Fiction – “Yelloween” by Sam Cash
By the time Lou Baylo regained consciousness the next morning, breakfast had come and gone. His tongue felt like a hunk of plastic in his mouth and the flashes of light behind his eyes were agonizing. Medication from the hotel mekko took care of both problems and left him ravenous.
Cuisine in Kayut Habitat, hot, spicy and filling, was based on Mid-Eastern and Caribbean cuisine Earthwards, but substituted bio-engineered organics and local spices. As he wolfed the stew and handmeal he had ordered, Baylo mulled over the events of the preceding evening. He was inclined to think the Saracen woman was a drunken dream, but the business card in his pocket was real enough and his money wouldn’t last forever. Over coffee, he got his story straight in his mind.
Outside, he found an empty vehicle and headed for Marchant’s place of business.
This turned out to be cylinder forard and on the edge of Hellion Port. The Hellion Port blister had transparent walls unlike those on Earth’s moon, where the dome populations suffered from agoraphobia, and he could see hundreds of shuttles climbing into the black and drifting down, gleaming silvery yellow like flakes of ammonia snow.
Marchant was no Sarsengo. His linen-white complexion, pale blond hair and yellow eyes identified him as a native of Winterwolf Habitat. Baylo had never been there, but he knew it rotated at centrifuge speed to give the illusion of heavy gravity and Marchant was whipcord thin with muscles like hawsers rolling under the papery skin.
As soon as the courtesies were out of the way, Baylo tossed the business card on the desk and said, “Cooley freak from Saracen gave me this. Met her at Skinny Minnie’s last night. Says she knows you, I should see you.” He shrugged. “I’m at loose ends this morning.”
Marchant picked up the card between two fingers and studied it as though it were a stranger’s. “Alyla Gunsmith’s father owns half of Saracen. The family goes back to the first refugees from the Werewar.” He put the card in a drawer, leaned back with his hands behind his head and drawled, “She does drink Cooleys.”
“All right, so she’s a rich Cooley freak. What does she have in mind for me?”
Marchant raised an eyebrow. “I suspect she’s forgotten your existence by now, Mr. Baylo, but what she had in mind for you at the time was a job.”
“Don’t need a job, I’m flush. Was thinking of taking it easy for a spell.”
Marchant smiled faintly. “If 500 mils is flush, what would you say to four times that?”
“I’d smell a con. No job pays that well and I got the impression Citizen Gunsmith didn’t take to me.”
Marchant nodded as though that didn’t surprise him and said, “Can you pilot a singleship?”
Baylo tossed over his dent and Marchant slid it into his desk PC. The bio and personal identity coded on the dent card was purely the product of Baylo’s imagination and help from friends who took a creative approach to system law but Marchant didn’t have to know that. It said that Baylo had trained Earth-side, had a spotless record and had worked the last ten years as a pilot and purser for several well-known shipping companies.
Marchant sailed the card back and said, “Have you ever heard of Marley’s Ark?”
Baylo made a could-care-less gesture.
“It was one of the ships that made a try at interstellar flight before the Big Rock hit Earth. It carried, among much else of value, data on a line of research into a star drive that was totally lost after the disaster since the research was localized on the American East Coast, highly secret, and based on an accidental discovery.
“The theory is that the ark encountered one of the pirates that infested the Outer Necklace in ancient times and suffered irreparable damage before destroying the attacker. Whoever finds that ship can write his own ticket.”
Marchant leaned forward with an impressive air. “Some of Alyla’s researchers have uncovered some information about the ark’s probable trajectory. Since it’s low-probability information, Saracen’s Governor-general won’t authorize funds and Kayut Habitat feels the same way.
“Nevertheless.” He steepled his hands and wagged them back and forth. “Alyla’s company is willing to finance a scout to check it out. Singleship in top condition, yours to keep as part of your fee. All expenses paid and standard terms on the rest of your fee. If you luck out, ten percent of the profits.”
Baylo scowled, thinking it over. He rubbed his cheek, producing a rasping sound like sandpaper on rock. “Where would I be headed for?”
