Authors: Tobias S. Buckell
“Audley’s infected with whatever they were.” Pepper pointed at the clanging doors.
“What do we do?”
“The captain wants us to kill him, remove the threat.”
Gerald raised his hands and stepped between Pepper and Audley. “No, no no no. We can’t do that.”
Pepper lowered the chair leg. “And why would that be?”
“Listen, I didn’t drag myself out of a hell zone of League war to end up here getting blood on my hands again.” Gerald looked earnestly at Pepper. “I can’t do this anymore, I have to sleep with myself at night.”
“You’re not doing it, I am.”
“But I will have stood by. We don’t know what these people are infected with. Or what the League may have done to them. They might be able to be cured. This might be a temporary state.” Gerald refused to budge. “We need medical attention, not triage on a trigger finger.”
One of the women stepped next to Gerald. “Gerald has a point. We can’t just start killing each other left and right, we’re in the room, we’re safe, and he’s tied down.”
Pepper raised his hands. “I won’t kill him.” For now.
He walked back over to his chair near the bar, doing his best to ignore the sounds of the former crew members throwing themselves at the door.
The steady thumping now made some of the passengers flinch.
Someone on the far end of the room stumbled and fainted. Their head slapped a table on the way down. Pepper trotted over, trench coat billowing out behind him.
“Step aside.” He squatted by the passed-out man. He was running a fever.
Pepper peeled back a set of bandages wrapped around the man’s calf and looked at the human bite marks. He tapped the bracelet. Canden looked up at him from it.
“Is it done?” Her voice quavered.
“When the first diplomat went nuts, did he bite any passengers nearby?”
“Yes. Tomathy, I think the name was, and a couple others.”
“That was about four hours ago, right?”
Pepper nodded. “It’s not just the diplomats and your crew. It’s spreading: one of the passengers just dropped.”
Canden stared at him. “Are you . . . absolutely sure?”
“Same fever, bite marks on his calf. I think it’s transmitted in the blood. That’s why the biting.”
After a long pause Canden raised her forearm up and unwrapped the ban dage on it.
Pepper stared at the deep bite mark on it. “Although, I could be wrong.”
Canden’s picture flickered off. Audio only, she didn’t want to look at him. “We’ll find out when Grenada finds Marsden. He got bitten as well. Isolate the sick passengers. I need to think.”
Isolate them? Pepper didn’t want to create a miniature revolt. But he was keeping track of everyone who looked sick or tired.
Another passenger dropped to her knees and then fell forward onto her face. A woman in a short trousers and a fluffed-out silvery shirt. The man next to her dropped to his knees. “Agnes!”
As Pepper stood up a fourth person fell over.
Gerald looked over at him. He held up all five fingers. Five infected, including Audley.
“What the hell is it?” Gerald hissed as Pepper helped drag one of the comatose passengers over near Audley.
“They zombies,” one of the other passengers said. “Just like in the stories. Shuffling around and biting you and spreading.”
Gerald looked at Pepper, who couldn’t disagree. Zombies it was. “Zombies.”
“The League must have found something useful to use against us.” Pepper looked around for more curtains to use as restraints. “It looks like an infection. These passengers should have been arriving planetside according to your original schedule. They wanted a larger population.” Had the
not stopped for Pepper, going well out of its way and adding time onto its journey, it would have been docked in an orbital habitat somewhere over Chilo at this point. “The ship should have been docked already.”
The bad news: these passengers wouldn’t be locked in a room with infected people if it weren’t for Pepper.
But if it weren’t for Pepper, this would have been unleashed on a much larger group of people. Small consolation, true, but at least it was something.
“We should kill the five of them now,” Gerald said. “Before they try and infect us.” Pepper ripped down another huge swathe of decorative curtain, golden sheets with red ace-of-spade markings.
“Hell no,” someone in the crowd shouted. “These are friends, family. We’re not murderers.”
“Quit arguing,” Pepper hissed as he tore long strips off, “and tie them all down.”
Protesting was half-hearted as Gerald did so, and Pepper pinged the captain. “How long before we make Chilo?”
