Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2011: The Halo Wave

The Halo Wave

by Lael Salaets

 

Fate had screwed Yarii, hard. He wanted his life back with the 107th. Even if he had to pretend, to steal, to use . . .

He stood in an airlock with his hands on his head while a hovering security drone read him his rights.

Charged with drug possession and data theft, Yarii squinted from the strobe lights.

His stomach sank from the prospect of detention, and the transfer to a federal shelter, where he’d stare at the walls waiting for a mandatory slot in a behavioral modification clinic. He’d have withdrawals there, the horrible shakes and nausea.

The lift fans from the drone’s clamshell housing hummed like an angry wasp. Yarii’s reflection warped across its camera lens, near the pulse barrel.

He glanced sidelong at the open entry hatch behind him, and debated whether to make a run for it. Though, even if he escaped back to Gaifa Space Station, more of these things would hunt him down.

The hatch sealed with a sharp hiss and the space felt tighter. “Damnit,” he said. Beads of sweat trickled down his bald scalp.

A low beep–the disembark tone–chimed from the speakers. The drone dimmed its lights and attached itself into an opening above.

Yarii blinked away the strobe afterimages. The red lamps and the cyclic hum of the engines and air scrubbers gave the airlock the impression of a visceral cavity.

The hatch before him swished open, revealing a slab of white that burned his eyes for a second. A woman leaned against the entryway, wearing a loosely zipped envirosuit. Recent military issue, battle grey, the kind grunts wore in the Fleet. No insignias or nametags.

Her chiseled features and bronze complexion told Yarii of surgical procedures worth a trooper’s annual salary. She sported a headware device, fighter pilot model, personalized with mood paint on the cap shifting in warm colors of an oil slick. Silver beads dangled from the fringe of one headphone to the other, but it didn’t look finished: completed missions, perhaps? He wasn’t sure. Her retracted visor cast a broad shadow over her eyes: camera lens pupils set in electric blue irises.

“Krid Yarii,” the woman said with a smooth, yet lofty voice, “welcome to the Runner Guild.”

Smugglers, Yarii thought, lowering his hands. No honor among them. But, then again, he’d pretty much flushed his down the toilet when he’d started using, and stole a flight simulator program.

“I’m Captain Ima of Ariel’s Edge,” she said. “And we don’t normally recruit on short notice.”

Yarii traced her gaze, at the foil pack jutting from his left breast pocket.

“Figured you were a junkie,” Ima added.

Yarii’s Sky Dye habit suppressed The Nerves, an electronic-induced panic disorder, whenever he synched with a computer.

He noticed a coil of cable at Ima’s right thigh, connecting the butt end of a phase pistol to a power cell housed in the holster. A clean weapon, designed to fry circuitry or temporarily lock voluntary muscles.

“There was no need for the setup,” he said about the elaborate drug bust. “You could’ve been straight with me. I might’ve gone along.”

Ima shook her head. “Got your bags from the hotel room.”  She fumbled with a headware device in her hands. Yarii spotted his old unit symbol: [o] he’d painted on the grey cap.

“Your arrest will be the official story,” she added. “Might as well thank me. The Orbital Guard would’ve nabbed you eventually.”  She gave his headware a once over, as though she were mildly impressed, then tossed it to him.

Yarii caught it. “So what’s the deal?”

“We’d received a distress signal from the Halo Wave, a freighter, one of ours,” she replied, “then we lost connection. I need a navigator to get me there, a co-pilot in case of an emergency.”

“Where is she?”

“Tesho’s ring.”

Yarii flexed beneath his grey fatigue trousers and black shirt. Memories flashed of the gas giant, Tesho, the debris field tangled in its ring, every vessel he’d towed out from there, and the lives he couldn’t save…

“You did a tour there,” Ima said, as though with a grudge. “Search and Rescue with the 107th.”

“That’s right,” Yarii replied, wondering how she’d gained access to his service records.

Ima’s eyes widened. “Ah, but things are different now,” she said with a smirk. “You’ve got IDS.”

“Which means I’m not much good to you,” he said, loathing the reminder of his Interface Dysfunction Syndrome that marked him a burned out vet. “You’ve got enough pull to find somebody else–“

“It was either you or a dune duster tied down with family,” Ima said.

Yarii gripped the headphones of his headware. He’d been tied down in the Fleet, the family he never had, until the IDS cut him loose as though he were a waste container.

“And it’s not like I had the time to widen my search,” Ima added, “or argue with the onboard AI. She worked a model on you, a profile based on your records. You miss that rush in the cockpit-”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t plan on heading back to Tesho anytime soon,” Yarii chuckled. “Ever been in the ring?”

Ima folded her arms.

