In Apprehension How Like a God
I watched the jet black ball roll across the room under its own power. Easy, I thought, just a motorised weight held off-centre inside the casing. Then it reached a wall and started to roll vertically up it to join a dozen or more rolling across the barrel vaulted ceiling twenty metres above. I had seen my share of dead bodies before, but none in a place like this.
The Academy’s visitors’ centre combined the bustle of an airport departure lounge with the cavernous silence of a library. People moved to and fro between the transport terminus and the fortified gates that led into the campus. Most were dressed in the colour-coded robes of Academy staff but a few, like me, wore western suits or traditional Ugandan dashiki. And through and above the crowd rolled the black spheres, the æthernet nodes.
One of the beach ball sized spheres rolled up to me. It was completely featureless: a huge black pearl. It may have slid rather than rolled for all the visible cues it gave to its motion. My æthernet feed told me it was a Class III node: a sub-sentient, chattel-class intelligence designated Stromboli. A table of figures specifying size, weight, role and location (both physical and metaphorical within the organisational structure of the Academy) scrolled down my vision and I slapped more data filters in place leaving only its name hovering in dull red letters above it.
It stopped a respectful distance away and I heard its voice through my feed.
Mister Detective Conroy, welcome, it sent.
I spoke aloud and hoped the thing had auditory pickups of some kind on its flawless surface.
"Just, Detective, will do fine," I said, disturbing the silence and drawing disapproving looks from nearby Academy staff.
Yes. Detective designation not name. Apologies.
"No need to apologise. Just show me the customer."
Customer? Ah yes, customer... client requiring services of a homicide detective. Idiom. Slang. Jargon subsection, humour: corpse, body, cadaver, stiff. This way please...
And the Lion Said Shibboleth
“How can you steal from a species that has no concept of possessions?” I asked. The music in the bar was overpowering, but I was sure I’d heard her correctly.
My sister leaned over and slapped me on the shoulder. It had been nearly ten years since I had seen another child of the High Frontier and over twelve since I had seen a sister, although I had never met this one.
“See! I told you he’d get it,” she said addressing the rest of the table. “It’s hardly even a crime. Maybe we should just shuttle over and ask for it.”
“Great idea,” I said. “The Chirikti will either ignore you completely or they’ll swarm you and use your remains for reaction mass. But I guess being spat out the back of a Chirikti starship one ion at a time is one way of seeing the galaxy.”
There was an uncomfortable shuffling around the table. It seemed my sister had made a big point of the Chirikti’s lack of individuality, including an absence of attachment to personal possessions, but she had neglected to mention the rest of the package. If it came to a fight, a Chirikti mapped onto the human behaviour spectrum somewhere between selfless bravery and mindless savagery.
Mina had come to the meeting with two companions: Reason Jefferson Jura, a post-op neuter tank who must have massed close to a quarter of a ton and her pilot, Albright Smith. The back of Smith’s head was distended above the nape of his neck in an encephalitic bulge that probably housed some wet-wired neural upgrade. By the way I could feel his stare boring through to the back of my skull I was guessing falcon, definitely a raptor of some kind anyway.
My sister seemed unfazed. “That,” she said, “--is where you come in.”
The call had come out of the black, but how could I refuse a meeting with a sibling? We were so widely scattered these days, it was rare to even read about another child of the High Frontier let alone meet one. Despite our similar genetic stamp we had shown a remarkable capacity for diversity. Perhaps our father had been a little too exact in his imitation. As well as his dark good looks, charisma and expansive if somewhat bookish intelligence, he had also gifted us with his distrust of authority and his insufferable self-confidence. Combine that with the way we were fragmented and raised in separate foster groups and you had a pretty good recipe for a Diaspora.
Mina had found me at Lansky’s Folly. The station was a waypoint on the shipping routes of a dozen civilisations. It saw more different species in a month than any Terran embassy saw in a local year and there was always work for xeno-linguists like myself. However, it could be a disorientating place to get around. The transient and ever-shifting population also gave it a fluid social structure and some interesting politics. It was not an easy place to call home.
