.

Finally, M.T. spoke up, saying, “Well, I really appreciate, little guy. I don’t think a club is going to open up the cage. But if it helps, I’m going to name you Shadow. Because you’re… shadowy. Yeah, sorry. I’m terrible at names.”

Shadow clearly appreciated it, because he showed his appreciation in leaping upon M.T. He began to disassemble M.T.’s left arm with the kind of efficiency normally reserved for turbine engines introduced to a flock of geese.

M.T would have liked to scream, but Shadowy very kindly wrapped his (adorable) tail around M.T.’s neck and squeezed firmly. (M.T. later decided that Shadow was just a great pal that way.)

Since he was going to die anyway, he decided it was time for the last of the painkillers. There was the possibility of maybe fighting off a ravenous alien killer with one good arm, but the odds didn’t seem terribly favorable.

Resigned to death, M.T. was surprised that Shadow stopped. He was more surprised that the “mace” began to twitch, the spikes moving almost like legs.

And he was really quite shocked when it crawled up his side and stabbed right into his bleeding stump. It wasn’t every day that ancient alien cybernetics installed themselves.

Prey

The arm twisted (which hurt). It stretched (which hurt more). It bent and popped and shifted in front of his eyes. It expanded, somehow becoming larger and heavier than before. The arm grew into his flesh and merged with neurons, muscle, and bone.

M.T. used his remaining normal hand to grip the alien arm – no, his alien arm – by the wrist. (Was that a wrist?) The mace head warped, and flexed as the jewel casing formed a lens. The claw popped and re-centered and transformed into fingers. His arm burned.

The jewel that formed his hand began to glow, accompanying the heat. Just when it seemed that the searing pain would cause him to pass out, M.T. felt it focus. The arm twisted away, and he wasn’t sure if it was following his will or its own. The lens flared – light shot forth – the cage sheared away as if sliced with a plasma torch.

M.T. breathed heavily, feeling renewed vigor. He reached down and sliced through his shackle like paper. The sick feeling and weakness vanished.

Unfortunately, this undoubtedly meant another catastrophe heading his way. He hadn’t even managed to get out of the cage when a hideous shrieking came out of the bowels of the temple, a high-pitched whine cutting his mind like a knife.

Judging by the screams of pain and fear, the crew felt it too. It would have been satisfying to try and fight back, M.T. simply wanted to escape. He needed to reach the ship.

He ran towards the ship, hoping it hadn’t broken during the descent. If so… well, some things were best ignored. Behind him, a screaming horde of alien locusts, black and slick like Shadow, poured from the temple. As he exited, he saw the crew, armed to the teeth, aiming everything they had at the entrance. Which he happened to be standing in.

The only advantage he had was surprise. The crew didn’t expect to see him any more than he expected them to have laser cannons. He dodged to the right to avoid the clashing armies and kept running like a madman.

Screams of men and aliens haunted him, but he refused to look back as he sprinted past the makeshift camp and into the landing bay of the Curie. “Better a broken starship,” he thought, “than staying on the planet of the damned.”

Fortunately, at last one point of good luck came in his favor this time. The loading bay was open and the airlock hatch wasn’t sealed. The bay lay crowded with cargo boxes tethered to the walls and floor, but M.T. jumped rightr over them and kept going. He punched the hatch button and fled right inside, not daring to look behind him.

Then he realized that if the only pilots were outside, he wasn’t going to get back to Earth without a series of ten miracles in a row. Then he heard the power plant begin to stir to life, the low hum filling the ship with its soothing cadence. Someone had to be at those controls. But how many might be on the ship was something he didn’t know.

Although the claw seemed like a powerful weapon, but he dashed towards the kitchen to pick up one of his favorite knives. If it worked for cutting steak, then, well, it would work for cutting a man as well.

When he was returning to the main hall, however, M.T. spied something crawling through the portal ahead of him. For a moment, he wondered if that was Shadow, but the beast looked far too big.

M.T. breathed carefully and entered the main hall after it. There wasn’t any way through to the bridge, so he had no choice. When he finally mustered his courage and stepped through, it had already vanished.

That was even more worrying. M.T. stepped carefully and held his weapon arm up as he checked every angle. He looked around nervously at first, then quizzically. The creature had vanished into thin air.

When he heard the hissing from behind, however, he realized it had gone up, not around any corner. M.T. ran before it could uncoil its considerable bulk, but risked a glance back. It might be size of a tiger, but it was quick and agile like a tiger.

M.T. sprinted through to the bridge tower door and slammed the controls shut just in time for the angry creature to crash into the door.

Seeing that surprise was probably lost, he immediately ran up to the stairs to the bridge room. There, punching the startup sequence madly, was Akashatsu.

They stared at each other. Aka said, “Nice arm.”

M.T. replied, “I see you did get the Captain’s skull for a shoulderpad. Looks good. Post apocalypse is in this year.

Ending the awkwardness, Aka said, “Can you prime the secondary plasma cylinder? Controls‘re over there.”

M.T. cheerfully said, “Sure thing!” despite knowing very little about the engines. Under the circumstances, this was probably the least dangerous option.

Before he could reach the station, however, he was confronted by Edger pointing a flechette pistol right at his gut. The XO’s eyes bulging with madness, he screamed, “Dereliction of Duty! Refusal to Obey Orders!”

Aka and M.T. looked at each other, and then at Edger. M.T. said, “Did you get in through the door?”

Edger looked confused, as if knocked off balance. He said, “I used the door.”

Aka asked, “How did you get past the alien?”

Edger said, What are you talking about? What ali – arrrgh!” A spadelike-tail stabbed him from behind as the monster yanked his body backwards and down the stairs.

Aka furiously continued to launch and fired the boosters early. M.T. and the alien lost their grip and tumbled through the ship as it went vertical when still under gravity, falling down the long main hall. His claw scraped the floor until the fingertips bit. The alien’s maw lay inches from his face as slow its own fall.

As they burned into space, M.T. punched the door control. He and the alien began sinking towards the open vacuum of space as the atmosphere vented.

It hissed and began climbing back up into the craft, but M.T. couldn’t let it do so. Held in place by his cybernetic arm, he snagged the cargo tether and locked it around that monstrous tail. With a quick release, the cargo tumbled into the void and the creature screamed in fury as it, too, was dragged down.

Lingering

Of course, getting back in himself wasn’t any easier. He had to drag his way up the cargo netting until he could shut the bay doors., the air rushing over him already getting thin. “That would be a problem for later,” M.T. thought, “if I live to see later.”

After a climb that seemed to take hours, however, he finally managed to activate the lock sequence. Gravity was already weakening, so they must be reaching the lower atmosphere at least.

He closed the doors to the loading bay and then, for good measure, checked all the locks and seals. After thinking over his options, the thought of food took precedence. To be polite, he asked Akashatsu if he wanted anything.

Cooking was something he could do. Fighting alien monsters on a hell world and losing arms wasn’t fun, but cooking? That was merely heat and time.

And there was no reason to hold back. He may as well pull out the champagne kept for special events, fire up a couple steaks (medium rare, with some defrosted dipping sauces) smashed potatoes and sticky-sweet cinnamon rolls.

M.T. eventually loaded up a cart and hauled the entire platter up to the bridge. Strictly speaking, Akashatsu wasn’t any more trustworthy than the rest of the crew. But since M.T. couldn’t pilot the ship, he didn’t have much choice but to relax and enjoy the voyage back home.

Plus, he needed some company. It had been a long day.

The feast went over excellently, once they were out of the planet’s gravity well. But when dinner was in front of him, M.T. found he had little appetite and mostly just nibbled his food. He was able to drink some green tea at least.

Aka, on the other hand, ate like there was no tomorrow. This was probably because neither of them had one. As he finished eating, Aka politely said, “So, I don’t want to alarm you or bring more bad news, but we may have a very slight problem with getting back.”

M.T. massaged his temples and, with a tone of weary exhaustion, simply said, “Tell me.”

Aka grimaced and replied, “The main subspace drive is damaged. So we pretty much have one option left: the Emergency Hyperdrive system.”

Sounds good,” said M.T. It’s got a what, twelve percent survival rate? Seems fair.”

The plan was for both of them to be frozen in the emergency escape pods.. The hyperdrive would engage on a time delay, and with any luck pods would be ejected in the Solar System with distress beacons.

With fifteen minutes left, they shook hands. M.T. expressed the deepest feelings in his heart by saying, “Well, I’d like to say it was a pleasure. But it really sucked.”

M.T. went to the emergency pod and sealed the system shut. He checked the supplies; there were enough for six men for a week. One minute was left on the clock. He breathed in and out, placed his hand against the button.

One moment and five thousand light years later, he awoke.

As the pod ejected from the burning, broken ship, he hoped for a swift rescue. Hope failed once more.

Quiet.

Cold.

Dark.

There was no gravity. At times, he remembered there was a tether attached to his wrist. Most of the time he failed to remember even that thin plastic strip. Sometimes he dreamed that he was finally starving, and the tether snapped, with only a few inches away from the last morsel of food but never able to grasp it.

There was no sound. The machinery was too streamlined to hear anything against the void, if it was even working anymore. Sometimes he imagined he had mysteriously gone deaf, or a false ringing echoed endlessly until he shook off the momentary delusion. A stray cough (from his own throat?) shattered the wall of silenced from time to time, the only reminder that sounds still existed.

