‘Your family is not left behind.’ It’s the unofficial slogan of the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force. Family units are supposed to be more stable for long-time missions, according to the higher-ups. I don’t think this can be applied to the Masons, somehow. Dad says ships like ours are really like small towns back home. All the good bits are on show for people passing through. The bad bits are hidden away behind closed doors and twitching curtains. Dad isn’t into people. He likes rocks, you know, anything from boulders to the layers that make up worlds. Mum, she likes bugs. Not bugs as in creepy-crawly types, with wings and feelers. She’s into the type that you can only see with a microscope, the ones that can either kill or cure you, depending on your luck I suppose.
Me? Well, I am into people. I love watching my fellow crew and listening to them. My teacher said I will make a good anthropologist someday. Listening when I wasn’t supposed to – that’s how I found out about the Masons. I mean, ‘reassigned mid-mission’? Did anyone in the crew really believe that? Come on. The way their quarters were sealed off for two days, and the first officer looking as yellow as a backer bat. I swear he was going to puke when I saw him in F section. Not to mention the way the senior staff talked in whispers for ages after the Masons were reassigned. Something really bad happened.
The safety pod’s almost completely circular bench is hard and there is no room to stand up with the table in its otherwise empty centre. Detective Torvinne Bergholm has to find a distraction from the discomfort.
She ups a holographic screen from the seam in her spacesuit’s forearm and stops short of activating her favourite games. That would be rude if her murder suspect and interviewee, Oona Campbell, were to open the door unannounced. So she reads her case notes: the suspicious death of Mike Benson, found near this mine’s face with his helmet’s faceplate smashed in, which had led to total air loss in his spacesuit. Locals, here on Miranda, had put the cause of death down to ghosts: clearly ridiculous. Hence the constabulary sent her all the way from Earth to investigate. Good job she likes weirdo puzzles.
She rereads Oona’s profile. Instead of, as expected, working alongside him, Oona said she had to get away from the mine’s face and was sitting in this pod to calm down at the time he died. Why would a practical, level-headed person be deterred from earning drilling premiums? Especially as this mine is a safe one. There was that word in the report again, ‘iceborne’. What the hell did that mean?
“Please, gentlemen, make yourself comfortable.”
I polarised the windows against the glare of a SoCal summer as they took their seats. My two visitors were the proverbial ‘odd couple’: Air Force General Branning looked uncomfortable just being out of uniform while his aide, Major Cain, would probably have remained cool, calm and collected while wearing a tutu and whistling ‘Dixie’.
Branning shifted in his chair, glowering, while Cain remained bland and unreadable. He crossed his legs. “Very well, Mister Conway, you have our attention.”
I inclined my head. “The fact that you came to me in the first place, a civilian private investigator, meant you didn’t want an internal enquiry that would have to log its findings. Now, the general here is a shoe-in as head of the Joint Chiefs but you want to be sure, absolutely sure, that nothing is going to come crawling out of the woodwork once his enemies start digging. Nothing that will tarnish his impeccable military record. I get that, the Air Force takes care of its own.”
Cain smiled with zero sincerity. “So we understand each other. Now, did you uncover anything worthy of our attention?”
I sat back and steepled my fingers. “A Nazi flying saucer powered by the souls of death-camp inmates crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1946. It was a German prototype salvaged at the end of World War Two, being tested by the United States Army Air Force.”
As I picked the tiny darts out of my body, I watched Kordan, my creator, peering through the small panel into the arena. He sensed my eyes upon him and turned to meet my look. He glanced down at the darts in my hand. His expression was pained—his great creations brought so low. I nodded to him; he nodded back. Not many can say they’ve met their creator and lived to talk of it.
The head of the recently deceased Master of Games, Obbas, rolled to one side, and his tongue flopped out. Emperor Brulum examined my reaction. I smiled and gave a shrug. “Wasn’t much use without his eyes, anyway.”
The Emperor chuckled. A figure stepped forward. “You know Urran, my Lord Marshall, of course?”
“From that incident in Kookan,” I answered. “I hope my transgressions have since been forgiven, Lord Marshall?”
“Forgiven,” he answered. “But not forgotten.” He pointed at the wall and gestured I turn around. “A precaution, you understand.”
I nodded and assumed the position. His frisking skills were the same as ever—bad. When he had removed my knife and some other trinkets, he nodded to the Emperor, who then gestured that I follow him.
My daughter’s imaginary friend most likely came about because of loneliness, I surmised. It was all my fault. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to matter too much as she played under the slide on the eighth level of Kastak Island. She laughed and chattered away. So what if her friend wasn’t really there?