Mina leaned back in her chair and gestured to the bar for another round of drinks as if she owned the place. I knew that the bar didn’t have table service, but the drinks came anyway.
The bar we had agreed to meet in was on the 3.9 radian spoke, about 1.1g down. This particular spoke formed the border between the oxygen breathers and the quarter-rim that housed the nitrogen-phosphorous crowd and the bar’s patrons were an eclectic mix.
The bar’s motto, “Space is the hole into which we all fall,” was projected above the bar in languages from Terran to Trux to Gilbrashi as well as the stultifyingly logical, mathematically based Galactic Standard (cosmos ≡ -ve delta-z communal locus <accidental>). There was no need for it to be displayed in Chirikti. For one, the language had no written component, other than the pin-yin we xeno-linguists applied to it and also the Chirikti themselves were far too alien to ever do anything as normal as spend a night in a bar.
“You know, you’re a difficult man to find,” Mina said. “What kind of a name is Morgan Tenetto anyway?”
“It attracts less attention that John Turnbull Junior,” I replied.
Smith, the wet-wired pilot, let out a low whistle. Even the tank sat up a little straighter, the seat creaked under its weight.
“You’re a John?” Mina said. “I should have guessed: new hair, new chin. What’s the going rate for mentoplasty these days?”
“Affordable, on a xeno-linguist’s salary. Less so on a surviving dependants’ pension,” I said, self-consciously rubbing fingers along grafted bone...
This Other Earth
I was one of the first people on Earth to have seen a mud wraith, but that didn't make them any easier to kill.
"Did you see which way it went?" Clem hissed through gritted teeth as he lay on his belly in the mud next to me.
Fool! Losing the beast was one thing, but even a child knew not to make a sound when there was a wraith around.
I rolled away, avoiding the footsteps that would let the wraith track my speed and direction. Behind me Clem's hissing became more insistent.
"Williams, Williams... where the hell are you going?"
I switched to a low crawl, half-swimming through the bog, letting the brown, peaty water soak my clothes. Winters had been getting steadily colder since the infestation and a crust of ice lay over the deeper pools of standing water. I relaxed my muscles against the urge to shiver and sank deeper into the bog. It was too late in the season to worry about helix worms, but a few minutes of this and hypothermia was a real possibility.
I could hear Clem trying to follow. Even without the wraith's preternatural senses I could tell Clem was going the wrong way: disorientated, circling, sticking to the dry ground and crushing through the heather, cursing all the while. If I could tell that much then the wraith would certainly be able to home in on Clem. That was if it didn't already have different prey in its sights. The thought made my hands clench around the hilt of my makeshift sword and brought back the shivers. The wraith could be stalking Clem, or it could have left the area, or it could be right under me, sensory stalks and breathing snorkels all around me, barely visible above the mud, its dorsal claw submerged centimetres from my belly in preparation for the killing blow. There would be no way of knowing until--
Clem screamed. The sound cut short by muffled, watery thrashings as he was dragged under. That was quick; he must have crawled right into it.
I clawed my way free of the sucking mud and sprinted towards the sound of Clem's weakening struggle: long diagonal bounds between the patches of soft gorse I knew indicated the firmest footing. Behind me the rest of the hunting party had heard the attack and was crashing through the heather, but they would be too late.
Suddenly I was on it. Clem was face down and thrashing, half submerged in the bog, enveloped by a segmented spider web of gnarled thorny branches: black as bog water and nailed and knuckled by obsidian spines as thick and as long as my thumbs. It looked as if a huge, skeletal, many-jointed hand had reached up through the bog and was trying to pull Clem back under.
The mud wraith.
I drew my sword and reversed the blade, raising it above my head like a giant two-handed dagger. I slammed it down through the wraith's prothorax just under the first thoracic joint and heaved on the blade, working it back and forth inside the beast’s body. It spasmed as its thoracic ganglion was severed. Its arms burst open, throwing Clem out of its embrace in an explosion of dirty water and clods of peat.
