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Presumed Dead (Part 4)
by Rick Kennett
Cy looked into her palm and said, “Mountains?”
Light as a feather atop her head, Lazarus hadn’t twitched a leg for hours. The map in her hand, however, was in motion. By slow degrees all afternoon a series of tiny V shapes, some inverted, all askew, had crept down into view from the top of her palm to inch along towards her little finger.
She shaded her eyes to the west where sunset blazed the sky with banners of red and crimson and orange. It was only now she realized then how much she missed the quiet purple sunsets of Mars. There was something overstated about these dramatic colours.
If there were mountains on the route she had intended then perhaps they were the reason for the detour. Perhaps whatever put the map in her hand was not so capricious after all.
After a hastily prepared meal and with the too-quick night falling she nestled down in her sleeping bag. Her laser was at hand and she was sure Lazarus would cause an alarm if anything approached, considering the spider never slept. But here in the open there was a distinct feeling of vulnerability which kept her awake longer than she wanted, staring up at the stars until sleep of a sort did come.
Two or three times during the night she started awake, sure an immense monster was bending over her and dripping saliva from a gaping maw.
Towards morning she dreamt she was sitting in a lecture theatre, aware somehow that the subject was Intermediate Jabberwocky. She knew this to be important, though unable to remember what a Jabberwocky was. Sergeant Kreeng was on the dais at the centre, wearing his red vacuum suit, his stern face clear through the visor. His mouth opened and shut, opened and shut, his eyes squinting, squeezing up. His arms were waving about, but not a sound issued from him, although Cy was sure he was screaming, “Get! It! Right!”
The tiers of seats either side were a blur of people, all naked, though Jos was seated on the far side, clothed and in focus. She was inclining her head to the left, to the right, in conversation with others. They’re speaking earnestly to each other, Cy thought without knowing what she meant.
A board with a circle drawn on it had materialized beside Sergeant Kreeng. He pointed to it with a glass rod and said, “Beware the Jabberwock, my son. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!” Only it wasn’t Sergeant Kreeng anymore but Ms Xerri, and she wasn’t wearing a red vacuum suit but a grey dress and what looked like a string of pearls. And she wasn’t pointing to a circle but to something like a ball that bounced along while staying in the same place on the board. There was something else about the ball – it seemed to seethe and grin and do things that Cy didn’t quite understand. Then Ms Xerri — or was it Sergeant Kreeng — said, “And what does it sound like?” and all the theatre went “Mmmmmm” and Jos with her head inclined now right, now left in earnest conversation went “Mmmmmm” and Sergeant Kreeng — or was it Ms Xerri — went “Mmmmmm.”
And Cy woke up to a world just beginning to light with sunrise, a half seen landscape going mmmmmm.
Distant but drawing nearer mmmmmm, closing in from the west mmmmmm.
Every nerve in her body sparked and tingled. She sat up and reached for the laser, her hand brushing past the hairy body of Lazarus in the dark. A claw briefly grasped her wrist, then as quickly let go.
She levelled the laser towards the sound, slipping off the safety.
On it came, not a single humming now but a concert of a thousand insect voices. And low down. Whatever it was hugged the ground. Yet still nothing was seen.
Cy’s imagination, though, could see perfectly, and all of it ugly and inimical. She tried to ignore these images, but they were insistent, clambering for her to take action, any action. And she ached to obey, to jump up, to fire, to do.
Instead she let the darkness hide her, and in that darkness she did not breathe in case the thing out there might hear.
The sound was louder now, loud like a cloud of angry wasps, nearing, the sound filling the world.
A star low on the horizon winked in momentary eclipse.
It passed, its hum dropping in pitch, fading to a murmur, whispering into morning silence and gone into the east.
Cy remained sitting up with the pistol still ready, imagining the thing’s stealthy return, sure of it now silently sitting within arm’s length in whatever form her imagination gave it. So close that she might reach out and touch it. Or it touch her.
