Blackgrave (Episode 1)

By Matthew X. Gomez

I rolled off Hopper with a satisfied sigh. He stared up at the ceiling, with that look in his eyes that some men get right after they’ve gotten laid. I hoped he wasn’t going to be a problem. Sleeping with the help rarely ended well. I pulled the sheet up over my breasts, wished Hopper was the type to fall asleep after fucking and not inclined to talk after.

“Hey Pincher, I’ve been thinking.”

Shit. “Yeah? What about?”

“You ever think about what you want?”

I rolled over to him, nuzzled under his arm. “What do you mean? I control Blackgrave, make sure everyone eats regularly, has a bit of shelter over their heads, and nobody doesn’t kill anyone else without a good reason. I’m the top bitch here. What else do you think I want?”

He furrowed his brow, his mouth turning down at the corners and making him look less pretty than I preferred. “Yeah, but isn’t there more you want than that?”

I snorted. “Like what? I’m not that ambitious, Hopper. I control one settlement, and I’ve got enough people to hold that. There’s already enough of a target painted on my backside. The bigger you get, the bigger the target. ”

“What if someone bigger comes along?” Hopper rolled toward me, stared at me with his washed out blue eyes.

I smiled. “Bigger like who? Tungsten is gone and Ironbar is still trying to pick up the pieces from when Butcher Bird and his crew hit them. Trade Town? Those fucks are too busy fighting each other to make a bigger play. No. We stay sharp, we stay smart, and the biggest thing we have to worry about are the raiders and the slavers.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right-”

A long whistle pierced the early morning air. I punched Hopper in his toned stomach, ran my hand a bit lower to give him an affectionate squeeze. “They’re playing your song, lover.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

Rolling out of bed, I found my shirt and slipped it on over my head. “Not at all. You’ve got five minutes to get to your post, and I’d do it, too. I understand the bitch that runs this place is completely unforgiving. You could find yourself on outrider patrol for the next month if you’re found to be in dereliction.”

“Shit, shit, shit.”

I watched, amused, as he scrambled for his clothes, pulled them over his not-too-shabby naked body. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to think he was getting special treatment due to the fact I happened to be making use of his dick on a semi-regular basis.

“You want me to come back tonight?” He sounded so eager I had to work hard not to laugh.

“I’ll think about it.”

After Hopper left, I finished getting dressed. Frowning, I pulled the mask over my head, and adjusted the straps before I headed outside. Sure, the air might not be as bad as it could be, or there could be a West wind blowing invisible death off of the burning flats and I wouldn’t know about it until I was coughing up bloody bits of my lungs. Not worth the risk. I paused outside the door to survey my little kingdom. Fryback was over by her shack, waddling as she carried a joint of beef to be roasted. Hopper stood near the entrance with the other guards, eyes fixed out on the wilderness, alert to movement. I glanced up to the belltower, saw a glint of reflected light. Junker was supposed to be up there with JoJo, one with the rifle and the other with the field specs.

Blackgrave wasn’t much, but it was mine. A collection of tents and ramshackle shacks scattered about without much claim to rhyme or reason. A few hard scrabble crops breaking through the rocky ground, some animals not too far mutated so as to be useless or worse. The name came from when my sister and I found the place. There was even less then there was now, but a half charred sign reading BLACKGRAVE sat over the entrance. I have no idea what it meant, and still don’t. The name stuck, though.

Griper limping over to me broke me from my reverie, his cane punching the ground as he came. “We got a problem, boss.”

Only good thing about having to wear a mask to breathe was that it was easier to hide my frowning. “What kind of problem?”

Griper shrugged. His stringy white hair dangled down from under his mask, and dirt was caked on his hands and clothes. He wasn’t much to look at, but the fact that he was old as he was spoke volumes about his ability to survive, which was why he was one of my counselors. “Not sure. One of the scouts reported it this morning. Said she saw something out there you might want to see.”

The hackles on the back of my neck went up a bit at that. “What did she say it was? Hold on, which scout?”