He felt cold. If the pod kept any kind of temperature at all there wasn’t enough power to keep it controlled. Maybe it had failed completely. Maybe it never turned on in the first place. If he had anymore energy, he would have curled up, but he was simply too exhausted to both moving.

It was so dark – he was left in utter blackness. He didn’t know if his eyes were open or not anymore.

Sometimes he dreamed of fading right through the walls and being exposed to the vastness. Mostly he dreamed only of endless, crushing darkness forever and ever. Or were those the waking moments?

Now he couldn’t breathe. He gasped for air in the pod, convinced he was going to suffocate, that his air supply had finally run out. Finally he realized that he was breathing just fine, and curled into a ball to keep his warmth to himself.

How long had he been out here? Did he die in the pod, and was this his own personal hell? To be left alone without sensation for all eternity?

He could take no more. It was too quiet and too dark.

He fumbled towards the sealed door, grabbing and trying to shove it open just to escape, even if it meant dying. At least that death would be mercifully quick compared to the infinite emptiness.

It didn’t open. Of course it wouldn’t open – he’d locked it with a code. But try as he might, he couldn’t remember the sequence anymore.

A chirping echoed around the tiny cabin, and he looked around, thinking he might be going crazy (or crazier). Just when he was satisfied he was just imagining it, the little scrabbling critter came around. How had it even gotten here?

It crawled around from under his coat and gripped onto his shirt. It looked him eye to eyes (the critter had six). It chirped musically and rhythmically, and he relaxed.

He whispered, ‘I think a better name would be Baz. Shadow is pretty dull.” As the chirping continued, he fell into a deep sleep.

He dreamed again of drifting forever among the stars, but this time they were bright and stretched across the universe, filling every corner with light.

Forsaken

He woke from the rumbling, a low but increasing roar that began to shake the entire life pod. Her felt the pull of gravity returning as the pod began turning and tumbling through a thickening atmosphere. M.T. began bouncing around the interior as he slammed into one surface after another.

Controls panels lit up with emergency power, and fortunately the automatic systems engaged. The pod finally stabilized and M.T. fell to the floor, nearly squashing Baz. M.T. groaned and gingerly touched his nose, thankful that it at least wasn’t broken.

The viewing screen activated, and there on the monitor as the beautiful blue oceans of Earth. “How had he gotten here?” thought M.T., knowing that the lifepods had split a month ago. The pod couldn’t have supported him for that entire time, but he didn’t have time to worry about it.

The pod might have been picked up by some sensor system, but evidently no-one responded if so. For now, he just had to wait until planetfall was completed.

Minutes passed slowly as the surface loomed larger. M.T. couldn’t be sure, but he thought he was dropping in the Sino-Pacific region – but hopefully not in the ocean.

M.T. held on tight as the chute warning signs lit up. The parachutes popped and bloomed into the open air, jolting the pod in moments to a far slower descent.

He waited, each anxious moment following another. Baz skittishly ran around the pod, until M.T. picked him up and held him in a firm and gentle embrace. Baz calmed down quickly and chirped happily.

The pod smacked into a hillside with sufficient velocity to stun the occupants, but no permanent damage was inflicted on the occupants, at least.

M.T. tried to enter the unlock code, but finally just got bored with that plan. He looked at his claw, and then sliced through the locking bolts holding the door in place. Every day that passed, it felt more and more an integral part of him and his body.

But for now, it didn’t matter. He stepped out into the light, putting his handover his eyes as it was far too bright for him after the gloom of the pod. He hadn’t really stretched in weeks, and the opportunity to flex while warmed by the sun felt very good indeed.

Now he just had to find a way back to civilization., Awkwardly, he had little money and only an old identity card which might or might not even work after this long, but at least he could breathe clean air again. Given the ample use of fertilizer in the field he was standing in, the clean air would have to wait.

He started walking, Baz keeping close to his heels. These fields were dry, but appeared to setup for three layers of concrete rows. Each layer of rice plants flowed in neat tiers, each one holding water and nutrients for the one below. He walked down the long rows up a hill, so he could look out.

There, he saw a road down on the far side. Hopefully, he would be able to grab a ride at some point. To where, he didn’t quite know. That part would have to wait.

He went down to the road, but the only traffic was automated cargo trucks, none of which were likely to stop to pick up a hitchhiker. Since the full trucks were heading southeast, and the odd empty back the other way, he went southeast. It made sense that they were going towards a depot of some variety, where hopefully someone was monitoring the work.

M.T. followed them down, keeping an eye out if any passerby was a farmer or worker driving around. Finally, after almost an hour, he heard a brief honk from behind. The small truck slowed and M.T. turned, but when the driver got a good look, his expression suddenly changed to one of fear and he slammed on the accelerator and took off down the road. M.T.’s Cantonese was no god, but he heard the man distinctly yelling something about a “demon”.

He looked himself up and down, and realized that he had a tattered, blood-encrusted crew shirt, alien cybernetics merged with his flesh, hadn’t eaten in weeks, with a small monster nipping along behind. Alright, he couldn’t exactly blame the man, but M.T. still didn’t think it was entirely fair.

When he came to an intersection, he had an idea. With each truck slowing as it went to the intersection, he simply waited and hopped onto the join where the engine compartment hooked to the cargo. Not too elegant, but he knew how to dodge the sensor. M.T. and Baz snuggled in and had a nice rest in the warm afternoon.

The truck slowed and came to a stop under a growing shadow. When M.T. stretched and looked around, he realized this was Hengsha, the Vertical City. Of course, he was on the lower level – getting to the Upper City wasn’t easy. But hopefully he could get in touch with his family and find a way back home from here.

He waited until the truck entered a the outer industrial area, the hopped off as it slowed to enter a processing plant. This was probably one of the region’s major food service firms, though he didn’t bother to read the signage.

M.T. ordered Baz with a word, and his pet vanished into his the folds of his torn jacket. His real problem was that he had no local currency. He still had some Novas, but finding someone who would accept them was a trick. He asked around with the local stores, who weren’t much help, but finally one pointed him to the “English Sector.” M.T. had heard that some ten million British citizens had settled in enclaves along the Pacific following the Yorkshire Metldown, though he had never visited himself. It was as good a lead as any, so he marched his weary feet again.

The section of town he found had all English signage and a familiar, if not entirely comfortable, vibe to it. He found a small hotel, not terribly high quality but someplace to rest, and went in. The plastic flooring and red paint made it feel somewhere between a whorehouse and a fast food restaurant. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers.

He went over to the front desk, happy yo see a sign reading, “We accept:” followed by the sign of several currencies, including Novas. There was a girl there, sitting in a battered wheelchair with a bandana wrapped around her head. When M.T. looked at her, he saw – or rather, felt – a flickering warmth that seemed to light the world around her.

Her nametag said Eris.

Wounded

M.T. plopped onto the soft bed, skin still pink and warm from the hot shower. He felt far better now, having downed a bowlful of duck noodles. Eris, and her mother Juno, had been extremely kind to him, for which he felt deep gratitude. He’d expected to be feared or even loathed, but they treated him like family. M.T. insisted on paying, at least.

After a moment relaxing in comfort, he moved to a chair next to the window. The hotel room had very few creature comforts, but it was cozy and clean, and the showers ran hot. What was more, they gave him some old clothes. Given that he had only his tattered, dirty, bloody crew uniform.

M.T leaned out and watched the busy city life going on below in the narrow streets. Now that he was past the ongoing sequence of nightmarish bad luck, he was increasingly worried about his replacement limb. Yes, it saved his life at least three times; he couldn’t deny that. But he remembered the agony when it added itself into his body. Even now, he wasn’t sure what it was doing to him. Precursor artifacts weren’t safe in the first place, and this one had actively wired itself to his mind and body.

Look at him, complaining about being alive, back on Earth, when not so long ago neither seemed very likely. Outside, he saw many people who looked far worse off. Around a third of the people were bald, mostly wearing caps or bandannas, and didn’t look terribly healthy either.

M.T. went downstairs. Juno had the desk now, and he hoped to ask her if there might be a discrete cyberneticist around. Although he’d never visited Hengsha, the lower city’s reputation wasn’t good. But this might work to his advantage, now.

When we went down the narrow staircase, he saw Juno walking out the side door. Eris was marking down something in a paper ledger at the front desk, her flame a fraction brighter than before.

Juno!” he called, and seeing that she had a couple large bags in her arms, continued, “Well, can I carry that?” She shrugged, so he picked up the packages and went after her. Juno walked briskly down the always dark, damp streets of lower Hengsha, M.T trailing just behind her.

It’s nice of you to come. I’d usually need to take two trips,” Juno said.

M.T. shrugged and said, “It’s the least I can do. I mean, I hadn’t had a change of clothes since, well, awhile.”

Juno said, “I guessed two or three weeks, by the smell.” M.T.’s face froze, not quite knowing how to respond to that. Juno continued, “Don’t worry about it.”

They walked on in silence, until Juno dropped one of the packages in the delivery box for a small residential building. Finally, M.T. spoke again, asking, “I meant to ask, but I don’t want to be rude. I’ve never been to Hengsha before. It seemed like Eris wasn’t the only person with a headband.”