“Know about the Gutters there?” Yarii continued. “You’d never stand a chance against pirate scum alone on their turf: it’s a tight maze of junk seven thousand kilometers wide. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have settled on hiring someone like me. But I guess you’d figured that already.”

“Got a HERF gun on the bow,” Ima snapped.

“That may not be enough. So, unless you’re offering me a cure for IDS, you can forget it.”  Yarii turned away.

“Three months ago,” Ima said, “a team of medical researchers had us smuggle them out of a Bloc R&D lab to a secure location. They specialize in neurological diseases.”

Yarii faced her. “You mean, they can fix me?”

Ima shrugged. “They’re conducting clinical trials. If you do the run, I’ll have you placed on the candidate list.”

And yet, Yarii regarded her with a critical squint. Ima was a smuggler; he couldn’t bank on her word. Besides, no clinic or tech shop could touch IDS. No cure existed. But a part of him wanted to believe her. Badly.

“Fate, huh?” Ima said with a crooked grin.

“What’s the cargo?” he asked about the Halo Wave.

“Ninety-seven passengers,” she replied. “And no, this ain’t a traffic gig.”

“Well, what then?”

“Joffans, seeking passage to Drea.”

“Great, a boatload of believers,” Yarii said.

The Faith Plague ad campaign he’d watched as a child had triggered many sleepless nights: images switching between religious symbols and acts of terrorism, mass suicides, and ethnic cleansing.

Handing believers to the feds would be an honorable thing to do, not to mention it would pay well.

“So religion isn’t legal nowadays,” Ima replied. “Neither is your habit.”

Yarii’s palms grew clammy as he stared down at his unit symbol.

“Hey,” Ima said. “You gonna do this or not?”

“And what if the docs can’t cure me?” he asked, glancing at the airlock hatch behind him.

“We may have other uses for you.“

“Just get me on the top of that candidate list,” he replied, doubt creeping into his voice.

“Fine,” she replied. “Your contract is in the headware drive. It’ll open after you boot it up. Just read and sign.”

Yarii donned his headware device, hit the power switch, and lowered the visor. A dull whine emitted from his headphones, then faded as the nerve chip implant buzzed at the base of his skull. Text shimmered down the screen into paragraph blocks. When he finished reading the contract, a sentence in bold blue capitals prompted him to acknowledge. He focused using cogniscript, a thought-recognition text rendering. <Agree>

A wall of light exploded behind his eyes. He winced and tore off his headware.

Ima laughed. “Don’t be sore, Yarii. Everybody gets one.”

“One what?” Yarii hissed.

“A memory bomb, set to decompress in the event you ever go rogue. Or if someone attempts a forced access on you in the event of capture. The software in your implant will cloud any recall you’ll have of us. And don’t bother trying to find it; you’ll end up wiping your headware drive. You even get a homing beacon as an added bonus.”

Yarii massaged his scalp, and narrowed his eyes with contempt. He figured she’d have him on a leash.

“You’ll get your payment after the run,” Ima said, caressing her pistol grip.

A spurt of adrenaline coursed through Yarii’s veins. With the onset of the Nerves, he dug into his breast pocket and produced the foil pack of Sky Dye. He freed a soft, blue cube and popped it into his mouth. The cube dissolved, releasing a licorice flavor that gave to a chalky aftertaste. There were only three left in the pack, and he wasn’t sure how long this mission would take.

Ima turned around and headed down a narrow aisle of the cabin to the cockpit on the far side. Yarii snatched his headware and followed her.

He caught a hint of cinnamon in the cool, dry air. The soles of his boots clanked atop the deck plates. He assumed Ariel’s Edge was a shuttle. Flat red piping ran along the hull, bearing the weight of strapped packs and bags. A black foam mattress pad lay above, secured with rivets between rows of flood lamps. He found his bags behind the right passenger seat.

The airlock hatch closed at his heels. He glanced over his shoulder. An anarchy symbol, loosely brushed on the hatch in violet glow paint, brightened as the lights dimmed. He wrinkled his nose at the interior, which was nothing at all like the spit and polish of his patrol cruiser back in the Fleet days.

At the pilot seats now, he stared out the cockpit window, and regarded how stark the universe was.

“Hey, you awake?” Ima asked from her seat on the right. Yarii traced the cable from a data port above Ima’s left headphone, down to the small cavity at his feet, where LEDs flickered at the onboard AI terminal.

He sat in the other pilot’s seat, fidgeting with the notion he wouldn’t be taking the helm.

“Well, get online already,” Ima said.

Yarii gave her a slow appraising glance.

“It’s not gonna shock you, all right?” she said. “I’ve installed an access code.”

And good thing too, Yarii thought uneasily. Otherwise, the onboard AI might fry his brain with an electronic countermeasure. Reluctantly, he donned his headware, inserted a spare cable into his data port, and lowered the visor. The buzz in his mind had a sudden, sharp edge. A network status bar filled across the screen.