“Needles.” Griper scratched at the edge of his mask. I resisted the urge to do the same. Damn things weren’t built for comfort. “Looked like a convoy got hit pretty hard. She says it looks like there’s quite a bit of scrap left over though.”

Needles was new to the camp, but a decent enough scout, and an even better scavenger. If she said there was scrap to be had, well, then there was scrap to be had.

“How far out?”

“Six miles or so.” Griper drew a rough map in the dirt with his cane. He marked the settlement, then a few landscape features I recognized, followed by a general idea of where the caravan was.

“Any idea how long it’s been out there?” I stared down at the map, wondering what hit it. Could have been raiders. Could have been some new nightmare out of the wastes. Neither one filled my heart with gladness, especially so close.

Griper shook his head. “Needles said it couldn’t have been too long. Smoke was still coming up from it.”

“You and I both know that don’t mean shit.” There were places out there that had been on fire as long as I’ve been alive. They didn’t call it the Burned Lands for nothing.

“Fine, fine. But we run patrols out there on a regular basis. It couldn’t have been too long, could it? Someone else would have mentioned it by now.”

“Assuming they weren’t keeping the information to themselves,” I countered.

Griper shook his head at me. “You can’t suspect everyone,” he said.

I patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, but I can. Which is why I’m still leader of this little settlement.”

“Fine,” he said. “Do you want to send a crew out to check it out?”

“Yeah, do that. I want to go along, too, though. It’s been a while since I’ve been out in the world and I want to get a closer look at what Needles thinks she saw.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Griper used the tip of the cane to obliterate the map.

“Why not? Get a few of the boys together, and two of the trucks. Let’s see what they have out there.”

***

The ride out was less than comfortable, and I was riding up front. It had to be worse for the boys riding in the back, bouncing off of the holes in the ground, the makeshift suspensions in the trucks rattling them like dice. I rested my hand on the pistol in my belt as I surveyed the landscape. It was much as I remembered it. Grey ash spotted with blackened swathes of dirt. The occasional twisted tree clawed its way skyward. Twisted bits of metal and long abandoned structures broke up the monotony. Smoke from the desperate camps of scavengers and mutants living out in the burned lands, and all of them smart enough to stay out of sight. Eyes stared up from brackish pools of water giving off the stench of rotten eggs. All of it made me miss the comforting security of Blackgrave, even knowing each of the trucks had a gunner up on top, carrying enough firepower to given even the desperate gangers out here pause. So long as we didn’t run into one the smart groups… I shuddered to think what would happen if Butcher Bird and his group caught up with us.

We crested a rise and looked down the broken pavement and grey ash at the caravan. Or what was left of it. Black smoke still rose in places and I could see the red orange flicker of flames dancing in the wreckage.

Tapping the driver on the shoulder, I pointed down at the caravan and gave him a thumbs up. We rumbled down the hill, tires skidding on the loose ash.

We stopped about three hundred feet from the wreckage. The boys got out of the truck and spread out to cover the area. The guys on the big guns stayed put, keeping an eye on the hills in case anyone was using this as bait to bring in other prey. I figured as well armed as we were, we’d be left alone by most things out here, but there were things out here, things that were all teeth, claws, and hunger that wouldn’t be put off by a couple of belt-fed machine guns and a group of armed hardcases. It paid to stay alert.

“Let’s head over here,” Griper called out, hopping between the rocks and burned wreckage. It always surprised me how agile he was, even with the bad leg. He led me and a few others around a small hill, closer to where part of the caravan still burned. The smell of roasted meat assailed my senses and I tried hard not to think of the source. There didn’t seem to be much left, the metal left being twisted and scorched. Scattered supplies littered the ground, and I doubted much of it would still be useable.

“It doesn’t look like raiders hit this.” Kneeling down, I picked up a ragged doll. It was missing one leg, and someone had sewn bits of bone into it for eyes. “Mutants, probably. Damn. I didn’t think they’d hit anything this close to Blackgrave. Or this big. If I didn’t know better, I’d say something was organizing them.”