Within a few minutes the glow in the east grew brighter, and soon afterwards came the dawn, shining across the grassy plain, pushing out long shadows from a girl and a spider and nothing more.
There were strange tracks two dozen paces away: a pattern of crushed fungus cut like a dotted line across the plain, swaying slightly left and right knife thin. It was possible it was something native to the planet, but that it’d come out of the west where the Xenoid fell was brutally suggestive.
The map showed the row of askew V symbols, the mountains, falling away behind her. The silver line still tingled, still pulsed to the yellow strip and topaz glitter between thumb and forefinger – the spiders’ grey god still urging her to the sea.
She peered closer at her hand, lost herself in the contours of her palm, in the lines beneath the map and its colours. Which was supposed to be the lifeline? Where was the love line? Was the Mount of Venus at the base of the thumb? What did that signify anyway?
“Palmistry,” she muttered. Then, addressing the spider, said, “I learnt about palmistry in a Military History class. Maybe Ms Xerri was standing in for an absent instructor. Can you imagine that, Lazarus? Ms Xerri teaching military history! Like Sergeant Kreeng teaching classical music. Anyway, someone told us that back in the olden days, early twentieth century, Earth got itself involved in an all-out shoot-up on a landmass called Europe which soon spread across the entire planet like a dust storm does on Mars and ended up killing millions and millions. In the last happy summer before that world war broke out, fortune tellers at fair grounds all over Europe were finding a lot of the young men who came into their carnival tents to get their palms read had very short lifelines.”
Looking into her hands she tried to decide which crease was her own lifeline, all the while wondering whether if it was wise to seek it at all. The backs of her hands were scared, the knuckles humped, stress ridges on the nails. Young hands becoming old too quickly.
Pushing up her left sleeve she looked at the scar on her forearm. Caused by a meteor small as a pebble, striking only seconds before another meteor big as a boulder hit Jos’s scouter – the egg-like scouter Jos had swept across without hesitation to bump Cy’s crippled craft out of the stream of rocks …
The meteor holes her scouter. Skin and bone fly like shrapnel. A sudden fog of blood. Her suit closes instantly over the injury. No pain, not yet. Flashing damage lights on thrust and lateral control. The view screen shows Jos’s ship grazed by small rocks as she turns toward, trying to nudge Cy’s scouter out. Someone yelling in her helmet, maybe Jos, maybe herself –
Then the big rock hits, and Jos and her scouter are a million scattering pieces.
Cy, losing air, with one good arm and a mind closed to everything but survival, manoeuvres out of the asteroids to rendezvous with an ambo-shuttle.
Thereafter is the endlessness of an intensive care ward and the self-centred oblivion of pain and drugs. Then one night awareness returns as she wakes to the sound of gentle sobbing. She cannot feel her face or raise her hands, so there is no real saying who it is weeping.
But in the darkness of the ward, in the silence of the night, Cy is certain it is the true ghost of Josephine Manxman.
Sometimes, in her unmusical way, Cy sang songs taught by Ms Xerri, and sometimes she sang the popular songs she grew up with. A couple of times she sang her ‘Mars Navy’ parody again. She checked the rations in her bag and occasionally the map in her hand. Mostly, though, she just walked.
And as she walked the map moved, slowly, gradually bringing the yellow edging of the shoreline in between thumb and forefinger. She expected to reach it by nightfall.
At the swiftly passing midday she stopped to rest and eat.
“All God’s children — and everyone else’s – needs H2O,” she said, offering water from her canteen to Lazarus. But as it had done on other occasions it only raised its elevated eyes to her as if saying, What do you expect me to do with it?
“You’re something like me, aren’t you, Lazarus,” she said, carefully dribbling the palm hollow of water back into her canteen. “You’re something that shouldn’t be in nature; a biological machine, a biobot made to a specific purpose. But they didn’t give you a mind. Or did they?”
The lobster eyes regarded her without expression.