It was a big one. Even half paralysed, the remaining section of the prothorax above my first, paralysing cut was as big as a man and far stronger despite its skeletal appearance. Blind from the waist down, it thrashed in search of me: arms branching fractally off each other whipped around me like tree limbs in a storm. I hewed into the spastic, flailing creature as if I was clearing bush with a machete. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Clem sprawled and unmoving.
I dodged the more directed attacks of the upper limbs; I had to get to the forebrain before the wraith submerged again.
Pain ripped through my leg. I looked down and saw a second, smaller wraith clamped against the meat of my upper thigh, spindly arms like ebony chopsticks wrapped around my leg and mouth parts scissoring through flesh. The rear segments of its thorax were still embedded in its parent.
I drew the hunting knife from the small of my back and swept the blade down my leg, straight through the juvenile’s soft chitin and then stabbed the serrated blade deep into the parent wraith. It screeched and dropped two of its remaining arms to the knife, trying to pull it free. I saw an opening and thrust with my sword. The wraith gave one last convulsion, knocking me back with enough force to throw me to the ground and then lay still.
Clem raised himself on one elbow and vomited black water. “You bastard,” he spat through threads of mucus. “You left me for it.”
I shrugged and started to saw at the miniature severed wraith head still clamped onto the meat of my thigh. I had just about got it free when the rest of the hunting party arrived.
The mud wraiths appeared about four years ago. It had already been a bad year for crop failures and strange new diseases. There was some talk at the time of reduced fish populations, so maybe there were already other organisms in the sea chewing their way through the local fauna or some funky biochemistry in the deep ocean trenches. But it was the wraiths that first came to the attention of the public.
I was a policeman before the infestation: that was back in Crickhowell, Powys, just south of the Black Mountains.
Back then we used to get the occasional crank call about a sighting of a big cat up on the moors. We thought nothing of it. It wasn't until the local farmers started to lose livestock that we began to take any real notice. A couple of weeks later the first human was taken...
Taking the High Road
Personal Log: Lori Childs - Senior Planetary Scientist
Date: 12/04/2037 (+4 Months 7 days)
Distance From Earth: 1.19AU
They waited two weeks to tell us about the accident.
I guess they had to be sure. There was no point in making us worry unnecessarily. But it meant that when the announcement came, it seemed there was no way out: no wiggle room, no chance of a second opinion.
I was in the Deck 3 Lab when the call came through to meet in the storm shelter. Beth Young was behind me, almost back-to-back in the small compartment. She was checking the readouts for the solar array: something to do with a power drain in the aeroponics lamps. Anyway, she was looking right at the data. If there was some kind of solar storm, some unpredicted event that could force us into the storm shelter she would have seen it in the data. She just looked at me and shrugged.
I was never a very good astronaut. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mars: I have done ever since I can remember. I used to dream about walking on that red dirt, and my whole career has been about making that dream a reality.
But getting to the red planet takes a different set of skills. I never triggered any red flags that would have seen me bounced me from the mission, but neither was I comfortable in space.
We were two decks down from the storm shelter. Not far, not in a ship like the Liberty, but far enough when you’re expecting radiation or pressure alarms to start sounding any second.
Some people say they can feel the difference in gravity between decks, but I think they’re just fooling themselves. The Liberty looked like two grain silos connected by a tether five hundred metres long that was essentially one huge carbon molecule. One silo was the crew compartment, the other housed the reactor. And the whole thing was spinning through space to give us the illusion of gravity as we hurtled between Earth and Mars. At the centre of rotation was a small unmanned module that housed the communication gear and solar array mounted on gimbals so that they always pointed where they were supposed to despite our rotation. On that scale, the three metre difference between decks means next to nothing.
Commander Campbell looked like hell, as if he hadn’t slept for two nights although I had seen him at breakfast and he’d been fine then. He didn’t say much, he just played the message that had come through at the start of the morning shift.
I don’t remember much of it, just snippets like how the file was marked MC+ meaning it was for the Mission Commander’s eyes only. I remember wondering if Campbell was going to get into trouble for showing it to us. That was before I realised that rebukes from Mission Control were the last of our worries...