Griper spat in the dust. “As if we didn’t have enough troubles to deal with. At least Fryback got the filter system running again, huh?”

Shaking my head, I dropped the doll back into the blackened dust. “Bonepicker did that, not Fryback. I’m amazed she doesn’t fall into one of her pots and cook herself one of these days.”

Griper chuckled. “If she was any smaller or the pots any bigger, she just might. But you’re right, I don’t remember the freaks hitting anything this size before.”

“Anyway, I’ve seen enough. Let’s head back to Blackgrave. I don’t want to get caught out here after the sun goes down.”

We loaded back up into the trucks, the motors grinding to life, black smoke belching into the grey sky.

“That close to Blackgrave isn’t good.” Griper winced as he stretched out his bad leg, moving his walking stick into a more comfortable position in the cab. “I can’t remember the last time they hit a caravan less than ten miles from our place.”

Frowning, I stared out at the passing landscape. “It isn’t like I have a lot of options. We don’t have the manpower for patrols out here. If there were enough mutants to burn out a caravan of that size, we’d be throwing people away. The good news is that caravan wasn’t headed toward us, anyway, and I didn’t recognize any of the markings on the vehicles, did you?”

Griper shook his head. “Not this time. But what about next? It isn’t like we’re self-sufficient, and it’s probably too much to hope that the mutants that did this are going to pack up and leave.”

The trucks started up the hill. I could feel the tires spinning, gaining traction in the loose dirt of the track. I gnawed on my lower lip, not wanting to admit Griper was right, but knowing he was. And even if that caravan wasn’t headed toward us this time, chances were we might have done business in the future. The number of people willing to take their chances out in the wastes were few, what with the raiders, the mutants and whatever else was out there in the ruined lands waiting to strike. A cold pit settled into the pit of my stomach when I considered how very few options I had.

“You think we should bring in some outside help?” Griper tapped his fingers against his cane.

Turning toward him, I raised an eyebrow. “What do you think we’re going to pay them with? And who’d you suggest we hire?”

He shrugged, narrowing his eyes against the glare coming through the clouds. “There’s always hard folk out there willing to bleed a bit if it means a few steady meals, maybe a bit of scrap for trade. I’m not suggesting bringing anyone in on a permanent basis, only to get rid of this current problem.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that might-”

The rebar punching through the window interrupted my thought. Luckily, it missed me, but Griper wasn’t so lucky as it pierced his chest, pinning him to his seat. Covered in his blood, I screamed, “Go, go, go!”

Pulling the pistol from my belt, I scanned the landscape. More metal spears lanced through the air, crashing against the sides of the trucks. Chunks of concrete and other items fell as well. The attackers had chosen their ground well, up on the edges of the road where they could barrage us with missiles. They were the same mutants as had attacked the caravan, I was sure of it. They were smart enough to duck back down under cover as I heard the steady rattle of our big guns answering in kind.

“Look out!” I heard our gunner shout as a flaming projectile tumbled through the air. He tried to bring his machine gun up to track it, maybe thinking he could shoot it out of the sky. It was too small, too fast, and it impacted in the bed of the truck. I heard a dull roar as it exploded, felt the heat as flames spread throughout the flatbed of the truck.

The big gun fell silent, replaced by the screams of my men on fire.

My driver shifted gears, tried to get us out of the trap. I risked sticking my head out the window, caught sight of the other truck. It was on fire now, too, and being swarmed by mutants, their long arms dragging near the ground, their large hands gripping makeshift metal weapons.

“Come on, come on, come on,” the driver shouted. I saw the massive hunk of concrete arc up into the sky, aimed for the truck. I kicked the door open and tumbled out moments before it crushed the cab. I rolled to the side, looking for a way out. I saw Needles running by me, on fire. Served the fucker right, leading us into this bastard of a trap.