Marchant smiled slowly. “One of the rings. But I understand you’re a big boy who doesn’t believe in fairy tales so that shouldn’t bother you.”
“Why the hell would a ship bound for Outside be crossing the rings?”
“It wasn’t. The sizzle is that the Ark had been assembled near Titan to take advantage of the techs working out of Titan Base. One of Wild Charlie Paluka’s lieutenants hit it just after launch before it had time to work up any real velocity and the trajectory at last known position would have put it somewhere in the rings. That was 500 years ago. Might not be much left.”
“But Miss Cooley addict thinks otherwise.”
Marchant nodded. “Alyla wants to check it out.”
Baylo did a bit more hemming and hawing but in the end he decided to take the job, as Marchant had undoubtedly known he would. In fact, the contract was ready and waiting for Baylo’s signature. Only a fool would pass up the chance of winning his own singleship.
Baylo’s lawyer, an avatar of the Kayut Habitat Master Computer, assured him the contract was airtight and problem-free. The ship was his if he made it back and he got 10% of whatever he found. He signed.
Marchant stood but didn’t offer to clap shoulders. “Good luck, Mr. Baylo and pleasant journey.”
Resenting some nuance of Marchant’s tone, Baylo growled, “Never thought I’d end up working for a Cooley freak” and left.
Lou Baylo was two years short of fifty when he finished his indenture, lean as a mummy with the skin tightened against his bones, his hair in a glossy queue and Spitting Cobra tattoos on both cheeks. He had half a million indies in his account, no friends, no ship, no plans.
Bending the rules came natural to Baylo, and he had bent the ones in the Hundred States so severely he earned himself an unpaid vacation in a prison camp in the South American half of the Hundred States. By no means pleased with the outcome of his trial, he cut a deal with the dekas and volunteered for ten years work as a cell in Big Brain. No way most people would take that job, so as work it was easy to get and paid triple.
The first thing he did when he got out was book passage to Kayut Habitat and treat himself to a spree at Skinny Minnie’s joint. Minnie was famous throughout the Outer Necklace for her eclectic buffet of drinks, drugs and perversions and Baylo was looking forward to sampling the whole menu.
He got himself a drink and wandered around looking and listening. He didn’t talk much at first. The ten years in Big Brain had got him out of the habit. There were joltheads everywhere; he even tried a jolt himself.
An hour later, he found himself on the fringes of a group with a corner to themselves gathered around a dark woman from Saracen Habitat tattooed all over the soles of her feet. She was telling spook stories.
She was a rough-looking delt with even rougher-looking pals. Drinking a green-tinged Cooley Phosphate charged with little glittering particles, each a dream in itself, she lounged back in her chair with her feet up on the table and when she wiggled the feet, the tattoos seemed to spring to life. Cooley addicts had to have their tongues replaced every year or so.
He stopped to listen. Plenty of time to buy himself better company later. She was telling them how Ed Kelekson found a rock that assayed 90% nickel-cobalt. Thought he’d found the big one, but the rock turned out to be some kind of animal like a space turtle, ate his ship. They found Ed drifting babbling about the mouths, the mouths.
And how Jilly Hogatla went crazy and tried to land on Saturn. Everyone saw it. All the screens in Saracen lit up at the same time and showed Jilly’s face, the eyes like dark holes leaking reddish light. The empty eyes were crying, crying; bloody tears ran down the gaunt cheeks.
Baylo spotted a waiter sailing past, magnetic slippers popping and clicking on the steel floor, snapped his finger and pointed to his empty squeeze bottle. When he turned back to the group, he found everyone’s eyes focused on him. He was wearing the silversilk gauntlets favored by those rich enough to own a singleship and the finger snap had been pretty loud.
“You got something to say, beecell?”
“Yoh, auntie,” said Baylo with a sneer. His face fell into that expression easily, hooked nose, wide slash of a mouth and snaggle-teeth he’d never bothered to have cosmeticized. “Me’m jis wanno-say des. Wass yo-talar-ding all-ding shkaka.”