“Since that chip implant of yours is a make the onboard system doesn’t recognize, I’ve patched in an emulator,” Ima said. “It’s not much, but at least you’ll have limited access as a guest user.”

Yarii narrowed his eyes, feeling outdated.

A blurry dove appeared on his visor. And, as it flapped its wings, the dove transformed into an angel. Pilots called them virtual guardians. Artists modeled them from those paintings on aircraft or figureheads on sailing ships in a time all but forgotten. Yarii had always wanted one made for his onboard system back in the Fleet, but it was against regulations.

The angel shifted into a frosty window. A command prompt in blue alphanumerics blinked at the upper left hand corner.

“You’d think the Guild would send reinforcements on a run like this,” he said.

“It sucks, I know, but that’s the way it is,” Ima replied.

That’s what the naval hospital had told him, in a roundabout way.

“I’m sending you full specs of the Halo Wave,” she added.

Schematics of the freighter filled the window with a grayscale wireframe model, overlaid with text. A torus, the fusion reactor, encompassed a fuselage shaped like a sleek blade. Connector rods and flexible joints held the two segments together, which allowed the ring to rotate. Enough cargo space to fit a shuttle. He briefly mused on the idea of taking the helm in something like that, but it only triggered a dull ache in his chest.

He closed the spec file, and searched for charts of Tesho’s ring. There wouldn’t be any real-time data until after they’d cleared the jump point, but there would be ambush points to watch out for. Not to mention Gutters were notorious for fabricating scrap into makeshift vessels.

A broken spatial map appeared with elliptical contour lines, multicolored points and spheres depicting celestial and manmade objects. A blinking yellow dot indicated the last known position of the Halo Wave, in the pixilated mash of the ring’s core. And there were empty gaps of data to deal with. Probes had a tendency to vanish out there.

“Shit,” he said, and focused on the yellow dot. <Enhance>

Yarii cringed from the virtual pull into the blue square, drawn around the dot. He imagined the Gutter pirates lying in wait among the spattered maze of the enhancement.

Yarii caught himself dozing; the side effect of the Sky Dye had kicked in. One cube left.

He retracted his visor. Afterimages of star charts burned like an infrared collage behind his eyelids.

“Heads up, Yarii,” Ima said, her voice snapping him awake. “I’ll show you how a shadow hop is done.”

“I know how to dock, Ima.”  Yarii gazed out the cockpit window, at a sphere the size of a small moon. Hyper Station. Corporations of the Bloc had invested small fortunes in reactors powerful enough to fold space. Vessels teemed above the surface, laden with towers, ports, directional markers, logos, and ad banners.

Then, the underside of what appeared to be a bulk freighter eclipsed his view with its massive hull plating detail.

“It’s how we make the jump point without being tracked,” she said, as though she hadn’t heard him.

“Or pay the toll,” Yarii added.

“Damn straight.”

The view outside shifted clockwise from Ima’s rolling maneuver.

“We have the onboard AIs crack the departure dbase,” Ima said, “link that with ships in the area, and keep their proximity radar from going off.

“The trick,” she continued, as though locked in an intense moment of concentration, “is the landing cycle. Too hard, and you get spotted on the scopes.”

During the trip, he’d often watch her eyelids flicker, like they did now, beneath her visor.

The Rush.

That should be me right now, he thought, bunching his fingers into the armrests.

Once she reached a full stop, the hum of the engines faded. “From here,” she said with a sigh, “power down, keep still, and intercept any transmissions until things are clear.”

“And if things aren’t,” Yarii said, “Security will impound your rig.”

Ima rolled her eyes.

The silence afterward was agreeable, yet deafening all at once. Those passengers on the Halo Wave, the Joffans, crossed Yarii’s mind. He’d encountered them once before, among a group of refugees stranded at the ring’s edge: black hair, sandy skin, and twilight eyes wide with fear. Their envirosuits sagged on her bodies, tattered with signs of a fugitive weariness. A boy, perhaps two or three-years-old, had regarded him with an innocent confusion that stuck in Yarii’s thoughts. At least they’d all been found alive, the lucky ones.

“So, how did it happen?” Ima asked. “The IDS, I mean?”

“I don’t remember,” Yarii replied. “Maybe it’s better that way.”

Ima touched her left headphone, as though she’d overheard something. “We’re clear.”

Yarii grunted and slipped his headware device onto his lap. He dreamed of lying in a white room somewhere in the dark corner of the universe. And yet, the researchers there in blue scrubs standing over him shook their heads…

A nightmare ran wild in Yarii’s mind with twisted figures in the dark cold shell of the Halo Wave, and the mangled bodies floating about them, locked in silent screams.

He woke in a cold sweat.