“Who’s on the other side of those eyes of yours? Just you or some alien civilization keeping this crazy alien under surveillance for kicks? I know that sounds like classic paranoid talk, but this time it’s true. Isn’t it, Lazarus? It’s true. They’re all watching me.”
She wriggled her fingers in greeting. “Hello there, grey flapping things.” She flung herself forward into the fungus grass, smiled into the eyes of the spider, then rolled lazily onto her back, ignoring her possible grey audience, enjoying the sun’s warmth. “We’re similar, aren’t we, Lazarus. Except you Kreeng spiders don’t die. Immortality. What a mighty biological design feature. Wish they’d built it into me.” She stared up at the blue sky, the white hurrying clouds. “Did you know my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg had dead people’s DNA injected into it? Yes, it’s true. I’m made partly from the dead. Using DNA from the deceased has been a common practice in human genetics for over two hundred years, mainly in the creation of medicines and the growing of new organs and limbs. But whole people made from the dead! I’m like the thing created from dug-up corpses in that story Frankenstein.” She moved her hands to her neck, feeling for bolts. Then, thrusting her arms straight up she flexed her fingers in mock menace. “Grrr! Grrr!”
She sat up and sniffed the air.
There’d been a change in the wind, just now, blowing from the south, fresh and cool. The wind smelt of sand and salt, it smelt of bad dreams, delirium and her last memories of George McClusky. It smelt of the sea.
On the coastal edge of the fungus grasslands, just within sound of the sea, Cy stopped to make camp. A slow-mo of Vacuum Suit Maintenance from the hologram discs provided enough light to eat by and some passing entertainment.
Aaaaaaah. A long drawn out sighing, far off, like distant giants making love. A sound she’d heard only once before, and that in delirium, when days ago her raft had surfed in among the breakers of that other far away beach to skid up onto the sand.
“Pretty the way your fur glistens in the light of the holo,” she said to Lazarus crouching by her bag. She gently stroked the creature’s coarse hair, feeling the spider respond to her touch. As each scene passed in Vacuum Suit Maintenance the illuminated side of the spider changed the colour reflected on its body hair: now red, now yellow now green now blue now blue now blue …
Jos stood in the image, going through the paces of demonstrating aspects of her blue vacuum suit.
“The dual-purpose operational fatigues/survival suit, on the other hand,” she said, “is not meant for long endurance use. It will protect against extremes of heat and cold and affords protection against medium strength radiation for short periods. It can keep atmospheric integrity in a number of environments, from seawater to vacuum … but Cy, it has its limitations. You can’t wear it forever. You have no basic materials for making clothes, and even if you did you have no idea how to do it.”
“The cairn at Charlie-Sierra will have the materials –“
“You hope! Cy, survival cairns are a temporary support for marooned spacers. They keep you alive while waiting to be picked up after you pull the signal switch! The supplies you’ll find in them will have no more endurance than your fatigues. In a few years – and don’t kid yourself that this planet won’t soon be visited more regularly, no matter what happens at the Battle of Beta Electra which by the way you are shirking – in a few years you’ll be found lying in the dirt here naked and dead of starv –“
Cy switched off the player and Jos faded away, leaving only a blue after-image on her eyes. Somewhere in the dark the sea went aaaaah.
“Shirking!” She didn’t start the war, didn’t ask to partake in it. She wasn’t a recruit, wasn’t even a conscript. “Hell! I have less choice than a conscript does. I have no control over my life – not physical, not mental, not one aspect of being: the way I think, the way I feel, my reactions to things. I don’t care, Jos. Do you hear me? I don’t care if I do die because survival is not the issue. It’s freedom, Jos. You still don’t get it, do you. It’s freedom to live as I want or at least die on my own terms!”
She reached through the dark for her bag, feeling for the chocolate.
Only two squares left.
She bit it in half.
Then, without another thought ate the other half too. Reclining, she gazed up at the stars with sleepy eyes. Strange constellations. Nothing at all like home.
