And Our Lady Splendor

lady splendor illo

And Our Lady Splendor

by Matthew Wuertz

“Are you sure you want to be blowing up this ship, Dr. Hughes?  Seems like an awful waste.”

“Through the trees, in an unkempt way,” Gavin said, dimly aware of his monotone inflection.  He scratched his ten-day-old beard in the rough manner of a young child petting a cat.

A small, black screen projected Gavin’s typed commands as he drummed them out from memory.  His eyes strayed to the viewport; had it not automatically sealed itself during the last course change, Gavin would have faced a blinding view of the sun.

A metallic voice announced, “Safety override will be deactivated in five minutes.”

“Are you trying to ignore me?  Look, it’s me or her.  And I know you don’t want Dr. Cartwright to be getting in your head.  Not like the rest of them.”

“And our lady splendor?  No, we should not.”

Gavin unlatched a fist-sized panel on his right.  By turning the keyed switch inside, he could inject hydrogen into the craft’s fuel cells, resulting in a terrific explosion that the deadness of space would stoically absorb.

A small, frayed cord draped from the switch.

“Why go through this pointless exercise, Dr. Hughes?  That is what you’re doing, right?  Just like the other times.  It’s an incomplete drill without that key.”

Gavin turned toward the rhesus monkey that hung from one of the overhead grips.  “Banxar, I like the brass in the left tube.  My footsteps echo in this place.”

Banxar frowned.  “For a scientist, you seem to lack quite a bit of logic.”

“Cassini,” Gavin said.

“You’re hoping we’ll make it there without incident,” Banxar said.  “But why take chances?  You could always kill her now.  Save yourself from this daily repetition.”

Gavin turned his palms inward, staring at the intersecting lines.

Banxar shook his head.  “How’d you get into this mess to begin with?  Don’t know what you’re doing, do you?  Should have been one of those military men here in your place.  They can kill people all sorts of ways.”

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The polished floor squeaked beneath the lieutenant’s boots as he walked ahead of Gavin.  Jacob was carrying a woman over his left shoulder, but his pace wasn’t indicative of the burden.  Her dark hair swished back and forth, mimicking the swaying of her limp arms below.

“How long will that injection you gave me last?” Jacob asked.

“Somewhere between 24 and 36 hours, I think,” Gavin said.  “We’ll have to continue injections every day to be safe.”

“This had better be worth it,” Jacob said.  “I lost four men back there.  You’re fortunate that Henderson and I outmatched the others.” 

Not fortunate enough for Henderson, Gavin thought.

To their right, the long windows looked out upon the silvery shell of Ganymede.  “I don’t think Ellen expected to run into resistance, at least not yet,” Gavin said.  Of course, he hadn’t expected to run into her so soon, either.  “I know she’s had time to contaminate a lot more than her three escorts.  How are we going to get away safely?”

     “The only ships we have access to are limited in speed, but if we navigate a zig-zag course to Cassini, we should elude any pursuers.” 

Cassini isn’t the nearest research facility, so that seems an unlikely destination, Gavin thought.

     “Things would be a lot easier right now if you’d killed her instead of stunning her,” Jacob said.

     Gavin stepped in front of the lieutenant.  “I understand this is a risk, but what you don’t understand is that this is everything to me.  I built my career up for twelve years just to get the chance to come out here.  It cost me a marriage, friends, and left me little time to relax.  With all the problems we’ve run into lately, I never thought we would get a field test on humans.  Even though I’m not thrilled with how it happened, I don’t want to waste this opportunity.”

     Jacob’s eyes narrowed.  “I’d kill her myself if protocol allowed it.  If you ever think your science experiment is going to get loose, you better be prepared to stop her at all costs.  Unless you want more people like that running around,” he said, jerking his thumb back.

Jacob sidestepped him and pressed ahead.  Gavin quietly followed.

The corridor opened to the hangar and to five armed men charging toward them.  Several ships lay within the immense area and Jacob ran toward one, with Gavin following closely.  The men moving to intercept were within fifty yards.

     “They won’t fire on us,” Jacob said, “so just run.”

     “Goddess!” one of the men shouted.  “Give us our beloved goddess!”

     Jacob stopped before a rectangular ship.  Its only door was on the port side, facing them.  After dumping Ellen on the ground, Jacob drew his pistol.  Short bursts of light peppered the men, but only one fell.  The others took cover behind another ship.

     “Get her inside, man!” Jacob ordered.  “And shut the door behind you.  I’m going to disable the plasma field.”  The giant plasma field at the far end of the hangar allowed ships to filter in and out without exposing the hangar to the vacuum of space.  A few accurate shots to the controls would knock it out. 