I stumbled, slid down the hill, and took off running. As I rounded a small hill, I saw a mutant waiting for me, its big fist moving to connect with my head. I tried to get under it, but it must have clipped the side of my head because all I remember next was pain exploding behind my eyes followed by darkness.

Thunder From Fenris Review

(This review was originally posted here.)

A couple of months ago, I bought the Thunder From Fenris audio drama. At the time, I started it but never finished it. Tonight, I finally listened to the entire thing, start to finish.

Thunder From Fenris is $14.99 and, according to the Black Library website, 75 minutes in length. However, when I opened it up on my phone, I found it’s actually just a few seconds over 68 minutes. That doesn’t strike me as a great value, but I wanted to try out Black Library audio dramas and Thunder From Fenris was their cheapest Space Wolves option I saw at the time. I now see there is one for $4.99, which they claim is 10 minutes in length. The sad part is, they might sucker me into buying that one because it’s about Bjorn the Fell-Handed.

The story follows a group of thunderwolf riders as they hunt on of their former companions who has fallen to the curse of the wulfen and killed another of their number. The hunt takes place inside and outside of a city infected by a Nurgle-powered zombie plague. As things progress, this is all less straightforward than it first appears but there’s nothing too shocking, either. Overall, the story isn’t great but it’s not so bad I didn’t finish it. I’ll probably even listen to it again, someday, and not just because it cost me $15.

Early in the audio drama, I felt like the sound effects were a bit lacking. It seemed almost like an audio book rather than an audio drama. It’s possible I was just expecting too much. I have listened to very few audio dramas, or anything similar. However, later on in the story, and especially near the end, the sound effects get much better.

Where Thunder From Fenris really shines is the voice acting. It’s some of the best I’ve heard in my limited experience with audio dramas. The characters are all clearly defined, which is really what you most need.

If you’re devouring all the Space Wolves stuff you can, like I am, it’s something you’ll want in your collection since there are not yet many audio dramas featuring the chapter. If you’re looking for the best possible audio drama or just something to listen to, you may want to keep looking. If the voice acting and effects aren’t important to you, you’ll get more bang for your buck out of a full length audio book. You can get an even better value if you go with one of the bundles of audio books or audio dramas that they sell on the Black Library website. All of that can get quite expensive, though.

My overall rating of Thunder From Fenris is three out of five.

The Elders Of The House

By Jamie Rand

 

Saul was lying in his bed and thinking about tomorrow’s surgery when the door to his quarters chimed.

He almost didn’t answer it. He wasn’t in any mood to talk. Over the last year—since his forty-ninth birthday—he’d worried about the surgery, knowing it was coming, knowing it was inevitable. Over the last month that worry had turned into anxiety and over the last week that anxiety had turned into fear. Now, this night before, fear had metastasized into something close to terror. Lying in his bed, staring up at the dark, he’d become acutely aware of his body: the thick lump of his heart, the flat lines of teeth in his jaw, the tightness of the bones under the skin of his fist. He wondered how much of it he’d feel this time tomorrow. If any.

The bell chimed again.

Saul sat up in his bed and put his hands to his face. The skin under his palms was clammy. Feverish. He swallowed a thick lump in his throat. “Father,” he said.

The speakers in his wall answered immediately: “Listening.”

“Daylight,” Saul said. “And open the door.”

The lightstrips overhead flared into amber life and he turned his face away from them, squinting. The door to his quarters slid into the wall with a pneumatic hiss but stopped halfway, canted at a slight angle. The hiss became a tired grinding sound. Beneath it was the harsh click of a ground gear. Probably the secondary, from the sound. Saul made a mental note to call down to Manufacturing tomorrow and then remembered it didn’t matter. Because of the surgery.

“Door malfunction,” Father said. The voice sounded baleful. Apologetic. “Door malfunction. Green District, Section Fourteen, Subsection R, Room Eight-Eleven. Should I call maintenance?”

“I am the maintenance, remember?” Saul snapped. Then he remembered he no longer was. Abid was the head of maintenance now. “Sorry, Father. No. I’ll take care of it. End conversation.”