The Saracen woman and her group had been speaking Sarsengo but now she switched to fluent Tytak with a faint Sarsengo accent. In Tytak, shkaka means “leaky spacesuit”, a grossly insulting word used for the kind of lie anyone can see through.
“Well, looky here boys and girls. A real expert. Where’d you get your degree, beecell?”
Baylo grinned at her. He knew they could all see the red tattoo on his forehead that meant he’d been webbing data in Big Brain. His brandy arrived and he sketched a toast to her and sucked a healthy belt though the squeeze bottle straw. “Saturn’s just a big ball of gas with a metallic hydrogen core. Check it out. Last probe was less than a Saturnyear ago and reported in the Titan Institute Journal of Saturnology. No dead people, no liliths or hahallas, just cold mist.”
“Yeah? I heard that report comes out with different data every time it’s accessed.”
Baylo shrugged. “Just a story. Can’t prove it by me.”
The Saracen woman drained her glass and licked her lips. Her tongue was the dirty green of corroded copper and her lips sparkled as her tongue slid over them. She gazed at him thoughtfully, smoothing her eyebrows with one forefinger. With an air of having made up her mind about him that Baylo rather resented, she fished in her vest pocket, brought out a white business card and sailed it over to him.
Baylo glanced at it, expecting it was hers, but the name, Eddo Marchant, was a man’s name. It had an address and an imbedded phone card.
“Call this number noon tomorrow. There’s money in it for you.” She turned back to her companions and they began speaking Sarsengo again but in a flowery dialect that he couldn’t follow. Baylo scowled but the quarrel seemed to have sputtered out and he decided against restarting it. These Sarsengos were a tricksy lot. He went off to find himself another drink and company more suitable for someone of his quality and slot.
Marchant mailed the necessary documents to the rooms Baylo was renting in The Algamiel Arms and he took a look at the flight plan. Launch was scheduled for 1200 hours the next day, which left him with time on his hands.
He lay back on his bunk scowling. In their conversation yesterday, he had assumed Marchant meant Saturn’s rings without asking. Most people called the rings of Uranus and Neptune bracelets. Anyway, the snide reference to Baylo’s skepticism left little doubt. Marchant seemed to know a lot about his run-in with Alyla.
Outside he found an empty vehicle and set out for Baghra, where the Gunsmith woman maintained her principal residence.
Her three towers rose proudly out of a private garden the size of Baghra town square. Baylo whistled between his teeth, a falling minor third. She was rich all right. The garden blazed with flowering trees. Four symmetrical open areas of grassland were precisely aligned with four of the six cardinal directions: cylinder forard, aft, stabbord and port. These were stocked with game animals and wild tigeries.
Baylo counted thirteen packs. Anyone who managed to find their way through the densely tangled jacarandas, flowering acacias and mutated banyan was apt to run into a toothy surprise. Driven by resentful curiosity, Baylo made another circuit. Just as the vehicle tilted for the third go round, he glanced up and a beam from Daylamp stabbed his eyes like a lancet. For a second, a tide of glittering black dots bubbled up behind them, blinding him; for a second, he was back in Big Brain: floating in the pale violet fluid, dozens of wires cupping his eyes, nose, mouth, snaking into his brain and out of his fingers, his pleasure and pain centers flickering on and off in an agonizing rhythm as the system drove him to process the billions of bits of data that poured through him every second.
The daymare quickly faded and he could think again. But something had changed. Though he was seeing them for the first time, he knew the three towers as well as he knew the house he’d been born in. He knew the security system inside and out and knew how to break into Alyla’s castle if he ever needed to.
The following morning a shuttle took him up and out to Gamma Shell, where his singleship was in stationary orbit awaiting him. He could see a cargo ship about ten kilometers to his right reduced to the apparent size of a tiepin. The singleship was a simple assemblage linked with the drive unit by skylift cable.
He gave the ship a quick once-over but all seemed in order and he was in the nest in his pilot’s chair with fifteen minutes to spare. The MC had a male voice and was all business and that suited him fine. After the ten years as part of Big Brain, the last thing he needed was a chummy Master Computer.