Gavin neither questioned the lieutenant’s sacrifice nor thanked him for it.

     Ellen wasn’t heavy, but all Gavin could do was drag her in by her arms.  Once aboard, he secured the door.  Even with the ship sealed, Gavin heard more gun blasts, followed by a rush of wind.

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     Gavin’s knuckles tapped the door to one of the ship’s heads.  He waited a moment before pulling the door open.

Ellen stood next to the toilet.  Her eyes bugged out of her narrow face as she watched him sidle into the shower area.  She’d pulled her hair into a ponytail that lay across her shoulder.  A crude knot of cables bound her left wrist to a copper pipe that ran from the floor to the ceiling.

“Look,” she said, “you can’t just keep me locked up in here.”

She dragged her fingers down the length of her ponytail and pulled at the tips.  “I need out.  I need out!”

“Time pulls at me in a swift motion.  The sails are barren, no one to break him.  Not like the brass in the left tube.”  He stomped twice, trying to soothe an itch in his boot.

Ellen’s eyes pushed out even more.  “You’re still taking that stuff, aren’t you?  Gavin, listen to me.  You have to stop.  Cut me loose, and I’ll help you.”

“Don’t think too hard, Dr. Hughes, or she’ll hear your thoughts.”  Banxar sat in the sink as if it were a hot tub, arms around the sides and legs dangling over the edge.  He waved his paw languidly.  “But don’t let me go telling you your business.”

“I don’t have much food left in here,” she said.

“Tell her to eat her boots,” Banxar said.

“We would have made a good couple,” she said.  “Why did you refuse me?  I wouldn’t have gone through with all of this if you’d stayed that night.  You were my last hope at Galileo.”  She laughed.  “But no one says, ‘No,’ anymore.  They all love me now.”

“Affections in the light of falsehoods,” Gavin said.  “There is no truth in it.  We use Boolean logic.”

Ellen reached out, but Gavin recoiled and screamed.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “Please, calm down.”

“She’s playing you for a fool,” Banxar said.  “Everyone is her fool.”

Gavin closed his hands in front of his eyes.  His lips moved for a moment, and then he turned and left the room.

“Gavin, stop taking it!” she shouted after him.

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     Beyond the acrylic glass, the dense flora indigenous of northern India thrived.  The 10,000 square foot rhesus monkey habitat was the largest of any research facility, at least until Aldrin would open with a habitat more than twice as large.  Gavin let his datapad drop to his side, imagining that he was back on Earth, exploring a jungle.

     He tensed as soon as the newest member of Galileo approached.  “Dr. Cartwright,” he said.

     “Just Ellen, please,” she said, touching the tight coil of hair atop her head.

 Prim and proper, he thought.  Dressed to code as usual, but always picking and prying at every aspect, like she’s constrained.

     “Has there been any change with the troop?” he asked.

     “No.  Preyasi, in all her splendor, is still the lead monkey.  She gets waited on hand and foot, even by the matriarch.”  Ellen laughed.  “Or is it paw and paw?”

     Gavin faked a grin.  “No boosters given?”

     “She’s still on her original dose from last week.  I’m even considering waving the two-week booster we originally discussed, just to see if her pheromones continue to influence the others.”

     “We’ll have to clear that with Sam, but that sounds fine to me.” 

He nodded to the left side where two monkeys paced in a section of the habitat shielded from the others.  “It doesn’t look like the two we isolated are back to normal,” he said.

“They take good care of themselves,” she said, “but all of their spare time is spent trying to get back to Preyasi.  They’ve dug down to the true floor and struck the transparent walls.  Lately, they’ve been observing the feeding door like they’re trying to understand its mechanics.  I think they’re more dangerous than the rest because of their desperation.  They want to be under her command again.”

     While he thought about the cunning primates, Ellen started walking toward a barren enclosure next to the habitat.  Gavin suppressed a groan, knowing exactly how the rest of the conversation would go.  Not that he owed her an explanation, but it wasn’t as though he could pretend that everything was fine.  Besides, it might be good to polish his summary before Sam talked to him again.

     He stepped ahead of her, finding a forsaken monkey sitting in a corner.  The monkey shook his head every few moments.  “Banxar isn’t doing as well,” Gavin said.  “He’s still immune to Preyasi’s influence when I expose him to her, but his mind seems lost.  I think he’s developing some type of psychosis, possibly schizophrenia.”

     She frowned.  “You still have to inject him routinely?”

