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Strange Dogs, Page 9

James S. A. Corey

  Seeing the thing change shape was somehow even more disturbing, but she refused to step back, even though she wanted to. “Not really. And I don’t mind spiders at all. It’s just, this looks so…so organic.” Except in a wrong, squishy, itchy sort of way.

  “Well, yes,” said Captain Uisine, standing square and stolid by the open crate. Entirely unbothered by the spidery thing beside him. “A lot of it is. Some people find it unsettling, and apparently you’re one of them, but it’s just a bio-mech. You’ll get used to it after a few days, or if you don’t I’ll keep it out of your way.” He touched the control panel and the smooth surface of the pod broke open with a click and slid aside. For just an instant Ingray saw a person lying naked and motionless, submerged in a pool of blue fluid, unevenly cut hair a tangled mass over half of eir sharp-featured face, thin—thinner than she remembered pictures of Pahlad Budrakim—the long welt of a scar along eir right flank.

  Then the smooth, glassy surface of the preserving medium rippled and billowed as the person opened eir eyes and sat convulsively up, choking, one outthrust arm smacking hard into Ingray. Captain Uisine grabbed eir other arm. “It’s all right,” he said, voice still calm and serious. The person continued to choke as blue fluid poured out of eir mouth and nose, sheeted away from eir body back into the pod. “It’s all right. Everything’s fine. You’re all right.”

  The last of the fluid drained away from the person’s mouth and nose, and e gave a breathy, shaking moan.

  “First time?” asked Captain Uisine, reaching down for the blanket the spider-mech still proffered.

  The naked person in the pod closed eir eyes. Gasped a few times, and then eir breathing settled.

  “Are you all right?” asked Ingray. In Bantia this time, the most commonly spoken language in Hwae System, though she was fairly sure Pahlad Budrakim would have understood Yiir, which Captain Uisine had used.

  Captain Uisine shook the blanket out and laid it around the naked person’s shoulders.

  “Where am I?” e asked, in Bantia, voice rough with cold or fear or something else.

  “We’re on Tyr Siilas Station, in Tyr System,” said Ingray, and then, to Captain Uisine, “E asked where e was, and I told em we were on Tyr Siilas.”

  “How did I get here?” asked the person sitting in the suspension pod, in Bantia. By now the blue fluid had all drained away to some reservoir in the pod itself.

  “I paid someone to bring you out,” said Ingray. “I’m Ingray Aughskold.”

  The person opened eir eyes then. “Who?”

  Well, Ingray had never really met Pahlad Budrakim in person. And e was ten or more years older than she was, and not likely to have noticed a very young Aughskold foster-daughter, not likely to have known her name when she had still been a child, let alone her adult name, which she’d taken only months before e’d gone into Compassionate Removal. “I’m one of Netano Aughskold’s children,” said Ingray.

  “Why,” e asked, eir voice gaining strength, “would one of Representative Aughskold’s children bring me anywhere?”

  Ingray tried to think of a simple way to explain, and settled, finally, for, “You’re Pahlad Budrakim.”

  E gave a little shake of eir head, a frown. “Who?”

  Ingray suppressed a start as another spider-mech came skittering out of the airlock. This one held a large cup of steaming liquid, which it passed to Captain Uisine before it spun and returned to the ship. “Here, excellency,” he said, in Yiir, offering it to the person still sitting in the pod. “Can you hold this?”

  “Here,” said the first spider-mech, in a thin, thready voice, in Bantia. “Can you hold this?”

  “Aren’t you Pahlad Budrakim?” asked Ingray, feeling strangely numb, except maybe for an unpleasant sensation in her gut, as though she was not capable of feeling any more despair or fear than she already had today. The Facilitator had said this was Pahlad. No, e’d said e’d examined the payment and the merchandise and both were what they should have been. But surely that was the same thing.

  “No,” said the person sitting in the suspension pod. “I don’t even know who that is.” E noticed the cup Captain Uisine was proffering. “Thank you,” e said, and took it, cupped it in eir hands as Captain Uisine stopped the blanket from sliding off eir shoulders.

  “Drink some,” said Captain Uisine, still in Yiir. “It’s serbat, it’ll do you good.”

  “Drink it,” said the spider-mech, in Bantia. “It’s serbat, it’s good and nutritious.”

  What if there had been a mistake? This person looked like Pahlad Budrakim. But also, in a way, e didn’t. E was thinner, certainly, and Ingray had only seen em in person once or twice, and that years ago. “You’re not Pahlad Budrakim?”

  “No,” said the person who was not Pahlad Budrakim. “I already said that.” E took a drink of the serbat. “Oh, that’s good.”

  Really, it didn’t matter. Even if this person was Pahlad, if e was lying to her, it made no difference. She couldn’t compel em to go with her back to Hwae, and not just because Captain Uisine would refuse to take em unless e wanted to go. Her plan had always depended on Pahlad being willing to go along. “You look a lot like Pahlad Budrakim,” Ingray said. Still hoping.

  “Do I?” e asked, and took another drink of serbat. “I guess someone made a mistake.” E looked straight at Ingray then, and said, “So, when a Budrakim goes to Compassionate Removal it’s only for show, is it? They send someone to fish them out, behind the scenes?” Eir expression didn’t change, but eir voice was bitter.