As on the previous night, her sleep was interrupted by sudden wakefulness, convinced something was standing over her in the dark.
Nothing ever was.
She was awake when dawn came. The sky was horizon to horizon overcast, heavy grey clouds lumping in the east and no prospect of shelter anywhere. The early part of her journey had been walked in the rain. She’d just do it again, only this time without the opiate of delirium. She was designed to endure worse.
After a breakfast of a high-energy soya cake Cy started off again with Lazarus perched on her head.
Not too far along, the fungus stopped and the ground sloped down to an empty beach. Nothing but unbroken yellow-white sand stretching away at either hand. Nothing but the sea in front of her out to the horizon. She sniffed, smelling only salt air. No Xenoid nearby; not now, probably not ever. It was aboard its humming machine heading due east. Either that or barging its way through the mountains.
The rain began as she reached the water’s edge. Lazarus immediately climbed off her head and dropped itself into the backpack.
“Fine hat you are,” Cy muttered.
The map in her hand had changed over night. An image of the beach now stretched diagonally across her palm, thick and yellow. The guide of thin phosphorescence trickled along it, leading her toward something a few kilometres further on.
Her boot prints melted away in the rain. To one side a stony slope leading to the plain, to the other the tossing sea with its curtains of rain sweeping in like veils of grey silk. She was soon blinking water out of her eyes, and her hair was plastered cold and dripping against her head.
I’m probably the only Martian in the galaxy who actually hates rain.
As Cy walked along she thought how this situation was something commonly referred to – especially by Earthies – as Romantic: a walk along a beach with the wind in her hair and the sea surging in big foamy breakers. Yet she’d never felt less romantic in her life. For one thing she was alone, utterly alone. For another she was not in love – except with the memory of Josephine, and Josephine would never pair her footprints with her own along any beach ever again.
The land to her left began to rise and steepen, topped now by the odd growth of fungus tossing in the wind. The sea churned and rolled up the beach, rippling almost to her feet … where the beginning of a furrow emerged from the water. A furrow in the sand, ploughing a metre or two up the beach before lazily curving to the south and stretching off into the distance.
Cy stared at it, wondering if she were witnessing the evolution of land animals on this planet. Was the furrow left by a dragging tail? Why no footprints either side? Maybe it was a legless thing. Yet the furrow carried on pretty straight with no sign of wriggling.
Then a thought came creeping.
What if this is the track of another Xenoid machine, spinning out of the sea and whirring up the beach?
At once all her cherished mental images of the enemy lost far to the east or perishing in the mountains fell over with a dull thud.
The track was recent: the rain was only now beginning to dissolve its edges. That it was unlike the track left in the fungi grass the other night didn’t discount the idea that this was another Xenoid machine. But there was still nothing to disprove her animal idea either.
The track ran before her, scratching up the middle of the shore towards a rocky headland about a kilometre away. Nothing moved anywhere on this beach, nothing at all.
Maybe it’s the work of the grey aliens.
As a theory it was leaky and she knew it. Yet it was less disturbing than her other two theories, one a mystery, the other potentially deadly. All the same, this long line in the sand did seem to match the phosphorescent line trickling and tickling along the beach in her palm.
The furrow was narrow. So, Cy reasoned, the creature couldn’t be too big if creature it be. No sudden meeting with a Tyrannosaurus Rex on the other side of that headland. More likely it was lightweight, which explained the lack of footprints, with a dragging, spiky tail. Whatever it was the furrow continued dead straight along the beach. Cy followed it, deliberately walking within the reach of the waves so that her footprints were quickly obliterated. As the headland neared she drew her laser.
The rain eased, though the scud continued to fly overhead.
A hundred metres from the headland the line swerved up the beach and disappeared into a patch of churned-up sand. That was it. No animal, no Xenoid device. It just stopped.
A sense of unease overcame her, followed by a desperate scrambling of the mind for logical answers
Perhaps … yes, the animal with the spiky, dragging tail has flown, it’s taken to the air.