     “Ever since day three, when he started showing signs of submission, I’ve had him treated every 24 hours.  He’s only on point five milliliters per dose, but I was hoping he wouldn’t need anything.  I knew the male version of the drug was a lot more complex, so I’m not surprised it hasn’t affected his pheromones or kept him sane.  It might help to see what happens if we treat a male without treating a female.  Preyasi might be affecting the data.”

     “Perhaps only females can use such a drug,” Ellen mused.

     “Well, considering that most of the top brass are men, I don’t think they’ll find such results acceptable.”  Gavin tapped his datapad to clear the screen.  “Besides that, I don’t think they want to be worshipped; they just want to reduce insubordination.”

     She nodded absently.  “Dr. Hughes – Gavin – I’ve been wondering if you’d like to meet for dinner tonight.”

     Gavin gave a sheepish grin.  “Well, I don’t know.”  It wasn’t that she was unattractive; more that she was simply unusual.  She was rigid, but perhaps that was simply her manner of professionalism.  Still, there were the rumors of odd personal behavior, but the source of that gossip often invented stories just to gather a crowd.

     “What about seven at my quarters?  I’ll make Italian.”

     In his hesitation to answer, she smiled and turned away, hurrying off before he could refuse.

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     At a few minutes before seven, Gavin paced outside her door.  Ellen’s door, he reminded himself.  Not Dr. Cartwright.

     The door slid open.  “What are you doing out there?” she asked.

     “I didn’t want to be early,” he said.

     Her hair was down, and she wore a cocktail dress with black stilettos.  Gavin still wore the same clothing as earlier, sans the lab coat.  “I, uh, you look nice,” he said.

     “Come in, Gavin.”  She took him by the arm and guided him to a table while the door slid closed behind them.

     He sat down, and she pulled a chair next to him, sitting so closely that her knees nearly touched his.  “Dinner will be ready shortly,” she said.

     Her room had the standard issued furniture, but it also had shelves of neatly arranged stuffed animals.  “Oh, those are my babies!”

     She jumped up from the chair to retrieve a stuffed dog, holding it out toward Gavin.  “This is Henry.”  She began speaking like a little girl.  “He’s a sad wittle dog.  He barks wike this.”  Then she imitated the sharp yips of a small dog.

     She laughed.  “What do you think Henry sounds like?” she asked in her normal voice.

     “I don’t know,” he said, folding his hands together.

     “Just try a sound,” she said.  “It’s fun.”

     He cleared his throat and checked his watch.  “You know, maybe we shouldn’t have this date.  For the sake of professionalism, you know?”

     “Come on.  It’s just a game.  Bark.  Bark!”

     He rose from his chair.

     “You’re serious?” she asked.  “Then why did I bother making all this food?  You could have declined my offer.”

     “I’m sorry,” he said.  As he walked away, he couldn’t tell if he heard giggling or sniffling from behind.

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     With a few flicks to the underside of his forearm, Gavin searched for a vein.  The syringe lay on the tray next to him, filled with five milliliters of a clear liquid.

He deftly took the syringe and held it out, turning his wrist one way and another.  “What are you waiting for, Dr. Hughes?”  Banxar peered over the tray, his bloodshot eyes focused directly on Gavin.

“My path isn’t the one I would take,” Gavin said.

“Do you want me to keep you company, or do you want to be her pet?”

“Thoughts are wrong.  In the maze, I go in search of it.  Some men call them labyrinths.”

Banxar’s paw smacked the tray.  “You kept sticking me, so why aren’t you sticking yourself?  Thinking you might follow my results?  That may be, but it’s the best choice.”

Gavin sprayed the syringe’s contents into the air.  Then he sat in silence for a long while.

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     When Gavin stepped into the inner lab, he found Ellen sitting on one of the stools.  She turned away from the counter, unrolling one of the sleeves of her shirt. 

 “Banxar died,” he said, hardly looking at her.

     “Oh?”

     He didn’t want to tell her anything after the incident a week ago, but she was the first person he had come in contact with since finding Banxar’s body.  Perhaps it’s time to break the silence between us, he thought. 

“Maybe you’re right about the drug,” he said. “I thought that if I just gave him more exposure to it, somehow things would turn around.  This is over two years of my life, and I feel like I’m missing something.  Or that there’s nothing to miss because it just won’t work.  Like we need to start from scratch.”

     He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.  “I just came in to return this since I never had a chance to inject Banxar this morning.  I’ve been submitting reports ever since I found him.  Another hour, and it would have spoiled, wasting close to a hundred milliliters.  Not that it’s any good to begin with, I suppose.”

     “I can put it away for you,” she said.