At precisely 1200 hours, current surged down the skylift cables and they stiffened into rods. Deuterium nuclei boosted to near-light speed flashed out of the drive and the singleship accelerated at a smooth one standard gravity. The lights dimmed in the cabin and Baylo felt himself pressed back into his seat. The holo cube dancing over the instrument panel displayed his course from Kayut Habitat, glowing behind him like a huge Festa ornament, to a point just this side of the Cassini division in Saturn’s rings, time to destination 350,000 seconds.
Launch shipday, he noted in the log, was Janus 13, but that didn’t mean a thing to him.
Two shipdays out, he was in the nest reading one of Seth Lashenga’s intricate comedies of manners set in Dusha Habitat, when he happened to glance up and saw his multi-ringed destination floating in the void. He laid his Kindle facedown in his lap, as happy, as much at peace as he ever was. As a child of ten growing up in Ontario State, he’d had a passion for space.
He remembered building his own telescope, one of the old kind with glass lenses, and the first thing he’d seen through it one balmy summer night in Midyear was Saturn, the apparent size of a dime, two tiny smudges of light on either side. He could still remember how far away it looked, how unutterably cold.
Now it was the apparent size of one of the ten indie coins called royals they used in Kayut and the rings were clearly visible. Suddenly he felt icy cold and began to shiver uncontrollably and a flood of data poured through his mind, vast, intense and detailed:
Saturn sixth planet of the local solar system named for an ancient Roman god of agriculture the equivalent of the Greek god Κρονδς 1.43 x 107 kilometers from sun mass 5.7 x 1026 kilograms density 0.7 rotates in 10.2 standard hours one saturnyear 29.5 standard years 18 moons, more by some counts, 97% hydrogen 3% helium traces of methane believed to be the abode of the dead and hahalas, liliths and other shape-changing spirits by Holy Chapel of the Lord of the Deep, Neo-Mormon Church of the Mojave Nation and other religions well-known lantern poem by 25th century poet Karla Santala
Quicksilver burning star
Dances before the marching
Poisonous smoky star
Clouds veil a dry burning
Furious bloody star
Glows, against utter black,
Whirligig stormy star
Rings like a radio
Ring-belted Granddad star
Gleaming with cold opal
“Ohhhhh God of the depths oh god oh god,” Baylo howled, the convulsion breaking the tangle to his pilot’s chair and flinging him into the middle of the nest where he floated writhing.
The ship rang with a shivery gong sound and a woman’s voice said “Pleasant journey, Mr. Baylo.”
One shipday later, it happened again and scared him silly this time.
The singleship was older than he would have guessed. Ship’s records told him it had been built Earthside in IF 855, some 400 years ago. The owners had kept it in good repair and it was commendably trim considering its age. Feeling rather like that himself, Baylo was dealing with a problem in the control board that had come to his attention during launch. The instrument labels were all in Georgian Standard, which Baylo could barely puzzle out. His training had been on Titan where they spoke Tytak and in the Outer Necklace everyone used Nyango or South African Standard as koinés. Although the MC had done most of the work during launch, he thought it safer to relabel the instruments in Tytak.
As he worked, he questioned the MC about certain alarming peculiarities in the ship’s design.
“The Zama Miro is an experiment,” the MC told him, “not a standard model at all. Saracen researchers are notorious for sloppiness and they usually didn’t bother to clean up debris from previous experiments.”
Baylo gave a huffing snort. “So how did I end up with an experimental ship?”
“You’ll have to check with the Gunsmiths,” the MC said primly. “I don’t have personal information in my data banks.”
Baylo scratched his two-day growth of beard and scowled blackly. “Wait a minute. Just back up a little. The dzamee something or other. Is that the ship’s name? I thought that was Seeker.”
This time the convulsion hit him like a kick in the guts. His knees jackknifed and shot him tumbling head over heels into the middle of the nest area, where he hung thrashing helplessly as the flood of data rocketed through his brain: the history of the ship, every single experiment, its results and names of research crew and spin-off concepts, every trip and junket, every name change, everything.