She gave him a funny look, as though she didn’t know what to make of his question. “I guess you’re really not from around here, or you’d know. Look up,” she said, gesturing towards the vast ceiling that formed the base of the upper city, with its huge vents and drains. Juno continued, “They drop stuff down here. Chemicals, dirty air, whatever.” She paused and choked a little before finishing, “Some people have a reaction to it all.”

M.T. said nothing more as they finished the deliveries. Eventually, on the way back, Juno said, “It’s too late, if you were wondering.” She waited for M.T. to respond, but he didn’t. She continued, “There isn’t a cure. You either get sick or you don’t.”

Later that night, M.T. looked for ways to get back to his home ‘plex. The hotel terminals weren’t very good, but they managed to connect to the public information net.

Seeing Hengsha’s misery and vibrancy all at once, in person, gave him a different perspective. He wanted to do something, but it just wasn’t possible. One life couldn’t change a vast city. Even the Upper City alone was a huge place with thousands of security guards, trillions’ worth in complex machinery, plus an entire economy unto itself. There wasn’t much to do about any of that.

Still, he could think about that later. He had an appointment with a street doc. As he went down the steps, he paused to chat with Eris again. He awkwardly noted, “Blue bandanna today, huh?”

She blinked at him, and said, “Yes. Yes it is. Blue.” He stood there like an idiot for a moment before waving politely and moving on.

The streets never felt real rain, but drainage from the upper city misted over the lower in a shower that only varied in intensity. Fortunately, he didn’t have to go far. Behind an old fish and fries shop, he found the alley he needed. He was heading for the second door on the left.

He’d been told to just open it and go in. After hesitating a long moment, he delicately pushed. The door opened easily. M.T. breathed deeply and went in. The doctor was sitting in a rolling chair. He had a few enhancements of his own by the look of it, and he regarded M.T. coolly through mirrored goggles.

Close the door,” he said softly. M.T. complied, noticing that the door could be tripled-barred from the inside. Around the room, a variety of medical equipment resided in a scattering of cases.

Sit down. Tell me about your problem.” M.T. felt a creeping sensation up his spine.

He sat down nervously in the patient chair, a reclining model with a blue gauze over it. He said, “My arm. I didn’t get much of a choice about getting it. I just need to know what it is, exactly.”

Let’s take a look,” he said.

The doctor began running various scopes and prodding at the arm, mumbling all the while. “Elaborate design. Integrated sense package, if I’m not mistaken. No, those are artificial nerve clusters – self organizing? Very similar to organic. Integrated across the chest bone muscles. Surprisingly lightweight. Alien alloys, too. Unclear power source. Neural links in complete.”

He slid back. In the conversation that followed, there was a technical discussion by the doctor and stupid questions by M.T. The gist, however, was that he was likely stuck without complex surgery, and the cybernetics needed a reset.

Memory

M.T. couldn’t sleep, even though it was getting very late. He instead gently stroked the snoozing Baz on the head, or whatever he had for a head. While M.T. now had a printout loaded with exotic terminology and detailed schematics, he had no real answers.

The arm needed a factory reset, but since it might not have been made in a factory, the factory definitely didn’t exist anymore, and the last expert in this kind of technology probably died before humanity was a thing, the outlook wasn’t terribly optimistic. On the other hand, he had a clean bill of health. Better than clean, in fact. Even some old small scars seemed to be fading. But what it might do over time was no clearer.

He lay there listening to the gentle rumble of passing trams, trying and failing to rest. He stared up at the ceiling, watching the thin illumination from the streets flicker. He began to slip into drowsiness, and closed his eyes.

Ahem.”

A commanding if feminine voice echoed and woke him up. Maybe. M.T. had never dreamed anything this vividly, but this didn’t feel real or right.

She looked like any other girl, wearing fairly plain short dress and a white coat, seemingly adorned with feathers. If he had to guess, he’d have assumed her featured were those of Eris, except hotel clerks didn’t usually have bionic spines. In fact, the girl’s spine ended into a translucent disk, five leafs extending into her skin, as though his arm had been turned upside down.

I see you’ve been taking care of my friend,” she said, gently stroking the sleeping Baz. M.T. struggled to say something, or to get up, but couldn’t move a finger.

She said, “Don’t bother. I know your thoughts, even unconsciously. I’d have just let it alone, but you seem to be trying to wake up, as it were. That can be dangerous.”

So,” she continued, “I’ll make you a deal. Option one: you go home. Or live your life, or whatever you want to do. Forget all about this. You’ll live a long and healthy life.

Option two, on the other hand, goes the other way. You don’t get a home, and spend a lifetime, or maybe many lifetimes, trying to fix everything around you. Once you step onto this path, there may be no turning back.”

Well,” she finished, “Give it some time.” She pressed a glowing finger into his forehead, and after a brief flash, he knew only darkness until dawn.

M.T. woke up slowly, then all at once. He looked around the room but saw only Baz snoozing happily. It was only a dream. He had to believe it was a dream.

He supposed it didn’t matter either way. He was going home today. M.T. couldn’t get on an official flight, but Juno had swung him a seat on a cargo hopper. It was more than fair for helping out for a few days.

Baz stretched lazily before climbing into M.T.’s pocket. M.T. smiled and said, “I wonder what they’d make of you, Baz, thinking that scientists would love to check him.” Baz only chirped happily in reply.

Now he said his goodbyes to Juno and Eris. He hoped to see them again, but it might not be for a while. With any luck, he might even be to able to help them move somewhere with a less toxic atmosphere.

The cargo hauler wasn’t big on creature comforts, but M.T. was more interested in the journey anyway. There were no other passengers, or crew, either. He just had to strap himself into between the crates and wait.

He didn’t have to wait long. The hopper soon lifted off and sped across the ocean. With no windows, M.T. was pretty much stuck waiting.

Finally, he felt the hopper land and stop. Slipping out wasn’t a problem – there wasn’t much around except for cargo loaders. He slipped away and hopped on the first bus.

Even after a year, the system hasn’t changed. The same routes still ran and fares hadn’t changed. The buses even had the same smell. Maybe there was something nostalgic in it.

This time it took only two hours and thirty five minutes to reach home. He exited a short hike away from the old house.

As he walked up the long, comforting steps, M.T. remembered the years he’d lived here. Years of frustration had followed, but before? Those were good times.

That didn’t matter any more. He just wanted to go home.

Even in the dim and fading light of early evening, the mansion’s warm lights filled him with hope.

There was just the small problem. The security system didn’t want to engage. He knew the master code from when it was installed. Still, he’d hoped for a better reception.

When M.T. got closer, however, he saw through the window that there was a new addition to his family’s social circle (which consisted mostly of themselves). The new person had the same hair, and a similar face, height and build. He had a suit that probably cost more than M.T. had earned in his life, not to mention his jewelry or the glass of champagne. M.T. hadn’t known it was possibly to hate someone that much that quickly.

He went in through the side door and seated himself at the kitchen table, waiting for the party to stop. Garry and Maria, and the new man – his name was Martin, apparently – took turns talking about their good fortune. M.T. found that incredibly, amazingly obnoxious. Maybe he always had. It was always about finding a way to one-up each other in the Stuart household.

Part of him wanted to kick open that door and tell everyone about his amazing journey, about how he had set foot on an alien world, nearly died twenty or so times in a row, and lived to tell the tale. He wanted to see if any of them could top that.

Even as he thought it, however, he knew it didn’t matter. He just waited and read the news, sipping coffee.

Eventually, the commotion died down. M.T. waited until his parents finally said good-bye to the last guest.

They showed no surprise when they saw him, and their conversation was directed entirely to their new nephew Martin, whom they couldn’t stop comparing favorably to M.T. on every possible point. They appeared blithely unaware or interested in his replacement arm, or that he had been gone for over a year.

Reset

M.T. left that night, with no money, no goals, and nothing in his pockets except for lint and the alien monstrosity which had once cheerfully ripped off one of his limbs.

He stumbled down the steps, twisting his ankle painfully. He heard the joint pop sickeningly. Just one more misery to stack onto his pile. He stifled the groan as the first wave of pain surged through him.

There was at least one place he could spend the night, and it was within easy limping distance. Nobody would go there this late, or likely even tomorrow. Maybe he would have time to think. He’d have to walk for hours to get back to the city anyway, and even if he did there was nowhere to go.

He struggled down to the lake. Less than a mile from his house lay a quiet, placid pond. The little lake had been a fun place to spend time when growing up. His parents had put together a little hut, in case it rained.

He finally made it, slumping over in the shelter. At least it was a warm night. This far from the city, he could even see the stars shining and shimmering far off in the galaxy.

Here, at least he was at peace for a moment. Tomorrow’s problems could wait. Except for the sprained ankle, of course. That was tomorrow’s problem, today, and judging by the swelling he wouldn’t be able to get his shoe off shortly.

He lay on his back and let his head droop upside down over the floor’s edge. Today was not the best day of his life.

Hanging out?” he heard a familiar voice say. It was her again, feather-trimmed coat and everything. He sat up and spun around. She was standing in front of him all right – this time, perched on the water’s surface as comfy as you please.

This time M.T. knew he wasn’t dreaming. Hallucinating, maybe, but not dreaming.

I thought now would be as good a time as any to question your decision,” she said cheerfully.

Caught in the moment, M.T. answered even though he didn’t entirely believe in the reality of the moment. He said, “I didn’t make a decision.”