“Yeah, right,” she told herself, not believing it for a second. So far she’d seen nothing on this planet that flew, not bird or insect.
Wait. What’s that patch of broken sand? It has to be the entrance to a burrow. Yes. That’s it. That’s where the thing went.
It took her several seconds to realize the marks and gouges in the sand were not the result of a digging animal. They were squiggles and the squiggles were letters all flowing together.
She looked down at it, stunned, unable to react. Then everything burst in on her at once: disbelief, fear, irrational horror. She hugged herself, feeling suddenly cold. A moment more and her stomach began to heave. She turned away, bent over with hands on knees and was violently sick on the sand, bringing up a half-digested mush of soya cake.
For over a minute she just stood there, half bent over, saliva dripping from her mouth. Then with a cry of rage she swung her boot into those letters forming cyleencomehome, obliterating them in a spray of flying sand.
“No!” she screamed, her mouth tasting of bile.
She faced down the beach, back along the way she’d come, and fired a half dozen laser blasts, flashing up rainbows of vaporized sand. There was nothing there: no ghosts, no monsters. Only the waves and the beach vanishing back into a grey beyond. But it made her feel good to fire, to shoot, to strike back, to revert and embrace primitive instincts.
She swilled out her mouth with a swig from a canteen, jammed the laser into a pocket and started off toward the headland again. For a moment Jos walked with her.
“You’re fooling yourself, Cy. You haven’t changed. You never will.”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” She drew the pistol again and swung it at Jos’s head.
“Oh, at last!” cried the ghost. “But wrong target, Cy. Wrong target. I’m dead already. Though it’s the thought that counts.”
Cy pocketed the pistol, her eyes liquid with unborn tears, and Jos was no longer there.
With quickened step she hurried to round the headland and put this haunted beach behind her. She became aware of Lazarus scrabbling about in her pack, trying to get out. She kept pushing the spider back with an impatient hand. This was neither the time nor the place nor was she in the mood. She just wanted to move, get away.
Sheltering beneath an overhang of rock she unshouldered her pack and stuck her face into its opening, risking her nose to a startled claw. “What’s the matter with you?”
Lazarus, with all eight feet splayed out and a claw gripping one of the iron spikes as if to steady itself, swung back its eyes to look straight up at her. Cy could almost feel the spider thinking, You’re insane, woman! You know that?
Turning, taking one last look behind her, she rounded the headland.
Oh! I … don’t … believe –
She dropped to her knees, her eyes wide, her mouth slack and agape.
“I don’t believe it!” she heard herself saying. “I … don’t … believe it!”
About a hundred metres away, lying on the sand in all its vivid orange splendour, canopy ruffling in the wind, was the raft she’d drifted in after the shuttle had sunk.
Her mind reeled at the thought that she’d walked a gigantic circle, that this was the same beach she’d landed on, delirious and sick, all those days ago.
Yet it didn’t look like the same beach. It’d been narrower. It’d had a jungle shoreline. Also her cairn compass was still pointing slightly south of west and the distance read-out to Charlie-Sierra was now significantly shorter. This wasn’t that other beach. This was the reason for the map in her palm and the detour it urged.
Hesitantly she approached the raft. Warily she circled it, suspecting a trap, a trick, something unpleasant.
Nothing hid behind it.
Why has it been brought from that other beach? For a laugh? To see what I’d do? Some sort of idiot alien experiment conducted on the idiot alien?
She couldn’t decide if she was acting the part of a rat in a maze or if the aliens were just being nice. Some alien definition of nice, perhaps.
More likely they’re just saying go away.
She grasped the flap on the raft’s canopy — and stopped.
What if George is in there?
She pulled back the flap.
The interior was not as big as she remembered, but she’d been delirious then and its dimensions had often appeared enormous. In reality it was big enough to hold eight people comfortably and was empty save for her gloves and soft helmet. It smelt of vomit and stale urine.