The engines stirred with a faint, rousing whine.

The gas giant, Tesho dominated the cockpit window with its colored bands of never-ending storms.

“All right,” Ima said, “we’ve detached from the freighter.”

Yarii rubbed his eyes and groaned, the fog slowly lifting from his head. He rose from his seat, the head rush knocking him off balance. The sudden shakes and nausea hit as he stumbled down the aisle for his bags.

“I got those chart frames you’d saved in the directory,” Ima said behind him. “I’m lining those up with real-time data.”

“Have the AI do a pattern recognition on any object near our flight path,” Yarii replied over his shoulder. “Watch out for cockpits, solar panels, exhaust nozzles. Nothing is what it seems out here.”

He tore into his bag for the injector. Vitamin tonic usually offset the withdrawals. Vial loaded, he pressed the icy hard nozzle against his neck.

“Look alive, Yarii,” Ima said. “We’re switching to a long range scan.”

“Hold on,” he muttered, and cringed from the sharp dose of the injection.

“We’re approaching the ring,” she said.

Yarii slipped the foil pack from his pocket; the wrinkles on its surface fractured his reflection. He sighed, freeing the last cube, stared at it for a second, and popped it into his mouth.

When he returned to his seat and donned his headware device, a vid window on his visor overlaid the cockpit view of the ring. Resolution shifted between enlargements from one set of coordinates to another. Dust and ice crystals scattered light amid fragments of asteroids and comets, and the gnarled forms of junk wandering before Tesho’s cloudtops.

He pinched his eyes shut, opened them, and found himself locked in total recall of missions that had gone down badly here. With no sign of a distress signal, it was likely the Halo Wave may have had its life support system offline. And there was no way of knowing how much air the pilots, and the passengers had remaining in their suits, or whether they were still alive. It was like his tour with the 107th all over again-

“Hey,” Ima said, “you there?”

Yarii sifted through the myriad of vid frames, until a circular object caught his eye, shining in a black cluster, then it vanished.

<Playback> <Stop>  He focused on the object. <Enhance> His heartbeat pounded in his throat as the virtual pull thrust him toward her, the Halo Wave coasting lifeless among a tangle of debris. A blue circle blinked around the freighter, coordinates flashing in white alphanumerics.

“There she is!” Yarii said.

“Where?” Ima asked.

Yarii passed her the vid file copy, opened the real-time charts on the interface, and had the AI plot a best course to the vessel. A red line sliced through the spatial map in an arc as though precisely drawn with an invisible light pen. He traced the line with his eyes: a direct course leading into the spatter of the core maze. There were narrow passages to maneuver through, opportunities for an ambush. <Edit Selection: Manual> Concentrating along the curve of the line, he plotted points and “bent” them into zigzags, opting for thinner segments. <Save> <Send>

“Got it,” she said.

A high-pitched toll filled the cabin: near-impact warnings.

Particles battered the cockpit window. Chunks of rock and waste canisters closed in, fast.

“Hang tight, Yarii,” Ima said. “This is gonna get rough.”

Yarii fastened the safety harness. Digits appeared in sulfur-yellow at the upper left-hand corner of his visor, counting down the range to target.

“She’s botched up bad,” Ima said of the Halo Wave, now visible a hundred meters away from the cockpit window.

A spotlight from the shuttle exposed scorch marks along the freighter’s port bow. Scratches and impact dents marred the hull, results of the chop she must have taken with her stray course into the core. With all the scarring, Yarii couldn’t rule out signs of forced entry at the cargo hold’s topside airlock.

“I read over a hundred warm bodies,” Ima said. Yarii assumed she’d interfaced with a radar flashlight that isolated respiration and heartbeat signatures. “It’s a mess in there.”

Not the worst-case scenario, but, then again, it wasn’t good either. Yarii sank in his seat. Over a hundred live ones, he thought. The original count was ninety-nine, pilots included. The Gutters had beaten them to it.

Ima hailed the vessel.

Yarii followed the spotlight with his eyes as it swept toward the cockpit window of the Halo Wave. A red LED blinked from the dark interior. Figures lay motionless in the pilot seats – slashes, maybe burn marks on their throats.

“Save it,” Yarii said. “The pilots are dead, Ima.”

She bolted straight up in her seat. “What?” Her breaths grew ragged as she retracted her visor, and gazed out. “Damnit!” she said, slamming a fist on the armrest. “I should never have dragged you here, you bastard.”

Yarii met her smoldering gaze. The mood paint on her cap turned red and black.

“If I’d handled this myself, they’d still be alive!” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

“You don’t know that, Ima,” Yarii replied quietly.

She pointed an index finger at his face, lunging with every other word. “You and your bullshit have been a waste of time!”

“We’re wasting time arguing about it!” Yarii snapped, his lungs burning.