The corners of her mouth twitched slightly as she said, “You did. I’m just questioning it. Not too late, after all. You can go back. Or even just walk away and find a new home.”

M.T. slumped over. Sitting gingerly to keep the weight off his ankle, almost a mirror of the girl’s image. He replied, “I… tried that. But I haven’t had a home in a long time.”

He continued, “That’s why I went into space. I hoped maybe somewhere I’d find some place for me, or that maybe I’d figure out where I was really supposed to be.”

She wrinkled her nose and said, “Yeah, figured that was coming. Sorry.”

She leaned forward and looked straight at him, “You’ll have to square with that someday. So here’s the question. Do you want to wake up?”

M.T. replied, “That’s not the question you asked last-”

Yes it is,” she finished to cut him off.

His eyes narrowed and he asked, “What are you?”

She cocked her head oddly and said, “Whatever you need me to be. Your guide, spiritual adviser, and guardian angel if necessary. Seems neither of us don’t get much choice in the matter. You won’t stop asking me for help.”

M.T. shouted back, “I didn’t-”

She interjected, “Want to escape a dead planet? Live through fatal wounds and infections? Survive two months adrift? Try to fix ‘broken’ augmentations?”

M.T. had no answer.

Do you want to wake up?” she asked.

Before he even thought about it, M.T. answered, “Yes.”

She stood up, walking forward on the water itself, saying “Then here’s lesson number one.” She pointed down. Baz was happily stuck halfway through his body. M.T. started, although it didn’t seem to be hurt at all.

Reality,” she said, “Is only as real as it needs to be.”

So… it’s as real as I need it to be?” he asked?

Not everything is about you!” she fired back, “Stop trying to tell the world anything and listen for a change. You might even learn something for once.”

Now, let’s try giving you what you asked for: One wake up call, and to reset those little enhancements? That was the deal, after all. Very well, just tell me your name.”

My name?” he said hesitantly. She waited patiently and did not respond. He continued, “It’s M.T.”

She gave him a pained look and said, “No, it’s not.”

I know my own name!” he exclaimed.

Apparently you don’t,” she said softly.

He turned away and angrily said, “What do you want?”

Just the truth,” was all she said.

He said, “The truth….. the truth is I’ve gone stark raving mad and shouting at a hallucination that won’t believe me.”

Figment or not, you’re still not telling the truth,” she said.

It’s M.T.” he said angrily.

Stop lying,” she said.

It’s M.T.!” he exclaimed.

What is your name?” she asked again and again.

It’s M.T. Just listen!” he said.

Who are you?” she kept on asking.

I keep telling you.”

Who are you?” she, cutting once more through his reply.

I am Martel!Triumph!Stuart!” he shouted at her.

Silence followed.

I like it,” she said, “Nice name. Simple, but stylish.”

Martel glumly turned around and said, “It’s just… weird. I hate that name. Martel is somebody’s last name. And even then it’s… unusual. I couldn’t stand people calling me that.”

She was balancing on a rock now, not entirely ignoring him but not specifically looking at him as she wobbled back and forth. She said, “Yes, that’s an identity crisis for you. But as it happens, you’re a weird person so the name fits. Plus, I like weird things. I wouldn’t say Baz is the kind of pet normal people love.” She hopped down, in front of Martel.

She continued, “Now, I believe there was something about an upgrade in the plan.” She waited for a moment, before saying, “And here I thought you were going to complain.”

Martel whispered, “No,” as she turned and reached out to touch his forehead. He swallowed but didn’t move.

Music followed.

Future

Martel learned one lesson very well, and the name of this lesson was patience. If anything, his new friends enjoyed making him wait, a fact he found annoying to no end. He sat in the little room they employed for guests, musing about the changes in his life.

It could have been worse. They opted not to execute him, which was always a plus. Something to think about as he paced back and forth in the entirely beige, windowless room.

The really irritating thing to Martel was that he’d been picked up within minutes of his “enlightenment”: their term for any activation event involving unknown technologies.

He felt lucky they hadn’t taken him apart just to figure out what happened. He did not, however, feel even slightly grateful. The actual tests they’d run on him had been painfully invasive. The background investigation and constant interrogations made him even more uncomfortable. Several weeks of that had been mentally exhausting.

Still, he learned a great deal in exchange. With enough focus, he could tear things apart, though the harder and more solid and object was the more difficult. And that was only one of his new abilities.

Now, if he had any luck left, they would allow him to leave the compound. Naturally, they hadn’t told Martel where he was stuck. In fact, he wasn’t even allowed outside the small building, leading to a certain amount of cabin fever.

A tone signaled for him to enter the next room.

He breathed. Time to face the music.

The next room was his familiar interrogation chamber. He knew he was expected to sit in the chair and wait. Martel chose to put up with it once more.

Today, something appeared different: his interrogators were present in person. He didn’t know their names, exactly, but today they were sitting across the table from his spot.

Mrs. G, the only name he knew her by, started by saying, “For the record, our topic today is Martel Triumph Stuart, also known as M.T. He holds two degrees in Finance and had extremely good test scores, plus an array of other courses and certifications, including law, programming, database management, and security.”

Mrs. S, the second interviewer, spoke next. He’d always been the friendliest as far as it went. He said, “Martel’s experience includes training for space operations, expertise in multiple languages, cooking and bartending, and light mechanical repairs. For the record, all profiles, school records, and credit histories uploaded to this dossier.”

Dr. C was the third to speak. “Subject displays unusual, if undeveloped, Conceptual-level abilities to alter reality based on symbolic manipulation. Medical examination has revealed a device referenced as Object CZ-33. This device appears to have altered the subject to activate these abilities, and the subject instinctively altered the device to fit. Profile and technological analysis attached to this file of this date.”

Mrs. G continued their record by saying, “Further, Martel T. Stuart engaged in several social information-gathering attempts, by trying to deceive interrogators or gain access to the computer network.”

Martel coughed and shift about nervously at the last comment. He had been certain they didn’t realize his tricks. Yet, for a moment he thought that a hint of a smile played across Mrs. G’s face, but dismissed it as mere imagination. He decided weeks ago that humor apparently hadn’t discovered this rock.

As of this day, all dossiers and reports relating to Martel T. Stuart sealed to my clearance or above,” she finished.

She removed her glasses, rubbing the bridge of her nose while Mr. S. spoke. Dr. C simply nodded to them, then packed up his notes to leave.

With the meeting seemingly over, Martel looked about, unsure what they wanted now. Hesitantly, he said, “So… can I go?”

Mr. S began to speak but Mrs G interrupted. “Let me talk to him alone,” she said. Mr. S politely agreed and left quickly, though he flashed Martel a serious look on his way.

We’ve asked you a great many questions over the last few weeks,” she said. Mrs. G removed her mirrored glasses and rubbed her eyes – the first time she’d ever let him see. She continued, “We pried into your psychology and physiology. You tried very hard to manipulate us back. It’s anticipated.”

Frankly,” she went on, “I don’t actually care what you do. While we will keep tabs on you, do whatever you want. If you really wish, we’ll drop you off pretty much anywhere. But before you go, I have one more question for you.”

She sniffed and stared him down with a narrow, focused gaze before saying, “What do you think we do?”

Martel cocked his had, not understanding. He coughed and said, “Wouldn’t know. Nobody said much.”

She paused and replied, “Humor me. Take a guess.”

Martel considered his words very carefully, not understanding where she was going with this. The safe bet was to say nothing substantial. Then again, it might be a test to see if he was too deceptive. She cut off that thought by saying, “This isn’t a test. Or not that kind of test,” but in a tone which conveyed a cutting dismissal.

Annoyed, Martel ranted, “You have extensive resources, but no obvious productive business, which likely means government backing, which makes sense since you were able to trace me easily. Presumably you have backdoor access to major databases. The level of specialist analysis you’ve put on display implies that you do this regularly. Plus, you do interrogations often, since you have a purpose-built cage with no computer access.”

After a long moment, she shrugged and, of all things, laughed. Then she said, “Could be better. I’ve heard worse.”

You missed some aspects, but there’s at least potential. Just about everyone gets the basics, but it’s nice to see someone at least make an attempt to analyze it.”

She hummed briefly and said, “Here’s my analysis of you: You can’t sit still properly, literally or metaphorically, stick your nose into trouble without thinking, and jump from job to job because you get bored after mastering any skill. Do you can either walk away, and go hem pants, or you can try something a bit more… challenging.” A slight smile played about her lips.

Martel sighed. They both knew he was already hooked.

Agent

Why do I have to be so damn curious?” Martel hissed to himself.

Agent Gail – formerly Mrs. G – sighed and replied, “One supposes you’re not nearly as sharp you thought.” He’d forgotten how sharp her hearing (or tongue) was.

He’d spent the last three weeks poring over tedious financial documents and identifying suspicious transactions. Along the way, he inadvertently “volunteered” for a field assignment. Gail found this amusing.

She remained a mystery to Martel. Presumably that wasn’t her real name, but either way she had overseen his training and was now in charge of his third field operation. Martel would still prefer to eat broken glass than thank her for the privilege after the hell she ran him through.

Calm down,” she said, “You’ve trained for this.” She barely even looked up from her crossword, possibly the only hobby she had and certainly the only one she demonstrated.