Canden responded with just tinny audio from the bracelet. “I’m speeding us up. We’ll transit the wormhole in ten hours. Then I get the
into orbit and send out distress signals.”
“You aren’t doing that now?” Pepper snapped.
“Long range comms all down, I can use lasers, but I need line of sight with something besides wormhole buoys, they don’t pass that on. We going to have to be in Chilo orbit to talk to anyone.”
“The infected crew did that sabotage, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” Canden said. “I think they smarter than they look.”
Pepper glanced over at the doors. “That’s a problem.” He turned the bracelet off.
When it was just a mindless infection that altered their behavior they faced, that was one problem. But Pepper wouldn’t sit in a locked room waiting for an outside threat to slowly gain control of the ship. If some sort of intelligence was involved he wanted the freedom to move and pick his fights.
The sound of tearing cloth filled his ears. Pepper turned and watched Audly rip free of his restraints. He groaned, and the raspy sound was quickly picked up and echoed by the other infected. Audley’s thighs bunched, gathering strength for a leap right at Pepper.
Before anyone could even object, Pepper closed the distance between them, whipped out the metal leg from under his coat, and drove it deep into Audley’s chest.
Audley paused. Then he pushed forward, ichor dripping from around the wound. He stared at Pepper, slowly reaching to try and grab him.
Pepper yanked the leg free, batted Audley’s hands aside, and stabbed the man in the stomach.
Audley didn’t appear fazed. So Pepper pulled the improvised weapon out again, and speared the man in the eye socket with a sickening crack and pop.
Pepper finished the job with two more quick jabs to the face as people nearby screamed.
Pepper pushed skull fragments aside, frowning at the black bile that trickled out toward the floor instead of blood. A rotten smell filled the air.
“Oh God,” Gerald said.
Pepper turned to a man with a well-trimmed mustache and short hair with his hands and feet tied up.
“Oh no, oh no,” the woman next to him moaned. “Oh please no.”
Passengers intervened. They forced their way in front of Pepper and tried to lock their arms. He understood. This was murder. Who wanted to kill another human being?
It was a hard task, even for those trained to do it. And here were regular people, just travelers, in a wildly unfortunate situation.
Pepper threw them aside and brained the passenger while ignoring the screams around him.
When that was done, he turned toward the next of the infected, but the passengers had formed a ring around the three remaining victims. They made a colorful wall of determined people, unwilling to allow what he wanted next.
Behind them the three infected moaned, full into their strange transformations. Their shirts ripped in the back as their shoulders grew the strange fans out of the flesh on their shoulders.
“We can’t let you do this.” The passengers had linked arms. They looked serious.
Pepper shook his head. “This is suicide. They’re trying to harm us.”
“You can’t kill them,” Gerald said. “Neither you nor the captain can kill them. We’ll keep them contained until we get to Chilo, and then we’ll get help.”
Pepper took a deep breath, planning his route, as all three infected stood up. With feet and hands tied they barely managed to stumble forward, but the first two fell and bit the ankles of the nearest passengers.
The ring realized what had happened. Passengers screamed and stomped back, the group’s unity dissolving as it realized the threat really came from behind.
Pepper shoved his way through to the third infected man. This one stumbled on his way toward the nearest door.
As he reached out to undog it Pepper smacked the back of the passenger’s head with the metal leg. The impact splattered brain against the steel doors.
Pepper turned around. Even though there was no tapping on this door, he’d bet anything a large number of the zombified crew lurked on the other side.
Passengers had subdued the other two, taking them down and hog-tying them again. But not without numerous bites and scratches. Pepper walked across the room in the opposite direction, stopping only to briefly wipe his metal chair leg clean on a piece of drapery left lying on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Captain Canden’s voice asked via the bracelet as Pepper continued. Apparently it wasn’t just Grenada keeping tabs on him via the device. He’d gotten too close to the door for too long for her comfort.
“Going away.” Pepper stopped in front of the door and put his ear to it, straining hard to listen for any scuffling through the door.