Cy stepped away. Smell was a trigger for memory, and in those few seconds with her nose inside the raft she’d been at sea again.
Lost on the ocean.
Rolling to every swell.
The sun shining in through the canopy like a probing, accusing eye.
Cold nights. Delirium dreams and vivid, disconnected images. Climbing monstrous black hills of water, shuddering at the crest, sliding and swaying down the other side. An overwhelming wish to die, a ferocious determination to live, Josephine watching her from the far end …
There were no marks in the surrounding sand, no indication at all of how the raft had got there.
“Get this thing cleaned.”
Shaking out the contents of her backpack, including Lazarus falling onto the sand with snapping claws, she expanded it to sleeping bag dimensions and filled it with sea water, dragging it back up the beach and sluicing the inside of the raft. Then, upending the raft, she poured the water out again. The cascade caught Lazarus as it tried to scuttle clear and washed it swirling, spinning on its back across the sand, eyes bulging with indignation atop their stalks, claws clicking furiously.
Cy dropped onto the sand and laughed heartily at its predicament, aware of the meanness of her actions but unable to resist the first good laugh she’d had since laughing at herself at the bottom of the oblong pit all those days ago, moments before she’d ‘killed’ Lazarus with an iron spike.
The memory sobered her. The creature deserved better than that. She scrambled across to where it wriggled its eight legs in the air and flipped it upright. It’d been in no danger – it would’ve righted itself soon enough but she wanted to make a conciliatory gesture.
“Sorry, Lazarus. I didn’t mean it, not really. But the sight of you sliding across the sand with your legs going in all directions was priceless. And you know, we humans do value our acts of cruelty. Even the unintentional ones.”
With disinfectant from her medikit she gave the inside of the raft a good spraying. Helmet and gloves were rinsed in the sea to take away the stink of sick and pee, then turned inside out to dry on the sand next to her inside-out sleeping bag. The sun had finally come out and the rain clouds were moving away. It gave her a lift of optimism – a feeling she had trouble recognizing for a moment.
She climbed into the raft to see if the canopy could be lowered and give the interior an airing. “There must be a control panel some place … Come to think of it there should be supply lockers all around here.” She touched one of the small panels between the decking and the edge of the canopy. A cover swung down revealing a first aid cabinet including soap, hand towels, beard inhibitor gel, dental hygiene kit …
“What? No comb? … Oh! Sponges! And not before time too!”
The next locker held a flare pistol – the last thing she wanted. Another panel contained a radio, and beside it the drive control.
Further exploration found binocular goggles, a compact instrument with light-boost and infra-red. Another locker contained a water distiller, several sealed jars of fresh water and a protein converter, the sort of thing she hoped to find in the Charlie-Sierra cairn.
The final locker contained food rations, which solved a mighty problem instantly.
And with the rations —
“Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Chocolate!”
Cy clapped her hands in glee and snatched up a block, staring at it greedily. Then quite firmly she put it back again. Later … later.
No, to hell with later!
She grabbed the block again, ripped it open, snapped off a row of squares and shoved them into her mouth, savouring it till it was all gone.
She stared round and round at the various lockers.
All this was under my nose back then, she thought. Rations, water, medikit, chocolate … If I hadn’t been so sick and oblivious to everything but my own damned delusions I might’ve made myself a bit more comfortable. Probably would’ve been at Charlie Sierra by now.
“Where the beacon switch is?” said Jos, peering in through the open flap.”Oh! I see you have a radio now.”
Cy glanced at the instrument, backed out of the raft, saying, “Excuse me,” to Jos as she passed, and searched among her belongings on the beach. Picking up one of her two pieces of iron, she climbed back into the raft and struck the radio four violent blows.
She turned back to Jos with a smile. “There. Now I don’t have a radio.”
“You only did that because you don’t believe in what you’re doing.”
“I hate you!”