Martel grimaced as she slowly – painfully – glanced at her watch, an extremely expensive model. She looked up, eyes still hidden behind that damned mirror-shades. With a single word, she commanded, “Go.”

Martel wasn’t high-ranking enough to use the door. Instead, he used the alley window. Dressed like a local laborer, no one would look at him twice as long as he didn’t do anything suspicious. Team member’s had to use a different entrance in order to minimize possible suspicion.

But his mission now was to locate the individual responsible for the mysterious money movements, find out what was being purchased, and return. Three more agents handled the search, starting at the Shanghai Bank and trailing the particular car through the streets of Rome.

The important thing was that Martel had to identify the individual in question, alone. He kept his head down through the alleys and angled quickly through the streets, emerging immediately into a thick crowd.

His HUD told him the car was ahead of schedule. He had around 90 seconds to reach his first location, which was not terribly hard. He stepped right through the crowd and peered in a store window, the slight motion of his hand sticking a tiny camera to it. The car would soon pass, turning right around the corner. With luck, the tech team would be able to clear up the images and identify the car’s occupants.

The cameras, so small they were stuck on individual fingers and looked like a dot of paint, could only film for a couple minutes and at close range at that. Still, they were virtually invisible and broke down tracelessly within hours.

Point two was also easily reached, the only difficulty being a stairwell security door. Breaking the code would have been easy, except it would call the police after enough attempts. He couldn’t count on following a resident, so he had to use a magnetic lockpick to cycle through the codes.

This has been easier to practice than to do for real, though. He sweated bullets, terrified that someone would run across him fumbling with the unit and raise the alarm. He didn’t need to worry though, as the lock flipped open with several seconds to spare.

He climbed the stairwell two steps at a time, trying to get to the point on time. There was no window overlooking the compound he was watching, so he needed to exit the building… on the fifth floor. An empty apartment was his exit here, and he approached it with a small plasma torch in hand to slice through the lock.

A creak of a door from behind alerted him to being potentially spotted, probably by a resident. He sucked in his breath as he heard footsteps behind him, but the sound of the stairwell door told him the person had left without noticing.

He was through the door in a flash, leaving few traces. Opening the door might trigger an alarm but he’d be gone before anyone came by.

This apartment was being worked on (but fortunately, not today) so, he hooked a cable onto the structural pillar and went straight through the open wall, leaving another camera as he did so. The target’s compound had a lot of security, but not much of it was focused up, so as long as he was quick he could reach the top floor without too much risk.

A quick slide down the rope and he was in, a stungun at the ready in case their plan had been wrong and this spot was guarded. Martel breathed hard, trying to calm himself and straining to hear if anyone might be coming upstairs.

Nothing.

A brief flash on his watchface told him he had sixty seconds or less to plan the final camera; this one was a longer-lasting model capable of sending a tight-beam communique back to base within a few hours. This model had more use out of the public view.

Breathe.

Time to move: Martel started a sweep into the central rooms of the compound, to place it in the personal rooms of whichever poor bastard the Agency was after. The team’s surveillance showed these had to be on the southeast corner, and he wasn’t far off now.

Martel tried to remember his training: Walk unhurried, straight, and quietly and no one will even think twice about it. Try to sneak about and people hear or feel that something’s off.

He inhaled as he went around an other corner and found the spot he needed. He looked about the ornate personal apartments for his target, noticing that it had strongly traditional Chinese décor instead of Neo- Tuscan. This might actually work to his advantage though – the rooms had an almost gaudy look that would help conceal the cameras.

40 seconds to go. Martel quickly pulled out a couple cameras and applied them carefully to catch a good chunk of the room. With any luck, they’d be able to record enough to observe the face of anyone entering, at least as long as they didn’t wear a mask.

20 seconds. Martel just needed another moment to activate and configure the cameras, nervously tapping his wristwatch as the programs loaded.

10 seconds. The programs kept loading, but at a painfully slow rate. Martel glanced at the door, and the window, then back again to the door with voices approaching. Nearly panicking, he ducked into the closet, sure he was about to be caught, trying desperately to quiet his pounding heart.

Death

At least he had plenty of time to get the cameras ready. Crouched in the closet and desperately hoping the owner wouldn’t suddenly need his wardrobe, Martel felt a sudden and inexplicable desire to never again venture into danger alone in the future.

The cameras finally activated, so at least he could keep an eye out through them. He had set three small cameras, which should give him good coverage.

He saw several men, including two bodyguards and some porters carrying luggage, but most likely the key figure he wanted was the man with the three-thousand-Sterling suit.

Martel digitally tagged the man’s face for later analysis. He could certainly be Italian or at least European, but Martel definitely didn’t recognize him and would need to get outside and away from the local jamming around the compound. This individual seemed short, but had some muscle under that suit, with graying hair and a thick cigar.

Martel carefully inhaled, noting the distinct odor of Padron tobacco, a very expensive brand indeed. At least the mystery visitor had taste.

Martel looked back and tried to tag all the worker’s faces; the more he caught, the easier it would be to trace everyone involved. Some of the individuals had been identified earlier, but every bit could help.

Martel watched carefully as the man discarded his suit coat, strangely ill-fitting for such a wealthy individual – and loosened his tie. At the same time, Martel looked for an opportunity to escape. If the man left the room he should be able to exit and give this place the slip.

The unknown man went over to a full-length mirror, straightening his collar.

Then the day went weird.

As Martel watched, the man flexed his neck and stretched, limbs growing and extending along with his spine. The legs changed only a little, but as the man twisted and flexed, his body quickly assumed an entirely different shape: taller, though only to around average height, and much less stocky.

Martel’s jaw dropped, watching the face, too, warp and shift into a new configuration. This one, however, Martel recognized. Gazing in confusion, he saw the face of someone moderately notable: Chairman Lau, of the Shanghai Great Banking Trust.

Martel had never met him, but anyone in the finance community knew the name. Chairman Lau was very wealthy and effective investor who practically owned the Hengsha Platform, and a major private backer for promising corporations.

A message came on his data feed; his team must have risked a transmission when he didn’t report in. How they could have powered through the jammers without blowing out every electronics’ device in the block was a mystery.

Martel went to check the message, but before he could react, the cameras showed that Lau had spun around furiously. With a furious expression, he strode towards the closet.

Martel had just enough time whisper, “Oh f-” and wonder how Lau knew while grabbing for his pistol, before Lau – or whomever, shoved his hand through the doorframe.

In desperation, Martel panicked and threw up a flash bang, ducking as the brilliant light exploded with an ear-splitting roar. Lau shrieked in anger, but even blinded and deaf he seemed able to target Martel, ripping the door off and unleashing a barrage of punches.

Martel flung himself sideways as one of them nicked his face, shaking him and leaving him feeling numb. He tubled down, but managed to get up and throw a chair at Lau before – finally – getting hold of his gun and shooting out the window. More frightened of of an angry, shape-shifting investor than falling a couples stories, he jumped throw, managing to bash his head on the frame and smash a portico on his way down.

Stunned and feeling a wreching jolt deep within, Martel tried to get to his feet, fell over, and had to claw his way upright. He leaned on the wall, pressing his wristcomm to signal for an emergency pickup and slid down the alley. Security had seen him, but too late to worry now.

Holding his side, he was picking up speed when a solid whump echoed from behind. He risked a glance back, only to see Lau getting up, apparently none the worse for his fall.

Martel turned to escape, trying to ignore the pain and make to a public space. He dragged his body forward desperately, hearing the sounds of his pursuer closing in.

Martel burst into the plaza, realizing only thereafter that he needed to keep himself from alerting anyone else to the trouble. Doing so could attract unwanted attention or even put civilians in danger.

He ducked into a small alcove in the street, sweating as he tried to see Lau. However, as he glanced about the crowd, he didn’t see the man. With a sickening sensation, Martel realized that this Lau could be anyone at all now.

Martel turned and tried to plan a new route to his pickup location, hoping he could stay in public until he reached some aid. He would need to avoid cameras but stay where people could see.

He glanced down as his wristcomm, noting that it was broken and no longer displaying anything. Hopefully the team received his signal, but had not choice but to try.

Martel walked down the street, flowing with the crowd and keeping his cap pulled down low. If he could reach the riverfront, he might escape safely.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw someone eying him suspiciously, and angled right to avoid that person and lose them in the crowd. Martel risked cutting through a small alley to get away.

It was a mistake he had only moments to regret.

His attacker took him suddenly from the side, a face he didn’t recognize (but that little). A quick blow to his throat kept him quiet, and he was thrown down in a moment, realizing that a boot was on his throat before he even had a chance to respond.

Martel kicked out feebly, and when that failed tried to knock his attacker off balance. Finally, he started to weaken and his vision grew black.

He stopped breathing soon after.

Shadow

Neurons fired their last bolt as the last scraps of oxygen dissipated. Martel’s body relaxed as his organs finally gave out entirely. Then his mind exploded into colors invisible to humanity, viewing the world as a riot of concepts. He had to hold on – had to find an idea and cling tightly.

He had to start with the Chairman. Whether he was a man or not, that was the key thread. He pulled on it, seeing the trail of money flowing around the globe as a vast and tangled web uniting interests. He had to focus – to decipher the reason for all the deception.