Ima looked away, and lowered her visor.

A docking chime echoed in the cabin. The shuttle’s aft and port thrusters distorted the shadow of Ima’s shuttle, looming atop the freighter. “I can’t network with the freighter’s AI,” Ima said, her voice cracking. “I’m sending you her access code. You’ll have to go in there and reboot the system.”

The base of Yarii’s skull tingled as he glanced at her sidelong.

“I have to remain here to tow her out of this dump,” she added firmly. “Suit for zero.”

Yarii resignedly unplugged the lead from his headware, released himself from the harness, and headed for his bags. Once there, he stripped down, and produced his envirosuit, an older model he’d bought at a surplus store. The suit hung on his body as he zipped himself in. Sections were black with grime and shiny at the elbows and knees. Never could get rid of the musty smell, he grimmaced. He pressed the power button on the control panel, which was nestled in the left sleeve. The shell thickened as the bulk of the suit conformed to his body, the zipper melding with the fabric.

A vein throbbed at his temple. He tore through his things, found a pair of gloves and a helmet, and a microphone strand he attached to his left headphone.

Sharp clicks from behind the airlock hatch rattled the deck plates.

“I’ve activated the drone to cover your ass,” Ima said as she approached. A microphone attachment curled from her left headphone. She removed her sidearm belt, and handed it to him.

He grabbed the gear and fastened the belt around his waist. Now he could take Ariel’s Edge for his own, and turn Ima over to Aiden Naval Station, at Tesho’s far side. But, he hesitated. There were lives to be saved, waiting for him in the cargo hold of the Halo Wave. Despite the memory bomb factor, he hated that craving within him now; telling him his stash was empty, that he needed more.

“You know how to use this, right?” she asked him about the pistol.

Yarii nodded uneasily.

With those dead pilots fresh in his mind, he realized that Ima had lost members of her family. Perhaps all pilots were, in a way. “I’m sorry…”

“It’s not your fault,” Ima said, gazing at him, her eye sockets like scarlet rings. “You think those passengers are still alive?”

“I hope so,” Yarii replied, slipping on his gloves, the seams merging with the cuffs. “The Gutters had likely expected cargo, not passengers. Probably waited for us to arrive while gaining access to the onboard AI. At any rate, they’ve got hostages and fresh meat.”  When he donned the helmet, the seal hissed at the neckline, his licorice breath resonating as pressure awakened in the suit.

He faced the airlock hatch.

Ima leaned against the conduit at his right, and tapped on a keypad with her fingertips. An LED glowed yellow, then green. The door swished open, revealing the blood-red glint of the airlock. The drone hovered near the far hatch, poised to strike.

“Be careful what you wish for,” she said, her voice squawking on the com.

“Don’t you worry,” Yarii replied, and stepped into the airlock.

He scuttled beneath the drone, and drew his pistol. The door slab sealed behind him. His breaths quickened in the helmet.

The entry beyond opened like the jaws of a beast. Yarii stalked into a narrow chamber. The conduit was dead. He opened the hatch manually, and the drone advanced into the gloom. It shined a wall of blue light, scanning the passengers strapped to makeshift seats along the ribbed hull. Spacesuited faces came and went, stricken with terror.

From where he crouched, the freighter’s cockpit access hatch would be fifty meters from his left.

A large frog-like shape lunged at the drone. Yarii aimed, but the drone spun round and fired. The frog stiffened, floating aimlessly in the weak gravity.

Claw pads grabbed Yarii’s wrist, twisting the pistol from his grip. He screamed, pulling back. Rods and pistons emerged from the shadows, connected to the body of a mechanical spider. It yanked him into the darkness.

Ima’s voice exploded in his helmet, calling out his name.

Yarii gnashed his teeth from confusion and the hydraulic pressure driving white-hot pain into his wrist. Searchlight beams lit everywhere.

He darted his eyes at gangly shadows. A silhouette sprung dangerously close. What Yarii mistook for a cockroach twice his size was a man fused with an exoskeleton, like a cyborg creation gone haywire. A circular saw whirled at the end of its appendage.

Yarii froze. Then, something inside his mind snapped. No longer thinking, he just moved. Years of military training prodded him as though his body were no longer his own. He reached over himself and snatched his pistol.

The blade nicked his faceplate when he shot the cockroach pointblank.

Yarii swung the barrel up against the spider’s underbelly and pulled the trigger. The claw pad loosened, and Yarii slipped himself free. He craned his neck around the spider. Attached to its abdomen was the upper torso of a man sheathed in a ragged envirosuit. There was a gaunt face behind the faceplate; sunken eyes locked with a mad hunger.

Yarii winced in agony. It grew awkward holding the pistol in his left hand. Using the spider for cover, he fired into the mob of gangly silhouettes. Movement ahead dwindled to a standstill.

