Authors: Tobias S. Buckell
They didn’t disagree, but looked down at their drinks. “Scorched by a sun,” Milton said. “Never seen nothing like it.”
“Makes the League sound rational.” Pepper licked his fingers.
They all stared at him. “That’s almost traitorous.”
“Thinking out loud is traitorous now?” Pepper shrugged. “Say what you will, if there is something out there more dangerous than the Satraps were out there, something that can scour a planet clean, then you have to wonder if humans arguing with humans makes any sense. We may have shut down the wormhole leading out into the rest of the galaxy downstream of New Anegada, but don’t forget there are still other places things can lurk.”
That made them uncomfortable. And they had nothing more to offer Pepper.
“So we give up all we fight for. Give up sovereignty and freedom to the League because some boogeymen might be out there?”
“I never said that,” Pepper said. “But if either the League or New Anegada starts fighting each other, all we do is weaken the both for whatever comes next. So someone better be committed to taking that all the way through if they start it up.”
With that he got up, aiming toward some comfortable couches on the far side of the highly arched and overdecorated space. He stopped only in front of a pair of chairs. The fronts were fastened under the tables, but the backs had nice metal legs. He stopped to bend one until it snapped off, using his coat to cover the quick action.
He lay down on the couch and looked up at the ceiling. Nothing he could crawl through. Too bad.
He closed his eyes, drifting off inside himself to run through the notes he’d give when debriefed about the trip through the DMZ.
He dozed for the next five hours, listening to people around him get drunker and more annoyed until the captain notified the room via hidden speakers that all the diplomats needed to head for the rear kitchen doors. The crew waited for them there. Her disembodied voice sounded tired.
An interesting development. Pepper listened to them crowd the door, muttering and eager to give the captain a piece of their mind about being cooped up against their will. The tiny bracelet Grenada had given him buzzed. Her face appeared on the gold surface. “The crew and them diplomat been check over by the League. Medical safety, they said.”
“So the captain is isolating anyone who had direct contact with the League?”
“Yeah. Getting those with contact out the room, making sure you all safe.”
She left, leaving Pepper alone with his thoughts.
Pepper grabbed the man by the throat before he could stop himself. “Wake me up from a distance, don’t ever get that close again.” He let go, put the metal chair leg back in his coat, and blinked sleep from his eyes. Another nice eight hours of sleep, hopefully the last long stretch he needed. He should be caught up now. “Who are you?”
People sprawled around the great room on chairs and couches, many even using the floor and pillows.
The man, a silk suit–wearing refugee who could afford the price of a ride to New Anegada out of the League territories, coughed and staggered backward. “Gerald. My name’s Gerald. Come here.”
They threaded through clumps of passengers standing around Audley, who lay on a couch near one of the doors. The man’s colorful robe dripped sweat and he tossed and turned in the grip of a deep fever.
“He’s boiling up.” Pepper’s eyes gauged Audley’s temperature. “He’ll
be brain dead within the hour at this rate.” The wet cloth on Audley’s forehead was a useless gesture.
“He needs help. The crew isn’t answering. One of them was banging on the door, but he’s gone now. Captain isn’t saying anything to us either.”
Everyone watched him. No doubt word had spread that he was a mongoose-man, at least. The diplomats must have blathered something to someone before they left.
Pepper stalked over to the nearest door and listened. The crew standing guard had left, but he could faintly hear what sounded like scratching on the other side. “Why is Audley here, didn’t they all leave?”
Gerald smiled. “He was drunk out of his mind. Hiding underneath the bar, he must have been sampling all the time.”
Pepper moved across the circular wall to the next door. The scratching got louder. He tapped the bracelet, but Grenada didn’t reply to the request for a chat.
“Shame the door don’t have no window,” Gerald said.
The repetitive and faint scratching paused, then continued, but with more purpose now. Pepper looked back at Gerald. “There’s only one problem with your theory about Audley being drunk.”
Maybe he and Grenada had been wrong earlier. Maybe the League had gotten some infection, a disease, on the ship. One that they wanted to go critical on some sort of delay. Maybe one that they’d hoped would escape out into a larger population when the crew docked.