First, he had a man with two identities, and probably many others. He had a money trail going to all kinds of suspicious businesses as well. He tied the patterns together, seeing as some connections faded from significance while others grew larger. In his mind, he raced through cause and effect, looking for the central locus point for all these related and seemingly unrelated activities.

He found it in Shanghai. Of course it would be there. The entire Hengsha complex had been financed through Lau’s banks, including major start-up investments in the companies who proposed the concept. Now he had to find the key reason: what would be worth operating on such a scale and dangerous enough to require secrecy?

Martel spiraled into a world of conjecture and danced with possibilities, blinded all the while by stray thoughts shining into his eyes with no shade. He placed walls to block the ideas until he could filter them properly, thinning their numbers one by one. He had to locate the unique elements that separated this facility from all others.

The structure itself? Large, and incorporating unique designs on a massive scale – but not exceptional in and of itself. Perhaps the scale was a clue, however. It could be used to confine something, or control it.

A new idea formed as two others reflected onto the screens. Size required power – and not simply a thick hookup to the local energy sources. No, the Hengsha complex had been constructed with a might fusion plant of its own. The design, though not completely distinct, nonetheless had unique features. One in particular stood out: the power structure had a full-size exterior tap inside the facility, as though someone wanted to suddenly borrow and entire city’s worth of energy for a project directly inside the structure – but with no evidence it had ever been used.

Breathe.” The word shook Martel from his reveries.

He found himself lying in a metal case, lined with screens and datafeeds. Gail had shaken him awake, with an annoyed expression on her face.

Gail?” he asked. “Huh. Thought I wasn’t going to make it there for a moment.”

She glanced at the screens, “We’ll discuss your recovery later. You’ve been out for a week now.”

Martel gasped sharply, trying to fill his lungs. He felt choked up, unable to quite catch his breath. “Yes. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The man who attacked me – I know who it is. I think. Or at least, I know what he wants. Probably, I mean.” The words tumbled out blindly.

Why don’t we hold that for the formal debriefing,” she said. She regarded him carefully before continuing, “The important thing is our next step. We need to begin within an hour.”

Martel had enough time to get cleaned up, eat a small, if very bland meal, and change clothes. Then he was carted on to the debriefing.

Explaining the full story took some time, but Gail let him talk it through. Martel explained who attacked, or at least, what that appearance led him to believe about his attacker. He explained further how the money trail led around the world to confirm his suspicions, and his theory regarding the power plant.

What he couldn’t explain was exactly why any of this mattered. But Gail had that clue.

She interrupted his (manic and long) explanation by saying, “That must goes back to the compound in the first place. We traced the purchase of aberrant materials and alien artifacts that had not been cleared for civilian purchase. We’ve always seen a small trickle of these, of course, but the quantities and involved caught our attention. Unfortunately, the tech team still can’t figure out what it could or would be used for. If this requires some extreme energy input, perhaps they can decipher it.”

With some additional briefings Gail dismissed her team, agents scattering in all directions to run down leads and investigate angles. Martel got up to leave as well, but Gail said, “You. Stay,” while pointing a pen at Martel.

We need to talk,” she said.

Martel shrank back into his chair.

When everyone had left, Gail flicked a switch and caused the entire room to enter a lockdown state. Every window and door locked down, the white noise makers activated, and an electrostatic generator protected the area from any other brand of eavesdropper.

You should be dead. You know that, don’t you?” she asked – no, it was a statement. Martel didn’t answer right away, so she continued, “We use those chambers to keep agents on the edge alive. Have for a long time – a very long time, in fact. But it shouldn’t have worked on you. It didn’t work on you.”

Yeah, well, here I am,” he replied.

Yeah. Here you are,” she said, “That everything you have to say about it?”

Martel looked away. “I don’t wanna think about it.”

Why not?” she said crisply.

Martel slammed his hands onto the table, almost happy to feel pain. He said, “Because it felt really damn good. Felt like a god. Don’t know if I really wanted to come back.”

Yeah. Well, I learned a long time ago that sometimes you got to match what your opponent has. He’s got guns, you get guns. He’s got smarts, you get smarter. He gets some technology, you match it get something better. So you tell me what we do when the opponent is a monster.”

Martel glared suspiciously and asked, “Did you know?”

I know what questions don’t matter.,” she replied. “And I know you want to go after this target. Everything else is just probability.”

Around

Insertion into Hengsha was easier this time, at least compared to plummeting from orbit in a shaky escape pod. All Martel had to do was hop onto a passing cargo ship and avoid the sensors for a few days.

This put him n the Shanghai harbor, so he flipped some cash to a local to ferry him over to the Hengsha undercity. From there, he found his way back to the Juno’s hotel. She had a network in this city, one which he would need to tap.

Eris was on the desk, still sitting in her wheelchair, but this time looking healthier with more color to her face. She recognized him right away, but didn’t say anything.

Hello,” he said, trying to sound cheery. “I had to come back around to settle up.”

I can handle that,” she said. “You look different.”

Yeah, that makes sense. I shaved,” he said.

Eris cracked a smile, then, for the first time he recalled. She said, “Mom won’t be back until tomorrow.”

Well, I did need to talk to her also,” Martel said. “But I’m glad to see you’re looking better.”

Eris explained, “New electrotherapy treatment, they call it. Helps with the allergic reaction to the air around here, or so they say.”

Martel looked away guiltily, before saying, “It’s not really any of my business, but I was wondering something. You’re in that chair all the time. Was it always that way?”

She shook her head and said, “No. That happened when I first got sick. Might get better with more treatment though.”

Here’s hopin’… anyway can you check me in for, say, three days?” Martel placed a certified credit chip on the table, with enough to cover his stay, plus the time he’d been here previously.

Eris looked at the balance and her eyes widened slightly.

Martel shrugged. “Things went better than expected when I got home.”

She blinked and said, “I can see that. Take it that your life has been better since you stumbled in broke?”

Martel furrowed his brow and said, “Or it went so bad that it rather looped all the way around. But that’s a story for another time.” He went upstairs – same room, same view, taking only the time to clean up his

Martel stuttered, “Eris, I was thinking about something. I don’t know if you can actually get away from the desk, but if you want, I thought I might be able to do something for you. I mean, you and Juno really helped me out.”

Eris looked confused and said, “What are you talking about?”

Martel felt like an idiot, but said, “Would you like to fly around the world? Only takes about an hour… but it’s all in zero-g.”

She flushed and said, “Oh! Well, I’d like to, but I can’t really leave until mom gets back.”

Martel shrugged and said, “Sure, I understand. Well, anyway, I need to go out this evening and talk to some people. Let me know if I can bring you back something for dinner or whatever. You must be going crazy being stuck here.”

Eris replied, “No, not really. There’s a lot to do, and managing the whole place isn’t easy even with mom around so I keep busy.”

Martel said, “I assume you’ve got people to help, but let me know if you do need anything. I have some time, myself.”

He made to leave, but Eris stopped him and asked, “If you did go into space, when would you want to?”

Some hours later, knowing he should be spending more time investigating, Martel arranged for Eris and several friends to go on a special excursion. Specifically, he brute-forced an orbital cargo dropper to land back in place.

The owners probably wouldn’t be happy about if they figured it out, but Martel didn’t especially care. He’d blacked out all the cameras anyway with carefully-aimed lasers.

And it was pretty damn interesting.

Freed of gravity, Eris fluttered around the capsule like an adorable puppy exploring its home for the first time. Her friends chattered with a nervousness and excitement all at once, perhaps never having been in orbit before. They tumbled around, practically dancing in zero-g.

Martel hung out at the controls, letting them fling themselves around and enjoy the ride. Not that there was much to deal with.

Of course, the ride was all too short, and it wasn’t too long before the shuttle began its descent. Martel made them all sit down and buckle in for the landing.

It didn’t matter. Short or not, they were happy for a while at least, to the point that Eris wouldn’t stop talking about it. Martel let them go, though, since he had other business.

Specifically, he had a package to pick up, a package piloted by a drone under the water along the harbor bottom. Martel walked the piers until his tracking signal went off, signaling the location of his new toy.

When he was sure noone was watching, he casually sat down to throw some crumbled crackers to the ducks playing in the water, only to slide the package under his coat and get away again.

It wasn’t until he went back to his room, passing by Eris and her friends still chatting behind the desk, that he opened it up, revealing a carefully packed case of weaponry. Inside he saw a selection of micro-sized anti-personnel grenades, along with an extremely slim launcher device to fire them with. He also pulled out a specialized cutting knife, and his favorite piece, a carefully-constructed sword. He had to assemble the latter and lock the pieces together, but it worked.

He would need these, since his next mission wasn’t really about infiltration, investigation, manipulation, or control. He was here to kill, and anything else was just convenience.

Martel checked his map, identifying all the various routes into the upper platform. The problem was that he couldn’t realistically get past any of them, given the extensive security checks. That’s why he needed Juno’s help. She knew people, and with the right man or woman inside, he could manage the rest.

Inside

He was right. Juno did indeed have the requisite contacts. This wasn’t a coincidence, of course. With his new resources, Martel analyzed her network beforehand and knew she could do so. She wasn’t happy about it, but for the right price…

She glowered at him when he made his request. But he agreed for the right amount.

I heard about your little adventure in space,” Juno said and Martel cringed at the thought. “I don’t exactly mind, but next time ask before you take my daughter off-planet.”