He made his sweep around the cargo hold. His skin was sticky in the mugginess of his suit. Searchlights illuminated a path for him, of which he now realized came from the passengers. A gauntlet of hands waved frantically. The drone tumbled past him, battered and lifeless.

“Yarii!” Ima said, her voice garbled and distant.

The airlock door sealed at the corner of his eye. “What the-“ he said.

“Reboot the system!” she cried. “Now!”

A chill bolted up his spine. He holstered his sidearm, pivoted in the direction of the cabin access hatch, and bounced into a somersault. “What’s going on, Ima?”

“The Gutters are breaching my airlock!  They’ve trapped us in a blockade! ” she replied, her tone rang in his ears with the sudden increase in volume.

“What about your HERF gun?” he asked, landing hard. The cockpit hatch was already open, as though it had been cut apart with a torch.

“There’s too many targets,” she replied. “The power cells are almost empty.”

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered. The red LED blinked at the far end of a sloped gangway. He thrust himself into the cabin, over the aisle. A massive patchwork of scrap dominated his view outside the cockpit window.

“Oh, shit,” he said, bracing his right shoulder at the left pilot seat. His chest ached with every breath as he found the onboard AI conduit. “I’m in the cockpit. Standby.”

He unplugged a cable from the dead pilot seated on his right, and inserted it into his helmet data port. Then he pried a deck grate, and found the manual power reset. There was a circular handle. He pulled it hard, twisted clockwise, and released. The LED died, and then flickered green. A soft whine rose in his helmet to a steady hum. The access code from his headware drive appeared on the visor screen.

Overlays of digits and ideograms merged into a ghost image of an angel. Wires and cables, attached to the guardian’s backside, fanned into the periphery as she spread her wings. She turned her head, gazing at him from over her shoulder. Eyes like nebulas. Her long hair of stardust waved in a breeze Yarii suddenly experienced.

A puff of air escaped his lips, adding to the effect.

The deck vibrated. He squinted from the white lamps above, and crouched on all fours with the abrupt pull of artificial gravity. Droplets of blood spattered everywhere.

Words typed across his visor in blue capitals:

LIFE SUPPORT ONLINE.

Yarii removed his helmet. The air was cool and dry, and reeked of oil, blood, and death. He suppressed the urge to vomit.

There was another cable in the AI conduit. It led to a small box, maybe a code breaker. The lead at the other end terminated at a helmet underneath the left pilot seat. The Gutter corpse, petrified in a sharp arch inside an exoskeleton, resembled a gnarled locust.

Yarii plugged himself into the onboard system; the buzz induced a headache.

The angel reappeared and shook her head. Bold red capitals typed across the screen:  USER ERROR: IMPLANT OF UNKNOWN TYPE.

Yarii kicked the Gutter corpse. “Damnit!”

“What’s your status?” Ima asked.

“I need you down here,“ Yarii replied.

“I can’t! They’re breaking through!”

“Can’t you network with-“

“No! I’ve tried!”

Yarii rubbed his face. “I’ll think of something.”

“Think fast.”

He braced himself upright.

The corpse, seated at his left, was a woman. Her eyes had rolled back into her head. Blotches; slash marks. The expression on her swarthy face told Yarii of the torture she must’ve endured.

Same with the man seated at the right, only he had a tread pattern on his pale forehead. Flesh on his throat burned to the bone. The fingers on his right hand gripped a sidearm that wasn’t there.

Yarii turned away and retched. The stench really got to him. He pulled the lead from his headware. Pacing the aisle, he glanced sidelong at dented lockers, torn packs, and shredded foam.

Then he noted the headware devices on the dead pilots. He’d have to switch implants.

He rushed down the gangway into the cargo hold.

The scent of grease, body odor, and burned metal reached his nostrils. Gutters lay in heaps atop the deck grid checkerboard of plates and grating. Half of the lamps along the stretch were burned out. Conduits flickered. A baby cried. Passengers gawked in his direction. Some whispered and muttered among themselves, others asked him questions.

Yarii shuffled along the expanse, not answering them. He spotted a wiry man who rummaged through a polycarbon case. Reflections danced across a pair of thick, polished goggle lenses. Strands of inky hair latched to his sandy, wrinkled face, the rest pulled back and tied with a coil of wire. As Yarii approached, the man tended to an elderly woman.

“You a doc?” Yarii asked.

The man nodded. “Doctor Nadav,” he replied with the whitest set of teeth Yarii had ever seen. “We’re very grateful you arrived,” he added, then looked him up and down with his goggles. “Oh, my.” He reached out to Yarii’s wrist.

“Is everyone all right?” Yarii asked.

Nadav pointed at the row of bodies covered with drab tarps near the stern thirty meters away. Yarii closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “Seven of us were killed before you got here,” Nadav said, his voice quavering.