Angry and ashamed, she turned her back on the ghost. Who did she hate? No, not Jos Manxman. She hated the thing that clothed itself in her most cherished memories and told her to go back, return, rejoin, forever telling her she was wrong. Whatever it was – conscience, training, an ingrained way of thinking – she hated it because she had the horrible feeling it might be right.
She fiddled with the raft’s controls, for a long time just staring at the instruments, working the control stick back and forth, left and right, jabbing at the Power On sensor again and again. The low hum of the engine, a small gravity drive, was meditative in a way, soothing.
The canopy control was found by accident. Tapping her fingers idly on the console the cover above her segmented into five wedges and slam-merged into each other clackclackclackclackclack.
Her stuff was gathered off the beach and brought on board: rations, canteen, medikit, bra, laser, the other iron spike, her still-damp gloves, helmet and stretched out backpack, the still-damp and brooding Lazarus …
Something was missing.
She didn’t know what, just that something that should’ve been there wasn’t.
Looking again at her possessions heaped on the sand she realized she’d lost the molecular scalpel.
She sat back on her haunches feeling slightly dazed, trying to remember.
The last time she had it was as she pushed its blade up behind her left ear, ready to remove the locator chip implanted there. Then Jos appeared as a hideous apparition at the porthole. After that … she couldn’t recall.
I must’ve left it in the cabin. And yet I went in there one last time specifically to check for anything I overlooked but saw it nowhere … or I didn’t want to see it?
The locator chip was still in her head. She raised a hand to the place behind her ear and stared out to sea, thinking about her own thinking, shocked at how treacherous the subconscious could be. There was no way the chip could be safely extracted using anything from the standard medikit – certainly a deliberate circumstance.
“Where did the molecular scalpel come from?” Jos had said all those days ago. “A molecular scalpel isn’t part of a first aid kit. It’s only found in operating theatres and ambo-shuttle medical lockers.”
True. So where had the scalpel come from? There was a lot of missing time aboard the shuttle when she could have gone to its medical locker.
A memory flickered out of the darkness. She was yelling at George McClusky moments before the cockpit tilted up and the shuttle began to sink. They’d come in almost horizontally, skipping across the surface before jarring heavily into the waves. But what happened between then and pushing out the escape hatch, floating to the surface?
Though her memories after the explosion of the missile were fractured, in each a vision of herself in the cockpit strapped into the jump-seat: the hiss of escaping air; pain in her body and in her head; George’s calm, steady instructions guiding her with the controls, how to bring the shuttle on course, how to effect re-entry … at least she thought he’d been guiding her. Had that really happened? Or had it been dream and delirium?
How dark it is, George, on your side of the cockpit.
She remembered thinking that at some point, but exactly when – and exactly what she meant by it – she didn’t know.
She pushed the raft down the beach and jumped aboard as it wobbled into the water.
No one’s going to find me, locator chip or not.
A light, derisive giggle trickled about the inside of the raft.
“No one’s going to find me,” Cy repeated aloud. “No one!”
Her left palm was a mass of blue-green which might’ve been mistaken for a fungal infection had if not also sparkled and glimmered like the sun on waves.
Opening up the raft’s drive Cy headed out to sea.
For some time after leaving sight of land she watched ahead through a patch of canopy cleared to transparency. The western horizon, murky with returning cloud, tilting rhythmically to right to left to right to left … Watching it had such a hypnotic effect, added to the steady hum of the drive. Peaceful and relaxing.
Not so peaceful and relaxing last time she’d been aboard this raft, she recalled. Tossed about by storm waves while lying in her own waste and vomit, being stared at by the dead. Then an unknown time later realizing in her foggy way that the raft had grounded and that all was still. Crawling out and just walking away, clinging to the memory of being told of the survival cairns and the safety they promised. Basic training, of course. But perhaps they’d also been George McClusky’s last words. Before the cockpit flooded. Before the sea closed over him.
Why didn’t he get out? Why didn’t he float up with me?