“Understood,” Father said. The speakers went mute. Even the small hiss, the one that meant Father was actively listening, was gone.

From out in the corridor came a sarcastic laugh. A kind one, but sarcastic. Saul wasn’t in the mood for either. Or the man it belonged to. Abid slid through the half-open door, smiling a little. He had a small package under one arm. When he saw Saul looking at him, he said, “The cobblers kids have no shoes, the carpenter’s roof always leaks—“

“And the mechanic’s door doesn’t work,” Saul finished. He rubbed the back of his neck. “What do you want, Abid?”

The smile slipped away. From the mouth, anyway. Not the eyes. Abid’s eyes laughed at everything. “Just to say goodbye, Saul. Congratulations, too. But mostly goodbye. Big day tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Saul said. The word came out a dry little pellet. And before he could stop himself, he added, “It’ll happen to you, you little shit.”

Saul expected anger. A part of him wanted to see it. Upsetting Abid, making him feel even a little of the fear Saul himself felt, that wasn’t too bad of a way to go out.

But Abid only laughed. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

A part of Saul wanted to apologize for his outburst. It wasn’t Abid’s fault, any of this—not the surgery, not his promotion. But wherever the fault lie, he couldn’t make himself apologize. Instead he gestured toward the package. “What’s that?”

“It’s a present,” Abid said. “From Davek. He wanted me to give it to you.”

“What is it?”

Abid shrugged. His eyes flicked to the speaker on the wall. Father’s speaker. “I can’t say.”

He held the box out. After a long moment, Saul took it. It was wrapped in synthetic paper and tied with a small red ribbon. He felt the paper dimple under the pads of his fingers.

“Tell Davek I said thank you,” Saul said.

“You can tell him yourself,” Abid said. “I have to go, Saul. Shift starts soon.”

“Where are you at tonight?

“The dome. There’s a panel out. People are starting to complain.”

“I don’t blame them,” Saul said. It was unnerving, walking home, enjoying the sunset, noticing a small sector of the sky flickering like a dying pixel. The great curved screens of the dome simulated a sky none of them had ever seen. None of them would. Or their children. Or even their grandchildren. It would be five thousand years before their ship came to its destination. Entire generations born, living, and merging without ever knowing a real world. For that kind of life, Saul thought, a working sky wasn’t that much to ask.

“Listen,” Abid said. “Good luck tomorrow, all right?”

“Thank you,” Saul said. But it occurred to him only later that it wasn’t the surgery he was talking about.

***

After Abid left, Saul slid a finger under the paper and unwrapped the box. Inside was a small radio and a folded piece of paper. Real paper. Written on it in a simple and inelegant hand were two sentences and a name: Come see me in hydroponics at midnight. Don’t use the radio until you get here. Davek.

A party, then. A goodbye party. Saul felt a strange and not entirely unwelcome sort of gratitude. He’d told Davek and everyone else in the crew he wanted to be alone his last night, no farewells, no wake. They’d went and set up a party for him anyway. He wanted to be angry but couldn’t. Thirty years, he’d worked with them, thirty good years. It felt good to know they cared. Even if he didn’t want them to.

He turned the radio over in his hands. It was an engineer’s radio. An old one, outdated, probably salvaged from some recycle heap. Speaker, a cracked screen, volume button. The channel knob had been torn away. In its place was a small transistor with a pair of wires sticking out like antennae. He figured it was meant to broadcast on a redband frequency. One Father couldn’t hear. Why, he didn’t know. Unless Davek and the rest meant to throw him the kind of party Father wouldn’t allow. But in hydroponics? Why there?

It didn’t matter, Saul supposed. He stood up and clipped the radio onto his belt and made for the door. He was almost out of his room when he thought again of the surgery. When the thought ambushed him, as it so often did.

“Father,” he said.

“Listening.”

“Will it hurt? The surgery tomorrow?”

“No. You will be unconscious.”

“When will I wake up?”

“When the augmentation is complete.”

“What does it feel like? After I wake up?”