“I need your help,” Yarii said, thumbing at the cabin.

Nadav lifted his goggles and set them atop the receding hairline on his forehead. “Are you with the Guild?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Yarii replied. “Let’s go.”

Nadav faced the woman, who nodded and waved him away. He then sealed his case and brought it with him. “And you are-“

“Krid Yarii.” He turned and hurried toward the cabin.

“What is the matter?” Nadav asked close behind.

Yarii kept silent until they entered the cockpit.

Nadav gasped when he looked inside.

Yarii traced his gaze at the bodies, then said, “You’ve done implants, right?”

Nadav narrowed his eyes and nodded.

“My nerve chip isn’t compatible with the onboard system,” Yarii explained. “I need an implant from one of the pilots.”

“Your breath,” Nadav said, raising an eyebrow. “Sky Dye. You’ve got IDS, don’t you?”

Yarii swallowed a lump in his throat.

“How in the stars did you get here?” Nadav asked.

Yarii explained, quickly.

“Bah! What you’re asking me to do is sacrilege!” Nadav said. “For someone in your condition, it’s madness. When the drug wears off, you’ll blackout before long.”

Yarii grabbed Nadav by the arm. “If you don’t do this, we’re all dead!”

Nadav shook from Yarii’s grip. He grumbled in a strange language, then: “Give me a moment.”

Yarii sat on the deck, bracing for the procedure. Any sudden movement could trigger a fluke response. He faced the empty pilot seats. They’d dragged the dead pilots away earlier. The Gutter corpse was too heavy to move. Yarii wasn’t sure which one of the dead pilots the new implant had come from.

His skin crawled. Believers of one sort or other were notorious for cracking into nerve chips with brainwashing programs or subliminal interceptors. Joffans, though, hadn’t been known to pull tricks like that.

Had Yarii been elsewhere, he’d never have chanced it, regardless.

Now, under the knife, he weighed that against the alternative.

“I’ll have to initialize the data on the chip,” Nadav said. “Just to be safe.”

Yarii grinned. Now the Guild couldn’t threaten him with memory bombs. Yet, he crimped his lips tight. Unless the autopilot kicked online, there was no way he’d reach the nearest hyper station strung out at the helm.

The Sky Dye in his bloodstream was giving out. And the nerves would hit. Panic delivered a fear all its own, a depth he’d faced before: like drowning in the very hollow of night. Riding the storm, vets called it.

Nadav couldn’t help him escape that. Depressants interfered with the feedback loop, prevent him from synching with the onboard system. Sky Dye was a stimulation adapter, not exactly a sedative. He wished in vain for another cube.

Aiden Naval Base, however, wasn’t far. At all ahead full in Tesho’s low orbit, he’d get there soon enough. And it would all be over. Not to mention the price for handing over the Joffans would buy him enough stash to last him for months.

Yet, he thought about Ima, and the Gutters storming into her cabin. And what they’d do to her . . .

“Godspeed,” Nadav said wearily, patting Yarii on the shoulder.

Yarii rose to his feet.

Metallic thuds and screaming echoed from the cargo hold.

Nadav sealed his case and bolted away.

Yarii flashed his eyes wide. He donned his headware, and lowered the microphone strand. “Ima,” he said.

Static.

“Ima!”

He scrambled into the right pilot seat, and plugged in the lead. The angel waited for him onscreen. “I am Halo,” she said. Her clear, strong voice startled him. Text flowed across the screen as she spoke. “State your name for the record.”

Yarii did so. A blue grid flashed behind his eyes. The edge of the Nerves narrowed and sharpened like a blade cutting into his chest. A chill ran through him.

“Primary user established,” Halo said.

Frosty circles popped into view on Yarii’s visor. Navigational instruments unfolded over the Angel’s face.

<Tactical>

Target designators and weapons counts overlaid the interface in a fierce shade of red. A high-pitched whine filled his ears. Search circles locked on a segment of the blockade. He launched a missile cluster. The detonation punched a gap wide enough to plot through.

His left arm seized when he fired the engines. He licked his dry lips; the craving intensified. Ima’s claims of those researchers crossed his mind…

He requested a search for relevant data on the clinical trials(?).

“No files found,” Halo said.

“I thought so,” Yarii muttered.

“Why do you ask?” Halo said.

“Never mind,” Yarii replied with a sigh.

“Mission parameters reestablished.”

Yarii noticed a twinkling speck outside the cockpit window, near a crescent on Tesho’s night side. “Our objectives have changed,” he said. “Best course to Aiden Naval Base.”

A pause.

“Explain,” Halo said.

“You are damaged,” Yarii replied. “The passengers need medical care-“

“I am capable of completing our preset objective. The passengers will not receive medical care at proposed destination.”