     “Nah, just stay put.  I’m already at the fridge.”  He tugged at the chrome handle of the small refrigeration unit.

     The chill air wafted into his face as he knelt down.  Tubes labeled XY were kept to the right while their XX counterparts lay to the left.  They were arranged horizontally in racks like small bottles of wine.  As he replaced the one he took from earlier that day, he frowned.  Two vials were missing from the top rack on the XX side.

     “I thought Sam approved skipping the two-week booster,” he said.  “Are you treating other females without authorization?”  Gavin turned toward Ellen and noticed a rubber strap lying on the counter behind her.

     Covering his mouth and nose, he asked, “Ellen, what did you do?”

     She leapt up from her stool and closed the distance between them before Gavin could stand.  He felt her knee hit him in the head, and he instinctively sank to the floor in a tight ball.

     When she jogged into the main lab, Gavin stood up and pressed the emergency button on the wall.  The alarm sounded like someone was hitting him in the teeth with a hammer. 

Just as Ellen reached the exit, two guards pushed their way inside, blocking her escape.  Gavin waited in the doorframe of the inner lab, uncertain of what to do.

One of the guards said something that Gavin couldn’t hear over the alarm.  Ellen tried to move between them, but they pushed her back.  Gavin thought he heard a man say, “Easy.  Easy.”

Ellen rushed at them again, screaming and clawing.  The man who had spoken turned one of her arms about and locked her in place.  “Let me go!” she shouted.

Immediately, the guard released her and bowed his head.

Ellen glanced at Gavin, smiling.  Then she said something to the compliant guard.

The man drew his gun, forcing the second guard to ready his own weapon in defense.  Gavin didn’t hear the shots, but he saw the flares discharging, illuminating the men like bolts of lightning.  Ellen stepped between their fallen bodies as she exited.

     Shaking, Gavin ducked back into the inner lab.  “She’ll kill us all,” he said, “or enslave us.”  Without another thought, he retrieved the vial from earlier and prepared a syringe for himself.

     He knew that each moment he stayed in the lab allowed Ellen time to encounter more people.  If he worked quickly, he might be able to organize a defense force.  Not common guards, though.  He needed officers, men who would know how to handle this situation.  Men who could kill if it was necessary.

     After cramming five of the XY vials into his coat pockets, Gavin ran, hoping his team would be better than hers.

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     The first two rumbles didn’t wake Gavin.  When the ship trembled a third time, his eyes blinked.  “What?” he asked, and he marveled at his intonation.  “What. . . was . . . that?” he said carefully.

He sat up in bed.  “Banxar?  Hey, Banxar!  You out there?”

When there was no response, he slapped his hands together.  “I’m back.”

Tap, tap, tap.

Finding himself already dressed, Gavin left the cabin and walked toward the head where Ellen was kept, but the taps were coming from a different direction.  Following the rhythmic sound led Gavin to the ship’s entrance.  He rapped four times, paused, and rapped twice more, hoping he was communicating “hi” in Morse Code.

The tapping relayed the same message, so he released the lock and opened the door.  A white air tube trailed from Gavin’s ship.  It looked like it was sealed thirty feet away.

Two men stepped inside, wearing protective suits that covered them from the neck down.  The suits shined like they were covered in oil, but Gavin wasn’t curious enough to touch them.  Perhaps if the dark visors of their hoods revealed friendly eyes, or any eyes for that matter, he might have reconsidered.

“We received your message about the contamination,” one of the men said.  “If you’ll take us to her, we’ll take over from here.”

“I’m a little confused,” Gavin said.  “Who are you?”

“This is the Cassini Research Facility,” the same man answered.  “We saw your ship adrift and towed it in.  Now, please take us to her.”

Gavin led the men toward the bow of the ship, pausing at the door.  “Be careful with her,” he said.  “I’ll join you after you’ve isolated her.  We’ve got quite a bit of research ahead of us.”

The first man opened the door without warning.  Gavin pulled his hands before his face.  “Hey, I said to be careful!  I’m not protected.”

The two men knelt in place.  “Goddess,” they said.

Ellen smiled.  “I was hoping someone would rescue me.”

Gavin pulled the hood off the nearest man.  He recognized him as one of his colleagues.  “Goddess, what should we do?” the man asked.

As Gavin turned and ran for the cockpit, Ellen laughed and said, “Bring him to me.  I want to have some fun.”

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He’d only been aboard for two days, but Gavin knew he needed a contingency plan.  As much as he wanted to continue his research, he realized that Ellen was a threat to mankind.  No one could resist her.  No one would want to.