“Cannot answer. Descriptors fail.”

Meaning Father didn’t have the words. Knowing—even just a little about what it would feel like—that would make things better. But no matter how many times Saul asked the question, no matter how he’d phrased it, Father always said those same two words. It was like asking what came after death.

Descriptors fail.

“Thank you, Father. End conversation.”

It was dark in the hydroponics bay.

What little light there was came from the rows of plant beds: a small yellow lamp above each that nurtured the vegetables. A run of pipes misted recycled water. The low hiss sounded like a thousand people whispering.

Saul expected the lights to flare on. He expected a loud chorus of voices cheering for him. He expected celebration.

But nothing happened.

“Davek?” he called.

The radio on his belt crackled. Davek’s voice, low and conspiratorial, came through it. “We’re here, Saul. In the back by the water pump. Under the gantry. Come find us.”

Frowning, he walked toward the far end of the bay. The heels of his shoes against the metal floor echoed hollowly. When he passed a row of modded corn he reached out and ran his fingers through the stalks, smiling a little. He closed his eyes. A wonderful feeling, the silk of the plant. The last time he’d ever feel it, maybe. This time tomorrow, who knew what he’d be capable of feeling?

“Hello, Saul,” Davek’s voice said.

He opened his eyes. Davek was there in front of him. But so were Early and Maya and Tei. Everyone from engineering team alpha, except for Abid. Their faces were drawn and dark. Worried.

“So this is my party,” Saul said.

Davek shook his head. “No. Come here. Back by the pump.”

Frowning, Saul followed him. As he was walking Maya took his arm in hers. He turned to her, surprised, and she looked up at him. A sad and worried smile drifted across her face. He felt a sudden urge to kiss her even though she was ten years his junior and had a man of her own. He’d never once thought of her in any sexual way, but now? Now the thought came into his mind and wouldn’t leave. It was the surgery, of course. The fear of it. Making him feel things he otherwise would not.

“Davek,” he said. “What is this?”

“Keep your voice down,” Davek said. He ran a hand down his beard—a nervous habit—and said nothing else until they came to the churning and rattling pump. Then he turned to Saul. They all did. “Father can’t hear us. I don’t think. Not with the machine.”

“What’s going on?”

“Saul,” he said, “you don’t want to go tomorrow, do you?”

He felt a strong urge to shrug, to show courage, to say something like It happens to everyone. But what came out was the truth. “No. I’m terrified.”

“Everyone is. But everyone goes. Father tells them to. But it never says why.”

It, Saul thought. Not he but it. “I don’t think Father knows.”

“We think it does,” Davek said. “But it won’t tell us. Not the real reason.”

Early spoke up at this. He rubbed at his eyes while he spoke, as if this was a dream. His cheeks were flushed and the port-wine birthmark across his balding head was turning a deep crimson. “It tells us we have to, Saul. But why?”

“You know the reasons,” Saul said. “For God’s sake, Early. We learned them when we were kids.”

Early, who Saul had always known as a taciturn and calm little man, spoke with surprising vehemence. “Why? Because of population control? Because we have limited resources? Even if it’s true, they aren’t good reasons.”

Saul thought of the videos he’d seen as a child. The ones in school. The ones that talked about the history of The Akash, how it was a generation ship, made in Earth orbit, meant to go out into the galaxy. The videos spoke about the challenges and the dreams of its builders and how the ship was the hope of a dying planet. But the videos had also spoken of sacrifice. Of how every citizen had the responsibility to live a certain kind of life—one that helped the mission. Jobs they were forced into. Relationships where you could have no more than two children. It was a life of unselfishness by necessity and it was a life that ended at fifty, with the surgery that took you from a worker to an elder. To join Father with the rest.

“Don’t you want to know?” Tei asked. She stood with her arms crossed. “Don’t you want to know what it’s like? What Father really is?”

“Of course I do,” Saul said.

“We do, too,” Davek said. He looked at the floor as he spoke next. “And we thought maybe you could find out.”