Through the forward transparency she watched the grey sea and sky tilt and tilt.
This is how it must’ve been in the old days. Tsushima, Coral Sea, Trafalgar, Leyte Gulf, Jutland …
In psycho-simulation she’d thrice played Jutland – a monumental collision of First World War ocean-going fleets – and had died in every one: the first two times uselessly, the third time while ramming the battleship Iron Duke with her little destroyer in a glorious night action. The reality, she knew, couldn’t have been much different than her own virtual experiences: the grittiness of coal smoke, the acrid smell of cordite, the concussion of the guns roaring in mad rhythm, the pitch and roll of the churning North Sea, the shock of metal tearing into metal as her ship ripped a huge hole into Iron Duke, sinking her down. Except in reality the dead stay dead.
Cy glanced up, seeing Jos’s face imaged in the canopy roof. “Are you still here?”
“No, I died saving you in the asteroid belt.”
“You may have acted too quickly.”
“You were hit and in trouble. I didn’t hesitate.”
“Even with my injury and the scouter smashed, I got out of the meteor stream. I got out and found the ambo-shuttle. They made me the exec of a frigate for that.”
“And this is what you’re running from? Cy, you don’t believe in what you’re doing. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
“You’re not part of me. You’re part of them.”
“I am a part of you – a large part. The part that’s urging you to run is so small it doesn’t know what it’s doing. It’s all just blind instinct.”
“What’s your point?”
“Where would we be if we all just ran away?”
“So the universe owes you, does it?”
“Yes. The universe owes me.”
“No, Cy. You do. You owe more than you realize.”
Jos’s image on the canopy roof flickered and disappeared.
As always, these arguments left Cy feeling depressed, and for a long time she stared unseeing at the sea ahead. She thought of Jos – the real Jos she loved – and found her memories sweet and untainted.
She fell to wondering what her fellow Gartinos were doing now. Some were serving in frigates like herself — like she had, she quickly corrected herself. Some had failed but were nevertheless still in the Corps in other capacities. A few were dead or medically discharged. A few, she suspected, had gone mad and deserted, just as she was doing. Or rather, she corrected herself again, they’d come to their senses and deserted.
No, they’re not mad, I’m not mad. The madness is out there. All shining sanity in here, just me and the ghosts …
She thought of home and family, her father and brothers, thoughts that brought only a stab of pain. She thought of her other family aboard Utopia Plain: Captain Brown who, she was sure, was unnerved by her uncanny ability at destruction; Doctor Ben Norsk, the only Earthie in the crew and the closest thing in her life to a grandfather; Lieutenant Frank Peters, her auxiliary at fire control, who she liked because he hated the Gloops as much as she did. These and the rest of Utopia Plain’s crew she recalled to mind, and was surprised to feel that in some way that she was letting them down.
She kicked back and lay on the floor of the raft, hands pillowing her head. She recited her song again about the ‘Mars navy’ then pondered on another piece by those 19th century musical scribblers, Gilbert & Someone-or-Other that her culture instructor Ms Xerri had said was a common target for parody. Within half an hour she was singing in an off-key contralto:
“I am the very model of a genetics experiment
I jump through hoops and fight the Gloops
wherever it is that I am sent
Splintered genes and magic beans
and just a little pot of clay
Make up my murky origins from reconstructed DNA
Q&A? Why’m I gay?
“I was born upon a spuddy little rocky Martian moon
Against the ails of human kind
my genes have made me quite immune
This is so, I even know
the number of my birthing batch
Before I was inserted in my mother
so that I could hatch
“I’m good at gunnery and navigation astronomical
And I am sure if not for war
I’d find it very comical
I’m fighting for our ascent
and whatever else the hell they meant
I am the very model of a genetics experiment.”
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gerch stories.
When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Marguerite is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to live with her true love in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a commercial solicitor, editing Cast of Wonders, or helping behind the scenes as COO of Escape Artists, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.