“And that is?”
Pepper stalked over to the bar. He opened the area where Audley supposedly hid. “You see any bottles in here?”
Gerald shook his head. “He didn’t drink?”
“No.” Pepper slouched on a chair nearby. “He was a devout Muslim. His entire ship and family. He wouldn’t have been drinking under that bar, not from what I remember about him. But hiding from the captain, that he may well have been doing.”
“Hiding from the captain?” Gerald looked shocked.
“Yes.” Pepper got up and approached the bar.
“I don’t know. General principle? Or maybe he suspected that he was already infected and scared that she might throw him out the airlock. I’m not sure.”
“What are you doing?”
“Making a drink. I’m not devout.” Tongs floated inside a bucket of ice water, the cubes long since melted. Pepper found a clean shot glass and poured a nice whiskey.
“In the middle of all this?”
“Unless you can open one of those doors, there’s nothing we can do.” Pepper knocked back the shot and cleared his throat. “Isn’t that correct, Captain Canden?”
No reply. Pepper spread his arms.
The scratching stopped. A latch outside clanked. The wheel at the center of the door slowly spun, catching the light with its well-polished steel.
Gerald looked over. “Excellent. Now maybe we’ll get answers.”
People surged toward the door. Pepper watched Gerald force his way to the front as the door swung open. Milton, ashy-faced, eyes bugged out, staggered through the door with a moan. Several crewmen followed behind him. Large fans of flesh, translucent and filled with pulsing dark blood, poked up out of his shoulders.
Milton’s eye sockets looked thicker, Pepper thought, as he watched the shoulder fans twitch, constantly moving about, occasionally reaching backward to touch the crew member behind him.
Milton grabbed Gerald and bit his neck. Blood instantly stained Gerald’s collar.
“Shut the door!” Pepper leaped over the bar as Gerald screamed and kicked Milton back. Another crew member stumbled through the door and bit one of the passengers. Then it dragged another passenger out past the door into the corridor.
Pepper shoved the panicked and shouting people aside. “Shut the god-damned door. Don’t let any more in!”
A crewman looked at Pepper. Yellow, unoxygenated eyes fixed on him. Pepper could see more crew outside, stumbling quickly forward toward the doorway. All had strange growths on their shoulders. They moved together like fronds in the wind.
Pepper kicked the man back out into the corridor. Ribs cracked from the impact and the man’s head bounced hard on the grating. He didn’t seem dazed. He sat up slowly and started crawling back toward them.
Gerald punched and kicked Milton back to the doorway. He screamed and cursed at the diplomat, who bit Gerald on the forearm. Pepper swiveled and kicked Milton out with one booted foot and then shut the door. He dogged it shut.
Fists hammered on the outside as Pepper turned to face the crowd, keeping a hand on the wheel as it twitched. “I vote we lock doors from the inside.”
No one disagreed.
Pepper inserted the chair leg in the wheel, pushing it hard against the frame to prevent the wheel from being spun and opened.
As passengers got Gerald over to a couch, covering his bite wounds with a hastily donated jacket, Pepper walked around the chairs. He broke off legs and used them to secure the five doors.
“What the fuck just happened?” Gerald shouted. “That was Milton.”
“I don’t know.” Pepper finished his circuit of the room. He walked back with a spare chair leg and pointed it at Audley. “But I’ll bet he’s going to be next to freak out and start biting people like they just did. He was part of that group that left this ship to talk to the League. At the very least, you need to tie him up very, very securely.”
“Yeah.” Gerald wiped blood off his chin. “Very securely.”
renada pinged after a long hour of everyone sitting and staring at Audley. “Don’t let anyone through the doors. We got a problem with people . . . they infected. We ain’t sure what with. They biting others.”
Pepper looked down at the bracelet and Grenada’s small face on its screen. “You’re a bit late.” And why didn’t Canden and Grenada know exactly what was going on? The captain could see everything in the ship.
Unless she’d lost that capability.
“But everyone okay?” Grenada asked.
“Passenger named Gerald got bit. Everyone else is okay. You need to tell the captain to get her ship together and get Audley out of here. I’m not sure who got exposed and when.”