“Me,” Saul said. His voice was flat.

Maya squeezed his arm. “You’re the chief, Saul. You have access to the entire ship. You can enter the core. Father’s room.”

“No. Absolutely not. It’s punishable by death, Maya.”

“Yes,” she said. “But you’re going to die tomorrow anyway. You know that. The merging is a sacrifice. Like Father’s a god and we have to placate it.”

He stood silent for a time. It was true, what she was saying. The vids called it immortality. The augmentation. They talked about how no one, except for criminals, had died on The Akash for the last seven hundred years. They’d moved beyond death. Beyond old age. And as a child, at least to Saul, it had seemed true. But now, facing the surgery, Maya had the right of it. He felt like a sacrifice, like animals he’d read about from old Earth history, going down chutes and into slaughterhouses. It wasn’t right.

“I’ll go,” he whispered. And then, stronger: “Yes. I’ll go.”

After Saul left, they sat crosslegged in the pool of shadow beneath the gantry, the four of them in a small circle. Davek held the radio, the volume just loud enough for them to hear over the slow churning sound of the water pump. Maya sat leaning forward, the small of her back against the cold metal wall, her arms on her knees. Tei was to her left and Early to her right. What she saw on their dark faces she felt on her own: fear, yes…but also guilt.

“This is wrong,” she said.

Davek looked up at her and shook his head. “We need to know.” He took one of her wrists and squeezed it gently. “And Saul deserves to know. Of all the people.”

She swallowed past a thick lump in her throat. Davek was right. There weren’t many men like Saul. He’d been there for the five of them, watching, teaching, helping. He’d been a baby-sitter for Davek’s two boys. He’d taught Tei everything she knew about laying runs of thermal wire. And when Early had burned himself on a ruptured capacitor in biometrics, it had been Saul who rushed in to help, Saul who had gone into the maintenance area despite the gas, the smoke, and the fire. Saul had saved his life.

And now they were asking him to risk his own.

“He’ll be fine,” Tei said. There was a strained smile on her face. It made her look sick. “He will.”

When she heard footsteps coming toward them, Maya looked up sharply, a cold flush running down her body, suddenly sure they’d been found out. Early and Tei turned to look and Davek made to stand. But it was only Abid. He sat down next to them.

“What are you doing here?” Davek asked angrily. There wasn’t much love between the two of them, but not all of that was Abid’s fault. He was Saul’s replacement. By Father’s order. Maya knew Davek well enough to know he’d dislike anyone in that position.

Abid shrugged. “I want to know. That’s all. Same as you.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be up in the dome?”

Before he could answer, the radio came alive. Saul’s voice crackled in the tiny speaker. “I’m just outside biometrics. Do you read me?”

Davek pushed the transmit button with a final, untrusting glance at Abid. “Yes, Saul. You’re clear.”

“Okay. Good. I’m going in through the access panel now. I’ll go in through the vent. That’ll take me through the Green District. From there I’ll follow the shaft straight down to the core.”

Silence then. And static. Tei bit at the end of her thumb. Davek brushed his palm down his beard. Maya sat with one hand wrapped around the other. Her skin was cold and clammy. She knew the vent shaft Saul was talking about. She’d crawled through a section of it years before, looking for a loose flange Father told her was there, and she’d almost gone out of her mind with claustrophobia. And she was a small woman. Saul would have to worm his way through, his shoulders rubbing against the metal, no way to turn around, the darkness inside the vent like a weight against his skin.

It was a long wait until he spoke again. “I’m through. Davek, do you read me?”

“Yes, Saul. Are you at the shaft?”

“Yes. There’s a door here. One second.” Then: “My code doesn’t work.”

“Can you wire it?” Davek asked.

“No. There’s no panel. The code should work, I don’t know why–“

Abid took the radio from Davek. “Saul? It’s Abid. Try eight one one seven zero.”

A soft sound came through the speaker, one they all knew: the pneumatic hiss of an opening door. Abid handed the radio back.