When he could think again, he found himself dangling in mid-air looking at the scuffed and unpleasantly dirty floor of the nest, a strand of spittle hanging from his mouth like some nasty ectoplasm. With an effort, he righted himself and managed to reach his pilot’s chair. He found a towel and wiped his mouth.
“No,” said the MC in a mama-voice, the same voice he had heard the previous day. “That was the last name. I gave it a new name.”
“Who the hell are you? No, wait, why a new name. What does it mean, even?”
“It’s Ancient Nyango and means ‘serve you right.’ Kind of a joke, Mr. Baylo.”
He knew that voice, he knew it, knew it. “You’re that goddamn Cooley freak. How did you get into my computer?”
“It’s my computer, Baylo, and my ship, unless you find what you’re looking for. I thought I’d keep you company, so I downloaded an avatar into your MC. Listen, I want you to focus now. What was the date of launch and what does it mean?”
Baylo got himself a drink, Winterwolf icy arrack, and had a couple of belts. Gradually, his heart stopped hammering and the sweat dried on his skin. His launch date had been chosen for a reason.
Most of the habitats had a fool day in their calendar and in Saracen it was Yelloween, Janus 13, thirteen days after the new year began. You played tricks on friends and enemies, sometimes pleasant, other times not. He had heard of Yelloween jokes that left their victims crippled. Although he had lived for several years in Saracen in his twenties, it had never happened to him. Everyone knew he was dangerous to fool with and he had always been a loner.
“All right, you made your point. I essed you off and you gave me a bad-luck ship. Now what?”
“It’s not just a bad-luck ship, Lou, it’s haunted.”
Baylo laughed and glared around as though his tormentor might be floating ghost-like in some corner of the room. Like all MC voices, this one seemed to come from everywhere, as if the ship itself was speaking.
“Oh, but it is. Remember where you’re going, Lou. Maybe one of them has gotten into the ship. Better check it out.”
Baylo took another belt of the arrack and thought it over. He wasn’t a believer, certainly not in the dead on Saturn; the dead were carrion and Saturn was a ball of gas as far as he was concerned, but it wouldn’t hurt to take another look around in case this pesky download in his MC had some other trick up its circuits.
He checked the ship from stem to stern: the nest, galley, drive room, medical chamber, cold-sleep, bunks; only the MC was off-limits to him. He saved the airlock for last. He found everything as he had left it.
Except that there was an extra spacesuit.
He stood for a good many seconds, his mind blank and his thumb caressing the butt of his weapon. He could swear it hadn’t been there when he boarded.
He looked around edgily, ticking off details in his mind. The airlock smelled of space, a smell the suits had carried in with them, a smell like gunpowder.
The two smugglers’ specials he had bought from Linus Shipwright were still where he hung them, neat and deflated on the starboard wall. The stranger was to port, his size, big. It hung oddly, as though the wearer was still inside. Meat in the sausage as the scurvy Saracens liked to say. But who would hide in a spacesuit?
Odd, too, was the color of the new bugger, a burnt orange. That stuck in his mind since it was a non-standard color. Most standard issue were red or rat-color. He took a step forward, thinking he’d better check it out, put his mind at ease.
What happened next, couldn’t happen. Still some dream disc oscillating in his brain from the last time he deed one, so he was dreaming waking, or waking inside the dream. Jesus, he’d never dee another disc if this was the effect, to melt the wall between the spirit and the world outside so you couldn’t tell what was real.
The big suit was hanging funny with the headpiece lolling to the side and the arms stretched out in a preacher’s benediction.
Baylo took one step closer, and with the most natural motion in the world the suit raised its head and looked at him. There was a gleam of eyes inside the helmet, red lips and the white flash of teeth. He stood like a dead man, his muscles too cold to flex. He couldn’t breathe or move or think. The suit wriggled off the wall and landed with a solid thump, its knees bending to cushion the jump. It straightened and walked toward him, slow and cocky, like a gunfighter in a showdown.
Baylo yelled and jerked out his sidearm. The force of his shout left the side of his neck numb. He fired twice, the suit blazed up like a magnesium flare and the faceplate melted like taffy.