“Pepper, here the captain.” Grenada’s face wavered, and then Canden’s appeared. Blood streaked her cheeks.
“You got attacked?” Pepper asked.
“Anyone who got one of the League’s damn ‘medical exams’ going crazy,” Canden said. “The crew, they stormed the bridge. Tried to kill us. Grenada took care of it, secured the cockpit. Which means you right about Audley, he was the last of the diplomats.”
“But what the hell is happening to them?” Pepper unstrapped the bracelet and held it in the palm of his hand.
“I don’t know. I got two of the diplomats in sick bay, so I have some remote monitoring. But my doctor dead now, so this stuff don’t mean shit to me. Before he died, he did do a brain scan on one of the infected: they ain’t themselves. Their brain function strip out, as good as dead. He was about to say more, but three infected crew storm the bridge and started to bite everyone up. I think they was aiming for me and Grenada in particular. They tried to kill us, but bite the others. They did a good job.”
“They were coordinated?”
“Grenada thinks so. She say you seen something like this before?”
“Satraps can take control of your mind via lamina. Tunneling through
neural implants to gain motor control.” Some eerie shit, seeing hordes of human beings moving and acting as one, just puppets of some malevolent intelligence. But there was no Satrap here.
“This looks similar, except one thing,” Canden said.
“Not all crew use lamina. Why use something that the League could manipulate when I travel out past the DMZ?”
“Well.” That torpedoed that.
“I have to assume they a threat. Whatever happening to them, I don’t know. But when they get infected, they trying to kill me. I have a locked door, I won’t be opening it.”
“Smart, we need you to keep control of the ship.”
“So we have a problem.” Canden wiped blood off her face with a rag. “Grenada thinks Audley’s hiding in the great room there, with the other passengers.”
“We found him, he’s strapped down on one of the couches.” They’d used decorative curtains and ripped them into strips for restraints.
Canden sighed. “Then we need a favor.”
Pepper didn’t give her any indication he knew what came next.
“I need you to kill Audley,” she continued. “Remove the threat to the other passengers. Pepper, I will not come into dock with them all dead, understand me? We hold our shit together for twenty more hours and we in orbit around Chilo. At Chilo, we can call in the mongoose-men, we can talk to Raga central. We home free in twenty. So you’ll damn well protect those people in there with you.”
“And what the hell am I supposed to kill Audley with? You took all my weapons.”
“You have no idea how much I regret that right now,” Canden said. “But we all play what we get dealt, understand? I was just piloting my ship, heading upstream and downstream, playing out my profits, moving people, minding my own business. But I don’t have that luxury anymore, do I?”
Pepper nodded. “I’ll take care of it, Captain.”
She looked relieved, and yet sick to have said the words. She’d hoped, no doubt, that he would suggest that solution.
But any higgler ship captain would have seen enough of the worlds to keep their composure for now. Particularly if she ever got caught in any hot spots out among the Forty-Eight worlds where the League was still pacifying alien populations, and the aliens were fighting back. Canden was holding up okay. And now she had given him the nod to do what needed to be done.
Grenada appeared again as Pepper looked over at one of the doors. Scratching had turned to banging. On two of the doors now. “I’m going to leave the cockpit now,” she said. “Fight my way out the door.”
“Taking care of the crew?”
She nodded, a tiny motion on the bracelet, and then her face faded away.
A grim task, that, Pepper thought. Killing all your friends, the people you were supposed to protect.
Gerald had his arm up in a sling and bound with the sleeves of some shirts donated by others. He’d watched Pepper from a distance. “What’s going on? Is the captain okay?”
“Doing okay.” Pepper walked toward Audley. “Let’s take a look at him.”
Audley strained at the braided curtains. His eyes had faded to the same unoxygenated yellow. His skin looked dusty.
When he spotted Pepper his neck muscles strained and he groaned, trying to reach for him.
Pepper used a chair leg to poke at Audley’s shoulders and rip the top of his robe away. People muttered when they saw the fleshy growth by the ridge of the diplomat’s shoulders.
“What is that?” Gerald looked horrified. “That growth.”
“I don’t know. But it does tell us one thing.”