He could only say, “It was… chaperoned. She had five friends with her,” in his defence.

She gave him a hard look and said, “We both know all five together couldn’t have stopped you. From doing anything.”

He replied, “That’s debatable at best, but I wouldn’t.”

Juno said, “I believe that, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We can talk about that later. Here’s what you need.” She handed him a keycard.

Martel handed her back an envelope with a considerable amount of cash in it. He said, “You deserve to know I’m after – well, there might be some trouble here. Don’t know what. You might want to clear out, if you can.”

Juno shook her head, saying, “No. Eris’s specialists are here, and the hotel is here. Our whole life is here.”

She eventually asked him to pick up some things from the treatment center that were too awkward to carry home while moving Eris, and handed him a card. On it was written the address: 4th and Sake St. North.

He couldn’t really argue.

But Martel was here for another purpose, and with his stuff gathered together he set out for the nearest of the city’s elevators. Most of these were industrial, like the one he was taking. A few were expressly made for passenger use, but few people from the upper city wanted to go downstairs, and few from the lower city could afford a trip up. The passenger lifts were more comfortable option, but had heavier security.

Dressed as a workman, he easily carted up a cartload of fruit, flashed him badge and swiped his keycard, and walked right into the lift. Their sweepers wouldn’t detect his firearms or the sword, wrapped in mesh and plastic and hidden in the framework. Between them, they scattered most detection methods available for industrial use.

No humans boarded with him; everything here was just more machines. That was just as well, because it would avoid some awkward questions. Martel removed his weapons and left the fruit. Then, thinking again, he grabbed an orange from the cart and slipped it into a pocket.

He wasn’t going up all the way. He had to get ready to jump out of the shaft. All it took as putting a pin in the safety switch and opening the screens, and he was good to get out on his floor. The timing was another issue.

He saw the air rush past as the elevator covered floor after floor until finally he closed in on the right level.

Martel jumped. He made it, barely, though he ended up clinging to the wall. After a couple minutes of hanging there, wondering what to do about it, he finally remembered that he’d brought a linecaster and managed to lower himself down to the right level.

This is starting out well,” he muttered to no-one in particular.

Martel knew that he needed to find the hidden room. That’s where the answers would be, and with luck, his target as well. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a full facility map.

Instead, he started looking for the power conduits. The support structure required to supply power from a fusion-scale plant was enormous, with three-foot thick power cables including the insulation. These would be located in rarely-accessed corridors, but the hallways would be large enough to walk through and lead right to the reactor.

His immediate problem was a guard patrol. Four-man team, well trained and better armed. If they raised an alarm, however, he would be in serious trouble. They had probably been called automatically when he opened the elevator door.

Hearing them clatter down the way, Martel had only a few moments to evade. He slid the elevator door almost entirely closed again, and pitched his linecaster straight up, flattering himself against the high industrial ceiling.

He flattened himself against it, sweating desperately and trying not to let his breathing get too heavy. Seeing a thick pipe, he slid over to it, hoping it would block any thermal sensor as well as normal vision.

He heard their boots walking around, heard them talking on radios but couldn’t make anything out. Martel clenched his teeth, praying to whatever god might hear to keep him alive. He saw flashlights scanning the ceiling a few feet away from him, as the glimmer inched closer and closer.

The lights moved off, and Martel exhaled desperately.

He wasn’t up fighting a group of seriously armed combatants. His job was execution and retrieval. Fighting didn’t get him anything, and his own life was an acceptable cost if the mission succeeded.

With the patrol leaving, Martel lowered himself back down. It would be dangerous to follow them out, however, and he resumed looking for access to the conduit. Fortunately, that was marked in bright yellow lettering.

He quietly padded down the hall, noticing that special inverters had been built into every junction. He puzzled over that, but had no time to investigate.

Ahead, he spied the reactor access hatch. Before opening, he looked for a convenient nook to hide in if necessary, and placed a probe to sense any sound past the doorway.

Definitely some noise; people talking in conversation. The details were unclear, but the speakers were likely techs. The thermal imaging showed that he had some cover, however.

Martel opened the door slowly and quickly glanced around, slipping over to cover behind a structural brace.

He used a spycam to quickly check out the entire room. It was almost quiet, but he did see a strange, symbol-covered object hooked up to the reactor – and no security in sight.

Martel dropped a shaped charge against the support and released several drones, while he pondered the options.

Fuck it,” he said, running to grab the damn relic and run off with it.

Out

Martel made it within six feet of the artifact before a stunfield exploded in his face, knocking him flat and blasting an ear-splitting alarm.

So much for the silent approach.

Six security guards had their guns drawn before he could even turn around and Martel weakly raised his hands as yet more pored through the doors.

Time for plan “B”.

This involved pressing the slight button concealed in his glove, setting off a series of blasts as his drones exploded in a shower of flechettes. Some hit him, but not vitally: the grunts generously placed themselves in front of the drones.

He rose amidst the survivors and still-shuddering dying, hoping they weren’t merely security guards. He’d never killed anyone before, and no amount of time in a simulator or practice range could have adequately prepared him for the scene of slaughter.

It took Martel some time to realize that he had been deafened by the blast. He couldn’t even hear the ringing after effects in his ears. Feeling the stiffness of his side was at first the only clue that jagged shards had pierced his armor, too.

Then he was kicked in the face.

He looked up, stunned again and saw the Chairman standing over him, removing his white suit coat.

Martel had a few surprises left however, whipping out his machine pistol and emptying the clip at point-blank range.

The Chairman was knocked about slightly, but quickly stabilized himself and sneered. The only thing damaged was his ivory vest; not his skin and clearly not his pride.

He snapped his fingers, and the doors slammed shut.

Martel stumbled to his feet, raising his hands in a (likely futile) combat stance, swaying slightly from a combination of bruising, shock, and blood loss.

The chairman narrowed his eyes and said, “I’m not sure you how survived. You won’t interfere again.” The machinery hummed to life, the artifact beginning to glow, first red but rapidly turning white.”Not that it matters. You’re a bit late anyhow.”

Martel wasn’t quite as wounded as he let on, however, and he snapped his micro-launcher into place and fired off a grenade into the chairman’s face. The explosion reverberated around the room, knocking the man (or whatever) to the ground and shredding his clothing into tatters.

Martel said, “Better late than never.”

But the chairman quickly shook himself and used the kip-up maneuver to instantly regain his footing, now evidently pissed, but largely uninjured. His skin was only scratched by the force of the blow.

He closed in the span of a breath, unleashing a series of rapid-fire punches combining elements of several striking techniques. Martel was able to dodge with only minimal injury as the blows glanced rather than hit home.

I see you have some skill, boy,” he said, firing off several more attacks to test Martel’s defence. “It’s not going to be enough, however.”

Martel tried to retaliate, but he was already wounded and even fresh he would be no match for the combat skills of this nigh-immortal opponent. The chairman consistently outmaneuvered him, using tricky jabs to setup bone-crunching kicks and pushing Martel’s back to the wall.

Martel grabbed the chairman and held up a grenade, the pin pulled. “What the hell is all this about anyway? You go to all this trouble for that thing?”

The chairman flexed impossibly and kicked the grenade away, then hooked his leg around Martel’s throat in one smooth motion. Now standing calmly on his remaining leg with Martel completely locked down, back bent to the breaking point, he said, “Oh that? Nothing important for you. It just captures joules – work as you call it.”

I was looking for that particular tool for quite some time. But you had to get in my way.” He squeezed, completing the break and killing Martel. The lifeless body dropped the ground as the chairman permitted himself a slow smile.

As he turned to face his device gloriously capturing ever-more power, he failed to notice Martel rise again. Realizing something was wrong, he turned, only to see Martel standing again, his neck twisted.

The chairman looked on in confusion as Martel pushed the bones back into place, apparently none the worse for wear He only managed to say, “Huh.” before Martel was on him.

Martel attacked furiously, dropping any pretense of skill in favor of brute slugging, keeping a deathgrip on the chairman’s right arm. Alive, he wasn’t anywhere a threat to the chairman, but now he was stronger than any normal human being.

But the chairman was still twice the fighter any living man might be, and impossibly tough as well. He was able to weather everything Martel could dish out and pummel him right back, winning a slow battle of attrition, despite taking some injury in the process.

Seeing he was on the verge of losing again, Martel used his brute strength to force the chairman back against the reactor – and slam him into the stun field. The chairman realized what was going on, and dropped down to flip Martel over and into the field himself, but Martel kicked him with both legs.

The chairman flew back and sparked the field, and Martel charged in again. He body-checked his foe into the field again, then picked him up while he was still dazed and held him in place. For once, the chairman screamed in pain, and Martel used his last trick: pressing the button on his explosives.

The huge steel beam dropped down, leaving Martel only a second to dodge before it slammed straight down onto the reactor. And the artifact. And the chairman.

The explosion was very entertaining.

Martel dragged himself out of the wreckage, befoire realizing that while gruesomely injured, he wasn’t actually in pain in sense. That realization annoyed him to no end fror some reason: he really felt that he should really feel the piece of rebar stuck through his chest.

This was… probably going to require a thorough cleanup job. Although the blackout as the reactor died would help him escape.