“It worked,” Saul said. “I’m moving on.”

Tei looked over at Abid. “How did you know the code?”

“It’s the new master. Father told me when I got the promotion to chief.”

Davek was looking at him, his eyes narrowed, his lips a slash across his lower face. “Look,” Abid said. “I didn’t want the promotion. It should’ve been yours. I can’t help what Father says. At least I was able to help.”

After a time Davek sighed. He even gave a grateful little smile. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Thank you.”

They were quiet then, the five of them. For a long time nothing came from the radio. Maya felt Tei take her hand and squeeze. She leaned in close. “It’s scary to think about, you know? Father, I mean. Our parents are in it. Our grandparents. Everyone who’s ever been on the ship. The first Ten Thousand. The Earth-born. Everyone.”

Maya nodded. It was frightening, Tei was right about that. But the worst thing wasn’t the idea of Father. The worst thing was that no one had ever seen it.

She laced her fingers into Tei’s own when Saul’s voice finally came from the radio. “I’m here,” he said. “Outside the core.”

They sat forward. “Tell us what you see,” Davek said. He was sweating. Maya saw a single drop run down his nose and fall to the floor.

“I’m in a corridor. Red lights. It’s hot down here. Damned hot. This place is filthy. Stains on the walls. Oil, maybe. Old A-3 panels. Most of them don’t work.” A pause. “There’s a door at the end. I can see it. Hang on.”

Maya glanced up at Abid. His eyes were wide and he was mouthing the same thing over and over again, like a short litany: Be careful.

“There’s writing on the door. I can’t make it out.”

A warning, Maya thought. A warning, maybe. Just like on the biometrics panels. Danger. Hazard. Something like that.

“There’s no keypad here. An old hydraulic handle. I’m opening the door.”

A heavy hiss and the sound of rushing air. Saul coughing. Then his voice, weak and almost inaudible over the background static: “There’s…oh my god, oh holy god–“

“What, Saul?” Davek barked. “What is it?”

Static. Then Father’s voice. It came not just from the radio but from the speakers in hydroponics, in the hallways, in the dome, in the thousands of bedrooms and workshops and bays. It came from everywhere at once.

“Unauthorized core access. Repeat, unauthorized core access. Resolution imminent.”

And then, worse, infinitely worse, they could hear Saul’s voice, not from the radio, but from the speakers. The sound echoed throughout the bay. “There’s thousands here, hundreds of thousands, they’re walking around in these metal harnesses but they have no skin, oh god, they’re-“

The sound of footsteps running on metal. Heavy breathing. “They’re moving, Davek do you hear me? They’re bodies and they’re moving, they’re coming after me–“

A loud clunk as he dropped the radio. Then a scream. It rang throughout the ship, long and piercing. A whirring whine like an industrial drill. The sound was lost beneath the shriek coming from the speakers. Tei clamped her hands to her ears.

Then silence. And in that empty space came Father’s voice, somehow both disappointed and satisfied at the same time, a voice that made Maya’s body convulse in horror: “Crisis solved. Engineering team alpha, please leave the hydroponics bay and report to the core for immediate augmentation.”

They looked at each other. Early was crying. Abid’s nails were digging deep furrows into the skin of his cheeks. Davek picked up the radio in a trembling hand and through pale lips whispered, “Saul? Saul, are you there? What’s happening?”

The voice that came back came late. And it came garbled, but it was still Saul’s voice. What it said made Davek drop the radio. Maya’s shaking hands flew to her face. She was screaming. So were Abid and Tei.

“Descriptors fail,” it said.

Jamie Rand

Jamie Rand served in the Marine Corps infantry from 2001 to 2007 and holds an MFA in Fiction from Virginia Tech. He has work previously published in the journals Blood Lotus, Annalemma, Carte Blanche, Absinthe Revival, and O-Dark-Thirty, along with stories in the anthologies Specter Spectacular and Best New Writing 2011.

 

Works Published by Dark Futures
The Elders of the House, Sepember 2014