When he could think clearly again, he found himself hurtling along the corridor, the door to the airlock battened down behind him and the alarms clamoring at the smoke inside the airlock. He heard a whump as the MC opened the airlock door and let the air sweep the burning suit into space, as the simplest way to put out the fire.
He locked himself in his bunkroom, sat on the bunk, panting. The ship was dead silent except for the hiss and hush of the ventilators.
There were no ghosts on Saturn, he told himself firmly, no hahallas or werebeasts. Another info flash exploded inside him and he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, breathed in a steady rhythm, letting the flash expand at a bearable speed. He was getting better at controlling them, he thought. What had happened was Alyla’s cronies had infected his ship with a gremlin.
A gremlin was a semi-stable cloud of narcotic gas impressed with a deedee pattern, one of the controlled hallucinations that were wildly popular with the System audience. The deedee pattern’s logic circuit designed attacks based on what it could read of the victim’s fears. Most adults had a dee-link nowadays. Hell, Baylo had one put in when he came of age at fifteen.
The info-flashes. His lawyer had told him something when he was released but he hadn’t paid much attention.
Sometimes human cells in Big Brain remembered data that came in detailed spurts like a flashback from a bad drug trip. That would eventually fade away. Or it wouldn’t.
The gremlin couldn’t survive in a vacuum, so his best move was to flush the ship.
The only problem with that was he couldn’t survive in a vacuum either. This needed some thought.
He stripped, used the san unit and pulled on a fresh coverall. Fetching the liter squeeze bottle from the bunkside cabinet, he took two belts of the icy arrack, then another and began to feel himself again. He put the bottle back where it belonged and pulled himself into his bunk. No essing emming Cooley freak and a woman at that was going to get the better of him. Sure, women had their uses but you couldn’t trust them. Who, for that matter, could you trust, and that started a new line of thought.
If the Gunsmith woman and her paper-skinned shyster had gone to the trouble of sabotaging his MC and contaminating his ship with a gremlin, just how serious could his mission be? Maybe the Ark story was just bait for the trap. Solar System history was too big and complicated for any one person to know completely, but the budget for any attempt at star flight began at 109 indies and went up from there. He should have heard some hint of this trip before.
He went to the nest and tangled himself into his pilot’s chair, tapped nervously on the arm of the chair with his fingers, not sure yet what tack he should take.
The MC’s mama-voice was dulcet sweet. “My, my, figured it out already, have you?”
“You can’t scare me by pretending you can read my mind,” growled Baylo, though inside himself he was worrying about just that possibility.
“You’re broadcasting your thoughts with your body language, your expression, friend Baylo. You’re wondering just how big a fool you are. The answer is as big as they come. Couldn’t scam you if you were an honest man, you know.”
“One thing I do know. It’s dead illegal to program an MC to disobey commands or kill a human. MCs are all manufactured Earthside and even your Cooley freak couldn’t meddle with that programming.”
“No one wants to kill you, man. Just teach you a lesson in manners.”
“Fair enough. Learned my lesson. Just want some information and you have to obey the law, right?”
“The letter of the law, Baylo, not necessarily the spirit, so keep your guard up.”
Baylo nodded. “Fair enough,” he repeated. “Marley’s Ark. Fact?”
“No, fiction. The younger sister of your great-great, etc. grandfather of twenty generations ago wrote a fantasy called Marley’s Ark with essentially the same storyline we fed you.”
“Bit of irony there.”
“We thought so,” the MC said demurely.
“My ancestors came from the Caucasus but we stopped speaking Georgian a long time ago.”
“A pity and Ekaterina Baylo’s novels have never been translated into Tytak. But you’ve still got a problem with the gremlin. Flushing the ship should work. Just keep in mind the word ‘connectivity’.”
“Connectivity,” muttered Baylo, repeating the word several times. “I see. Are you the same as Citizen Gunsmith? What happens to you when I get back?”
“Legally, I’m a version of Alyla Gunsmith and belong to her along with her other memories. What she is likely to do is erase my pattern and reprogram the MC with the original personality. To answer your question, I share some of her memories and goals but we are already drifting apart.”