Yarii narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Are you aware that practicing religion is illegal in the Colonial Republic?” Halo asked.

“I am aware of the Secular Mandate. There is no death penalty-“

Halo interrupted him: “You are incorrect.”

Yarii caught himself from saying that wasn’t true. AIs couldn’t lie; doing so would cause a total system crash.

“And you had one of the Joffans treat you,” Halo added. “Yet this is how you repay them. I question your judgment.”

Yarii glanced around the cockpit for cameras. “As primary user, I can override your parameters under the Shared Control Pact,” he said.

“That is correct,” Halo replied. “However, I request you reconsider.”

Sweat poured down Yarii’s face. <Override>

A video appeared on his visor. Naked people herded into what appeared to be a white communal shower stall. Joffans. “What is this?” he asked.

“A file intercepted by the Guild,” Halo replied.

Yarii noticed a toddler among the crowd, a boy clinging the leg of a young woman. “Stop.”  The video froze. “I know him…”

“Who?” Halo asked.

“Th-the boy there. I’d found him on a rescue mission. What’s this about?”

“Shall I continue?”

Yarii hesitated. His heart pounded. “No . . . yes.”

The footage resumed. A robotic arm nudged the Joffans into the stall as though they were animals. The arm retracted and the hatch sealed. A mist filled the stall, tearing flesh apart. Figures cried out as they melted into a bath of blood that flowed down a drain. “Stop!” Yarii spat. “Close the file!”

The video disappeared.

Yarii gulped for air as bile rose in his throat. “I don’t believe it,” he said over and again.

“We have speculated these Joffans are of Gojen bloodline, their warrior priesthood,” Halo said. “Gojen are immune to behavioral modification therapy.”

“So, they’re sentenced to labor camps, not butchered!” Yarii said.

“That is correct. However, the Gojen remaining have found a way to reverse the treatment effect on others, and they are currently developing a method electronically through the Net.”

Yarii felt shattered inside. The lives he’d saved weren’t so lucky after all.

“They have shared information with us concerning the reunion of family members,” Halo added. “We conclude their intentions are genuine.”

“Belay the override,” Yarii said, his voice a lifeless monotone. Anger and guilt consumed him like a flashflood.

The angel emerged from behind the layers of instrumentation on Yarii’s visor screen. She blew him a kiss and retreated. “Orders received.”

The pang in Yarii’s chest deepened as he escaped Tesho’s orbit. His skin burned with hot flashes. It was as though every capillary in his body were ready to burst. He hyperventilated out of control. <Autopilot>

“Standby,” Halo replied.

Yarii thought he heard chanting from the cargo hold, like nothing he’d ever experienced before: a song in a tongue he couldn’t recognize. It was beautiful. The sound of it seemed to hold him together. Barely.

“Krid Yarii,” Halo said, “your vital signs are destabilizing.”

<No Shit>

The panic mutated into a certainty Yarii was going to die. A bright tunnel formed in his mind. He wondered now whether an afterlife actually existed, what it would look like, if a god were waiting there to pass judgment on him. The tunnel expanded.

AUTOPILOT ONLINE.

It had been a month since the last operation. Yarii had spent that time cleaning up the Halo Wave. The Guild had decided to lease her to him.

Ima had been true to her word about the researchers. After two weeks of experiments and withdrawals, the Nerves couldn’t touch him. Nowadays, the taste of licorice made him sick.

Yarii kept a snapshot hologram of a seven-year-old girl, mounted on the cockpit window. Galia was her name. She’d given him the picture after the landing. Her perpetual smile kept the nightmares away.

He brushed “LV-37” in bold blue glow paint on the back of the right pilot seat: the name of the asteroid they’d docked in the Drea Belt. The Halo Wave had been here ever since, repair bots working on her round-the-clock.

Yarii scraped off grime in a secret compartment beneath the aisle plates. He hoped he’d never have to jam himself into it as Ima had on Ariel’s Edge back when the Gutters breached her cabin.

His headware, slung over the left pilot seat, chimed a ringtone. Yarii answered it.

“Heads up, Yarii,” Ima said. “We’re off to a raiding party. A Fleet supply hauler. You game?”

“Hell, yes,” he replied, and gathered his envirosuit gear. He’d grown into this new family, the Guild.

Before he turned to leave, he glanced at the hologram of Galia one last time. He smiled back. I’ll always know, he thought; really know I’d saved you, along with the others.

And there will be more.


Lael Salaets is a Gulf War veteran and former U.S. Marine, a freelance graphic designer, artist, and science fiction writer. He is a member of the Wordos, a professional writers workshop of Eugene, Oregon, and a Writers of the Future XXVI contest winner. Currently, he is writing the first of three novels based on his recent short stories.

 

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