“You can’t leave them here.”
“The hell I can.” Pepper couldn’t hear anything.
Gerald spotted him and ran over. Good, someone needed to redog after Pepper stepped outside.
“What are you hoping to do?”
“Captain, they’re starting to really mess with the ship; it’s only a matter of time before you become one of them as well. And you’re in the damn cockpit. I’m not going to sit in a room and wait to die. Not like that.”
“Damnit, we need to bring those passengers in safely!”
“I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario anymore. Five or six more have been bitten and the passengers are reluctant to start killing each other off. And I can’t blame them.”
He threw the metal leg at Gerald, who looked down at it. “What do I do with this?”
“I’m stepping out,” Pepper said. “Going to see what I can do outside there. You want to come?”
Gerald shook his head. “Safer here.”
Pepper choose not to disagree. “Captain’s listening in. Gerald, tie up anyone with cuts and scrapes. Kill everyone with cuts and scrapes and infection, and some might live.”
“I know.” Gerald looked down at his own bites.
“Good luck.” Pepper turned his back on the man.
Pepper spun the lock and threw the door open to an empty corridor.
“Pepper, don’t do this,” Canden said. “I order you. You need to stay in that room. If you do what has to be done, they might live.”
Gerald shut the door behind him.
“Too late,” he whispered to Canden.
Grenada stepped out of the shadows near the end of the corridor with a gun aimed at Pepper, face and arms streaked with blood.
renada kept her sidearm trained on him. “She think you a threat, Pepper.”
“You dangerous, man: a frigging wild card all up in a fucked-up situation.”
“And what do
think I am?” Pepper stepped forward.
“Don’t matter what I think.” She flicked the safety off. “But you have to get back in.”
Grenada looked tired. “Captain orders.”
Pepper snapped forward, left hand up and reaching for the gun as she fired three times. She was just as quick as he was. Pepper felt each bullet bite: one through the hand, another his side, and the third dead into his thigh.
He slammed into her and took the gun. He hit her forehead with the butt hard enough to daze her and leave a bloodied gash. A second time to knock her out as they both slumped to the grating.
Pepper leaned his back against the wall as he felt for Grenada’s pulse and pulled her onto his lap.
His body burned as its hyper-engineered defenses sprang into action and accelerated healing began.
“You kill her?” Canden asked.
Something clanged down at the end of the long corridor. Pepper took a long, gasping breath. He was too weak. The bullets had taken their toll, and even with downtime he had risked a lot to assume Grenada wouldn’t take a kill shot in that split-second attack. She’d tried to disable him first.
“The problem is that she idolizes you, you know?” Canden said via the bracelet. “And in the end, she didn’t aim true, right? A lesson to we all.”
“You manipulate people when all you had to do was ask nicely.” Pepper squinted. Something definitely lurked in the shadows out there. A shabbily dressed crewman lurched his way toward them. Step by step.
“I doing what I got to to bring those people back. If you get infected, you very dangerous, and uncontained. I have me a duty here.”
“I’ll blow my own brains out before I fall to the infection,” Pepper promised as he looked Grenada’s gun over. “And I doubt it will come to that.”
“I can’t be taking that risk.”
“I know. I wouldn’t take it if I were you, either.”
Another shambling figure. The two infected crewmen picked up speed. They looked like marionette dolls, their disjointed puppetlike motion the result of some lost brain function.
Lurch, shuffle, lurch, shuffle.
The shadows slipped over them, and then the deck lighting revealed ashen faces and vacant eyes. They walked in sync as they inched closer. The strange growths on their shoulders twitched and caressed each other. Did they pass on information?
Pepper crushed the bracelet in his left fist and cut off the start of Canden’s next sentence. The two zombies moved closer, and Pepper raised the gun.
They both stopped.
“Ah. So you know what this is?”
They stared at him, swaying in sync. Waiting. Pepper pulled the trigger twice.
As he’d discovered inside, they still used the brain. Destroy it and the zombie stopped. Even these refashioned things that were once human needed a CPU. Take that away and they dropped.