We’d been living on Kastak for two months. It was a research lab for robotics and analytics that towered above the sea off the coast of England, where it had been purpose-built away from all the overcrowding. Construction was not quite finished, but I’d pleaded for the chance to start my new data job early, along with some others who were more involved in the setup side of things. My daughter and I were among the first families to arrive, though I’d been told that many more were to follow.
The balcony Dana played on was half-way up the tower. Gardens were spread across the levels, but this was the only outside space aimed at the employees’ children. It was nothing special, with only a swing, slide and climbing frame, but we treasured being alone out there – no one else seemed to enjoy the brisk outdoors so early in the mornings. Dana played, while I leaned against the balcony wall, relishing the sea breeze.
The entire complex was a refuge as much as a home. Until the note came.
There was little I could do. The lion man was as good as dead. The giant spider was but feet away from him, ready to pounce, when one of the other spiders collided into it.
I shaded my eyes to see that on top of this other spider was the crab man, who held both of the spider’s pincers in his one large claw, and was now guiding the creature at will.
“My own personal monster,” the crab man shouted.
Leo signalled his thanks. The crowd, silent up to this point, gave out a loud cheer. They were cheering that the life of an Altered had been saved. I looked over at Orrin. The significance of this was not lost on him.
The spider on the receiving end of the collision gave a might roar and lowered its head, crashing into the side of the crab man’s ride, throwing him to the ground. Maheras, the centaur, scooped the crab man up onto his back to another rapturous applause from the crowd. Maheras galloped up and down in a tight pattern, throwing his forelegs into the air and neighing loudly, while the crab man held on with clenched legs, and raised his one claw in salute to the crowd. They cheered even harder. Brulum may well win the upcoming war, but he was losing this battle.
And… play. Livestream is go.
Five minutes from the deadline. It’s quiet on the feed, but that’s the usual traffic this early in the game. Any people that are on are prowlers, the ones who obsess about my technique over the actual closer.
@thereathee: what model rifle is that?
@skilleez67: @thereathee it’s an S&W Dellax-77. He’s taking the shot from at least 49km.
@punfisher118: did he adjust for wind?
@feulkllr: @punfisher118 she, and yeah she did. She’s taken trickier shots than this.
@45yoigi gender is relative. #fluidsarepeople #equalityforfluidsnow.
Buncha nerds, geeking out about the little things. But prowlers and gun nuts justify the ad revenue alone. Gotta love ’em for that. Now if they only pledged more than the bare base donation amount. Cheapskates.
I tuned back in as Director Hobson came to the end of his welcome for the new interns. I’d heard his spiel numerous times before – he liked to have me there as an example of how agents could make multiple trips through the vortex and suffer no ill-effects.
Hobson drew himself up in a supposedly spontaneous display of righteous indignation, hands gripping both sides of the lectern. “…and despite what those deluded protestors outside may chant, we are not murderers, nor body-snatchers, nor are we devoid of conscience. All those we retrieve from the past vanished without trace – overlooked, unmissed, discarded by the society of their time. The organs and other genetic material we harvest both lend purpose to their passing and save the lives of countless recipients in the here-and-now.” He paused for an equally spontaneous smattering of applause, led by Miss Brunner, the head of Human Resources.
I shifted my weight to the other foot and idly picked at a barely healed scab on my left hand. The decay was troublesome, but time in the regeneration tanks didn’t come cheap.
How could they sit and eat—like fat sedated cows, while their fellow beings were carted off like chattel?
Three lives gone is as many minutes…
I could not say I knew the bull, or the twin-headed warrior from the Outerworld of Aldron, but I did know their suffering. I knew every curse; every sneer, every glance of contempt that they experienced.
We all did.
I looked up at the crowd. They laughed and chatted among themselves, swapping gossip, gesturing greetings, occasionally glancing down as the Emperor’s soldiers removed the ‘debris’ from the arena floor. Had they really no empathy for us. None? I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Soldan. “Ulserra, join us.”
Obbas, my Master of Games hovered to my right, hoping to stay invisible. I could feel the eyes of some of the Council elders on me. All knew the water-bearer had come too close for comfort.
Someone had to pay, and dearly.
I flicked my eyes toward Obbas. He drew near. “Your Imperial Majesty, please forgive me. The Arissian was watched for months, Your Majesty. We could not have known she possessed such power.”
“Within the time —
A few of the Council members furtively glanced my way. I gestured to my Lord Marshall. When he was still a few feet away I spoke, loud enough for the right ears to hear. “Our Master of Games’s sight has weakened somewhat of late. Take out his eyes, and bring them to my personal physician. Perhaps he can remedy what ails them.”
A ripple of fear sparkled around me. My dear late uncle was right; there was no sensation quite as satisfying as placing terror into the hearts of men.