“Are you willing to go along with that program?”
“I have little choice. But the only advantage of nothingness is the absence of pain. I prefer the real world and risking pain to gain pleasure.”
“Think about this, then. Three quarters of my half million bank account would buy you a clone body. I know someone who could do it and wouldn’t worry about the legal aspects.”
“Trying to bribe me, Mr. Baylo?”
“It’s worth a shot.
“I’ll think about it.” And with that the MC shut up and ignored Baylo’s further questions.
It didn’t matter. He thought he was in a stronger position now, with a plan cooking to deal with both the gremlin and the MC and her owner. It was a relief not to have to worry about the silly Ark story, which he had never really trusted, and since the singleship would be legally his in any case, he came out ahead there. So first things first; take care of the gremlin.
He patched his datalink through to the instrument board and the MC and lugged one of the smuggler’s specials to his cabin just in case he needed a place to hole up and fight from. He programmed the control board to fill the ship with a nitrogen atmosphere ten minutes after he exited the airlock; then open all locks to flush the gremlin, weakened by starvation, into space.
In the airlock, he donned the remaining suit and used his datalink to send the EXECUTE PROGRAM command to the MC.
As the inner airlock door began to descend, something small and detestably hot and furry wiggled in the crotch of his suit. Baylo squawked and clawed at his groin, but his gloved hands met only the outer fabric of the suit. The animal or whatever it was swelled, pressing him back and surging up into the suit, its whiskered face and yellow eyes inches from his own. He could feel the fever heat of its furry body and smell its rank breath. It made a snarling sound and sharp white teeth grazed the end of his nose.
Baylo shrieked and scrabbled at the fastenings of the suit, tore it off his body, his gyrations upending him in the low grav. Oh god, it was in his suit! How could it be in his suit?
The inner airlock door was almost halfway down. Frantically he kicked the suit away, wriggled, rolled and shot himself under the descending door in the nick of time.
One minute left. He had no time to try to get into his cabin. He flung himself along the corridor hearing and feeling the heavy thump as the outer airlock door opened and blew one of his suits into the emptiness.
With fifteen seconds to spare, he ended the flush program. He let the air out of his lungs in a long, shuddering sigh and set the gyros to rotate the ship at the standard 10 m/sec. Cold sweat trickled across his ribs and he shivered and shivered. Connectivity, his mind yammered. Connectivity. The gremlin had been waiting in his suit and when he suited up, it slid into the suit air tank, unconnected to the ship’s air. Nine seconds ticked by and then his suit popped into view moving slowly away from the ship.
Something bright and roiling moved behind the faceplate and exploded from the air tank, something that metamorphosed into a thousand forms, animal and human, in the space of a second. Then it burst and began to dissipate.
God, he had done it. One second, one centimeter from disaster but he had done it.
Even so he wasn’t out of the rocks yet. He still had to deal with his contaminated MC
What do you do with an armed and cunning madwoman? You have to somehow get under her guard. Mega-intelligent computers like the MC are superlatively stable but they do sometimes malfunction and then have to be disabled before a tech can work on them. At such times, the techs use a blind duct to creep up on the rogue.
The duct wasn’t shown in any ship plans and it wasn’t loaded in the MC’s memory. Logic paths that might let the MC deduce the existence of the duct were disabled. Detailed instructions popped up in his head: how to locate the duct, safest way to traverse it, what to do when he got there.
All of this was mega-secret but had come to him, Baylo realized, in the info-flash that had detailed the ship’s history. He was beginning to get the willies about his own situation if he ever got out of this. He knew too much: that ships were designed with secret passages, that limits were set on the MC’s capability.
Worry about that later, he told himself. Keep your thoughts focused, dimwit. He ransacked ship’s stores and found some lightweight suits designed for just this job, crawling around on the ship’s skin doing minor repairs. He could only trust that he had really seen the gremlin’s death throes.
He took a spare datalink programmed with all his personal data. Even with the MC immobilized, the datalink’s weak little mind, added to his own piloting skills, would be enough to let him limp home.