Gavin imagined Ellen returning to Earth, drawing a following, one-by-one.  Certainly she could never get to everyone, but if she influenced enough leaders, she wouldn’t have to.  They would subdue the rest. 

There were no weapons on the ship that he knew of, unless he improvised with some of the hand-held tools, and he didn’t think he could bring himself to bludgeon her with those.  While he sat in the cockpit, checking the readings on the fuel cells, a memory from his mandatory piloting training came to him about the danger of venting the cells with pure hydrogen.  Mechanics had valid reasons to do so, but they would only perform the action on a cold engine.  “To vent them otherwise,” his trainer had said, “would be a mistake that one could never repeat.”

“Could I ever really blow myself up?” he wondered aloud.  Perhaps the claw hammer in the toolbox wouldn’t be that awkward to wield after all.

He decided to weigh his options properly by searching the ship’s manual.  If he couldn’t find the procedure for venting the hydrogen in the first place, the only safeguard against an outbreak would be his own hands.

It took Gavin less than two hours to research the override commands needed to allow the venting.  Once all the safeties were bypassed, it came down to the turn of a key. 

“I need to memorize these commands, rehearse them until they come naturally, regardless of the state of my mind,” he told himself.  Gavin glanced over his shoulder.  “But then she’ll know them, too.  I can’t keep my thoughts in my head anymore.

“If anyone is going to do this, it should be me.  On my terms.”  He scratched the stubble on his face.  “So how do I stop her?”

Gavin touched the brass key.  It was small enough to swallow, but that wouldn’t do him any good.  He did like the idea of keeping it with him, though.  But where?

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Gavin slammed the door to the cockpit and pulled the latch in place.  Something smashed into the door repeatedly, and with their level of devotion, it could have been their own bodies.

His eyes wandered to the open viewport, realizing he was still in space.  He quickly verified his location through the navigation system.  “Still two days from Cassini,” he said.  The air tube hadn’t been to control contamination in a hangar; it was a link between another ship and his.

Something metal chipped at the door.  The only plan he could think of was the drill he’d run for over a week.

He typed a few commands into the keyboard.  The screen went to black and demanded a password.  Once he typed it, a voice announced, “Safety override will be deactivated in five minutes.”

He reached for the panel to his right and gasped.  The key wasn’t attached.

The door buckled behind him.

Gavin’s fingers flew through his hair.  “Banxar, what did I do with the key?”

There was no time to search.  If they brought him to Ellen, he would become enslaved.  “No, I can’t allow that,” he said.

The syringe lay on the ground next to the small cooling station he used for holding the vials.  Clenching his fist, he began tapping for a vein.  He found one quickly and grabbed for the vials.

A makeshift crowbar poked around the door’s edges, trying to gain access to the locking bolt.

He injected himself again and again, draining as much of a full vial as he could before the intruders grabbed him by the arms.  He vomited on one of them, but they took no notice.

“Safety override will be deactivated in three minutes.”

Ellen laughed as he was dragged over to kneel before her.  “Wonderful!” she said.  “Gavin, I want you to bark for me.  Make Henry’s sounds.”

Gavin’s head swam.  He barked.

“Good, Gavin!  Very good.  You serve your goddess well.  You two, untie me.”

A small voice began to sing.  “I like the brass in the left tube.  Oh, we all like the brass in the left tube.”

Banxar faded into view, perched upon the toilet.  “Let’s sing the chorus together, shall we?  Oh, but you don’t remember the words.  You used to say it, remember?  But I think you were trying to say, ‘I keep the key in my left boot.’”

Gavin rolled to his back and unlaced his boot.

“Safety override will be deactivated in one minute.”

“Gavin, my dear, what are you doing?” Ellen called.  “Ow!  Watch what you’re doing, you idiot!”

The boot popped free, and the small key clattered onto the deck.

“What’s that?” Ellen asked.

Gavin fumbled for the key.  Once he had it, he staggered to his feet.  “Stop him.  Kill him!”

Gavin ran for the cockpit, pinching the key between his thumb and index finger.  He heard footsteps pounding behind him.

Someone grabbed his left arm just as he entered the cockpit.  “Safety override will be deactivated in ten seconds.”

He jerked himself free and dove toward the panel and the smiling monkey that hung beside it.  Gavin inserted the key and turned it.

_______________

Matthew Wuertz develops software in addition to developing fiction.  His stories have appeared in several magazines, including Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Ray Gun Revival.  Matthew lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife and three children.  To learn more about Matthew, please visit his blog: http://matthewwuertz.blogspot.com/.

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