Forsaken

Martel tried to locate the artifact, but the relic was now buried in the wreckage of a fusion reactor, itself pinned under a chunk of major structural bracing, along with the corpse of the chairman – or whoever he was.

He would have to call for a cleanup, which probably wouldn’t please headquarters, but there was no help for it. Unfortunately, his electronics were as dead as his heart.

Yet nothing stopped him from leaving, and the blackout continued, broken only by lighting that lit up in red.

He made his way to an elevator, which was dead as everything else. The signal here was very weak, but he still managed to send a quick coded message in text.

Martel used the elevator shaft to escape, even with no elevator. Instead, he dropped straight down using a pillar, sliding down and slowing himself with pressure from his boots and gloves.

He vaguely noticed his gloves were smoking after the first twenty floors, but it didn’t seem to be a problem so he ignored the burning smell. Martel finally reached the ground floor, although several large subfloors covering the deep, vast foundations lay further below.

He walked right past the security, confused but lacking any communications, and dealing with considerable public unrest. Martel beheld a scene of sheer chaos, with machinery and equipment flung about at random. Even a coffeemaker jutted out of the wall, embedded there with intense force, although only barely intact.

He hardly had time to process that before emerging onto the street. If the elevator was chaos, this amounted to horror. Every electric vehicle in sight, security included, had been flung about much like the coffeemaker. Neon signs had exploded, but judging by the layers of ice had somehow frozen solid first.

Everywhere he went gave evidence of somehow having simultaneously too much and not enough energy, presumably the side effects – or maybe the direct effect – of the artifact acting on the power grid. Given the reactions he saw, Martel could only curse himself for not being faster and yet thank whatever god might be listening that this had turned the entire complex into a smear on the ground. Presumably the chairman knew what he was doing.

Between the wreckage and confused crowds milling through the streets, Martel had to leg it rather than try to find one of the few vehicles. He needed to find some fresh batteries to replace his drained set. But first, he wanted to find his friends. Juno and Eris should have been inside, so hopefully were alright. He’d find out soon.

Jogging through the streets, he managed to reach his destination after an hour. Even with the untiring endurance of his nature, he had to travel almost to the far side of the undercity from his elevator. The damage continued, and he assumed it would stretch to every corner served by the upper city fusion plant – which would include placed almost to the downtown region of Shanghai.

Along the way, he saw several people who hadn’t made it through. Some had been crushed by objects or hurt by overloading batteries. Others died in stranger ways: some frozen almost solid or twisted and broken. Martel felt passing strange at the sight of it, yet did not quite know why.

When he reached the building, Martel realized he didn’t know precisely which doctor, so he quickly scanned the office listings and narrowed it down to two Immunologists.

Exploring the building, he found several people in for emergency treatment, probably because they couldn’t get to an actual hospital with the transit system down.

He found Juno, staring at the wall across the second office Martel checked. She didn’t seem to notice Martel’s presence at all, but stared at the wall blankly. Loose white bandages covered her left hand, but faint drops of red shone through.

Martel opened the door to the treatment room.

Eris looked perfectly quiet, perhaps even sound asleep. If not for the slowly melting frost, she would almost look artistically graceful, her life ended in a moment of unguarded relaxation. Possibly she hadn’t even time to realize.

Martel took in the scene entirely, then closed the door and left, hardly bothering to glance at Juno on the way out. He thought it passing strange that death so near didn’t quite bother him as he thought it would have.

He put it out of his mind since it was important to clean up after an operation like this. Since he couldn’t make immediate contact, he needed to dispose of anything connecting him to the events. A change of clothing was simple enough; he even left cash in an abandoned shop, and didn’t need to worry about cameras given how everything electronic was currently out of commission, and the power was down anyway. He dropped his old clothes into fire barrel and let them burn.

Step two was to dispose of the equipment, which would require a slightly different approach. Stripping the electronics and tossing them into the recycling, and then simply dumping the arms into the river.

Step three was to proceed to the alternative contact. Given the breakdown in comms, he needed to try an old-fashioned method. Just assembling a radio took very little, except a visit to the electronics store. All it took was some proper tuning and wiring his earpiece into the transmitter and…

Agent,” came Gail’s voice flickering over his earpiece as it switched on again.

Yes,” he replied calmly.

Report,” she told him.

Target down. Package needs retrieval. There’s been a slight complication.”

Gail said dryly, “You don’t say.”

There were complications.” Martel admitted grudgingly. He continued, “We could discuss this later.”

She snorted and said, “We can. I’m sending help now. It will be easy to move people in, given how confused reports are. Are you alright?”

I feel fine,” he said, and puzzled over how that could be true, but no matter. “We just need cleanup. A lot of cleanup.”

The call flickered off, and Martel was left alone to ponder. He had done everything right, but still felt a disconcerted, as though there were some important task that had been forgotten, but he couldn’t think of what it might be.

Complicated

Retired.

Being forced to resign was unpleasant. The chewing out, followed by the accusations, followed by the inquiries were one of the most painful and draining events of his life.

They they tazed him as he left the hearing room. Then they shot him in the head.

The part where they shot him in the face was the part he really didn’t like. They also shot him in the chest, which wasn’t fun, either. And he was pretty sure that they finished by clubbing him over the head and weighing his body down the rocks.

Martel lay there and stewed.

Someone has to go down for it.” was the message he’d received.

Granted, the operation hadn’t been a complete success. He didn’t prevent the use of the artifact. Or relic. Thingy.

And lots of people got killed because of this.

And technically, he’d killed a bunch of security guards on the way, which was possibly not the best method.

And they hadn’t located the Chairman, which sort of underciut any defense he could make one way or another. Either way, he was either incompetent in letting a dangerous enemy getting away, or lying through his teeth.

Come to think of it, Martel realized he was a terrible agent.

Maybe he would just lie here for a while. Like a century. There were no thoughts here but the tiny sparks of animal life, and they didn’t bother him much. Very peaceful.

Then again, if he got out, he’d be able to get a drink. That sounded nice. It was getting very boring laying around. Wouldn’t it be easier, though, to lay back and dream instead?

No. Too boring.

Days later, Martel sat in a cafe, sipping coffee that tasted of nothing whatsoever. Without his carefully crafted sarcophagus, he couldn’t entirely recover from his wounds. It didn’t stop him in any sense. It was still annoying.

He had returned to Hengsha, now cleaned up, in order to resolve a problem in his own mind. He envisioned it as a pure white straightjacket binding him tightly, preventing him from properly moving, but try as he might, the only key available required him to return to Hengsha. Unfortunately, that mattered a great deal, since he couldn’t let go freely without unlocking those bonds..

Had it been fate, chance, or the whim of a cliched cosmic author that he crashed down near this city? Maybe it didn’t matter in the end. He was here and that was that.

It had cost him a great deal, though.

He looked across the street, peering at Juno’s hotel. It was closed now, all the windows permanently darkened and the hotel left empty in a way Martel had never seen.

His drink was paid for, so he got up and walked away, using the opportunity of an empty street to duck into the doorway of the hotel.

He door was unlocked. No obvious security.

Martel eased the door open. Inside was dark as anything, but he was able to make out the dimensions of the empty lobby and front desk.

There was a large box in the room, but Martel paid it little attention and scanned the area for threats. No lights; no sounds; nothing different than he remembered. Apart from having been emptied several days ago, however.

He turned back to the large box. It looked familiar, and he slowly realized this was the very “agent regeneration unit” he had used beforehand.

That was bad. If this was here, then most likely the location was being watched and he was in serious trouble. Fortunately, he knew every exit from the building and could probably make the jump from an upper-story window across to another building.

He stopped himself, however, and realized that if anyone actually wanted him dead, they’d have just left a bomb. This was therefore a mystery.

He pressed the controls to open the sarcophagus. Inside lay an entire suite of equipment, including all his favorite toys and gadgets. He also say a little audio gift-card with “Play me” written on the front, which he dutifully pressed.

He heard Juno’s voice saying, “Martel, I know what’s going on in your head, even if you don’t. I would have preferred to get to know you more, but sometimes fate doesn’t give us that choice. Don’t ask me why things turned out why they did. Just half-hour earlier or later, maybe we’d both have a different future. Guess I don’t – can’t -blame you for everything, but I also don’t want to look at you or any else right now.”

The voice continued, “If you’re wondering what you missed, how all the puzzle pieces fit together, well, keep looking. Anyway, cheer up if you can. Long road ahead.”

Martel sniffed at the message, sifting through the box’s contents. He noted most of his old equipment, but paused when he saw something he didn’t quite recognize. There, thrown onto the pile, was a white coat, made with tight straps instead of a zipper or buttons.

Come to think of it, it actually looked pretty comfortable. He admired the lined ruff, integrated micro-circuitry, and titanium-dipped triweave fiber.

Well, it wasn’t going to anyone any good just lying around here. May as well take it, once he’d swept the contents for trackers. Time to leave.

There was no question as to where, of course. He had no place left on Earth, so the only option left was the stars.

Martel rolled his eyes when he heard a chirping sound, signalling that Baz was back. He seemed to just show up whenever he found it convenient, as always. Ah well, it was no real worry either way. Besides, it was easier to grieve with a pet around for comfort.

Martel wrapped the sarcophagus, and got an old luggage roller to cart it around on. If he hurried, he would have time to hit the hoppers and get to a port before nightfall.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s