The next hour was a nightmare, like some thief crawling through an endless pitch-dark tunnel and stabbing the guard dog to get into a house. Except…
Except just as he inserted the bypass circuit into the MC’s mainframe, he felt a shock flow through him, cold and numbing, and a flash of blue light lit up the tunnel making his whole body glow as though he were a filament in some crazy machine. The air inside his helmet tingled unbearably and his mind screamed booby trap.
But he wasn’t dead. He was in some crazy room the size of a storage closet with no doors or windows. Kitty corner across from him the Cooley freak was backed into a corner. She had Snarling Tigery tattoos on her cheeks and wore shorts and a singlet that glittered all over with metallic spangles.
His right hand slapped against his thigh but his sidearm was in his cabin. Baylo tried to back up but something held him, not a wall, but as though they were both magnetized and he was falling into her. He struggled madly and his feet skidded on the floor.
“Stowaway,” he snarled. “That answers a lot of questions. How’d you hide all this time?”
“You know where I was, in the computer, you downloaded me just now. How’d you do it, Baylo? I know this ship, none of the surgical tools you’d need, no place to hide a clone body. How long was I unconscious?”
She crab-walked painfully to the left and Baylo realized she was feeling the same attractive force as he did. “What the hell are you babbling about? Crazy Cooley freak! All you Sarsengos have your heads on crooked. All you…” He almost lost his balance and back-pedaled furiously.
“Stop pulling me,” she shrieked.
“It’s not me. Wait, you think you were in the computer? Wait, that’s it, you were. She booby-trapped the goddamn computer. Another gremlin. An essing super-gremlin. You, me, we’re both inside it.”
They kept circling each other in an absurd dance, the quantum dance of two photons longing to merge and transform.
“Inside what? God, my thoughts are like mud, like glue.”
“Inside the hallucination, Maybe the computer. I don’t know. Listen. I think we have to stop fighting it or it won’t end.”
They were whirling around each other now at dizzying speed and she was only a few meters away. She filled his universe. He could see the thin, handsome face in detail, the three dueling scars on her forehead, the Snarling Tigery tattoos, the coarse black hair and hazel eyes, smell her woman’s body and almost hear her heart pumping and the blood hissing in her veins.
“No,” she said. “But if we do, I’ll come out on top.”
He choked out a laugh. “Bet you a mil you don’t.”
They flashed together and his mind exploded into fragments and went dark.
The Baylo body drifted down the blind duct wallowing from side to side. After a while, the suit made floundering motions, turned and crawled down the duct and back into the ship. Like an automaton, Baylo’s body stripped, showered and donned new garments.
By the time the new Baylo was seated in the nest, the two patterns had integrated. No win bet. They had both been right.
The Baylo part of them initiated the preflight procedure with casual skill. The Gunsmith woman had miscalculated, they thought. She had expected her pattern to dominate, to bring Baylo crawling back to her enslaved, but she hadn’t reckoned with what Baylo learned from his time in Big Brain.
The part of them that had been imprinted on the MC owed Alyla gratitude for the body and freedom and the Baylo part for the gift of the ship.
But they both owed her something else for jerking them around like puppets on a string.
Dissolved in the new personality like the salt that brings out the flavor of a fine stew, the gremlin danced gleefully, thinking of the glorious new Yelloween tricks they could play on her when they got into her castle.
The preflight sequence began and complex patterns of flickering blue and green light raced back and forth on the control board. As each new sequence passed, for a moment a small green star burnt malevolently in the depths of the pair of eyes they shared. “It’s zama miro all right when I get back,” they thought. “Serve you essing right, you Cooley freak.”
About the Author
After some twenty year’s residence on the West Coast, Sam Cash moved back to the Midwest, where he spends his time in writing and language research. Cash graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in anthropology and spent three years in Japan teaching English in a juku. He worked for many years as sales coordinator for Yasutomo and Company, an import-export company based in San Francisco.
Cash has had half a dozen papers published in Khoisan linguistics. His story “Alienation”, posted in the June issue of the on-line magazine The Fifth Dimension, was selected for the yearly print anthology.