  Ingray drew breath to say, indignantly, No of course not, but found herself struck speechless by the fact that she had, herself, gotten a Budrakim out of Compassionate Removal. “No,” she managed, finally. “No, I…you’re really not Pahlad Budrakim?”

  “I’m really not,” e said.

  “Then who are you?” asked the spider-mech, though Captain Uisine hadn’t said anything aloud.

  The person sitting in the suspension pod took another drink of serbat, then said, “You said we’re on Tyr Siilas?”

  “Yes,” said the spider-mech. Ingray found she couldn’t speak at all.

  “I think I’d rather not tell you who I am.” E looked around, at the suspension pod e sat in, the crate still surrounding it, at Captain Uisine, at the spider-mech beside the captain, around at the bay. “I think I’d like to visit the Incomers Office.”

  “Why?” asked Ingray, almost a cry, unable to keep her confusion and her despair out of her voice.

  “Unless you have financial resources we’re unaware of,” said the spider-mech, “you won’t be able to do more than apply for an indenture. You may or may not get one, and unless you have contacts here you very probably won’t like what you get if you do.”

  “I’ll like it better than Compassionate Removal.” E drained the last of eir beverage.

  “Look on the bright side,” Captain Uisine said, himself, to Ingray, in Yiir, as he took the cup from not-Pahlad. “I’ll refund you eir passage, and you’ll be able to eat actual food for the next couple of days.”

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  by Jamie Sawyer

  Humanity has spread across the galaxy and, after years of interspecies warfare, entered into an uneasy truce with the Krell. But when the Krell send an ambassador to the human Alliance to request aid, they discover that their civilizations face a much deadlier mutual enemy: the Shard, an alien super species that are pouring from the Outer Dark into real-space.

  Captain Keira Jenkins of the Alliance leads a team of simulant soldiers in a joint military action, but when the mission goes down in flames, an injured and humiliated Jenkins is offered one last chance at redemption: a mission deep into contagion-infested enemy territory.

  She has one last chance, and so does mankind.



  I collapsed into the cot, panting hard, trying t
o catch my breath. A sheen of hot, musky sweat—already cooling—had formed across my skin.

  “Third time’s a charm, eh?” Riggs said.

  “You’re getting better at it, is all I’ll say.”

  Riggs tried to hug me from behind as though we were actual lovers. His body was warm and muscled, but I shrugged him off. We were just letting off steam before a drop, doing what needed to be done. There was no point in dressing it up

  “Watch yourself,” I said. “You need to be out of here in ten minutes.”

  “How do you handle this?” Riggs asked. He spoke Standard with an accented twang, being from Tau Ceti V, a descendant of North American colonists who had, generations back, claimed the planet as their own. “The waiting feels worse than the mission.”

  “It’s your first combat operation,” I said. “You’re bound to feel a little nervous.”

  “Do you remember your first mission?”

  “Yeah,” I said, “but only just. It was a long time ago.”

  He paused, as though thinking this through, then asked, “Does it get any easier?”

  “The hours before the drop are always the worst,” I said. “It’s best just not to think about it.”

  The waiting was well recognised as the worst part of any mission. I didn’t want to go into it with Riggs, but believe me when I say that I’ve tried almost every technique in the book.

  It basically boils down to two options.

  Option One: Find a dark corner somewhere and sit it out. Even the smaller strikeships that the Alliance relies upon have private areas, away from prying eyes, away from the rest of your squad or the ship’s crew. If you’re determined, you’ll find somewhere private enough and quiet enough to sit it out alone. But few troopers that I’ve known take this approach, because it rarely works. The Gaia-lovers seem to prefer this method; but then again, they’re often fond of self-introspection, and that isn’t me. Option One leads to anxiety, depression and mental breakdown. There aren’t many soldiers who want to fill the hours before death—even if it is only simulated—with soul-searching. Time slows to a trickle. Psychological time-dilation, or something like it. There’s no drug that can touch that anxiety.

  Riggs was a Gaia Cultist, for his sins, but I didn’t think that explaining Option One was going to help him. No, Riggs wasn’t an Option One sort of guy.

  Option Two: Find something to fill the time. Exactly what you do is your choice; pretty much anything that’ll take your mind off the job will suffice. This is what most troopers do. My personal preference—and I accept that it isn’t for everyone—is hard physical labour. Anything that really gets the blood flowing is rigorous enough to shut down the neural pathways.

  Which led to my current circumstances. An old friend once taught me that the best exercise in the universe is that which you get between the sheets. So, in the hours before we made the drop to Daktar Outpost, I screwed Corporal Daneb Riggs’ brains out. Not literally, you understand, because we were in our own bodies. I’m screwed up, or so the psychtechs tell me, but I’m not that twisted.

  “Where’d you get that?” Riggs asked me, probing the flesh of my left flank. His voice was still dopey as a result of post-coital hormones. “The scar, I mean.”

  I laid on my back, beside Riggs, and looked down at the white welt to the left of my stomach. Although the flesh-graft had taken well enough, the injury was still obvious: unless I paid a skintech for a patch, it always would. There seemed little point in bothering with cosmetics while I was still a line trooper. Well-healed scars lined my stomach and chest; nothing to complain about, but reminders nonetheless. My body was a roadmap of my military service.

  “Never you mind,” I said. “It happened a long time ago.” I pushed Riggs’ hand away, irritated. “And I thought I made it clear that there would be no talking afterwards. That term of the arrangement is non-negotiable.”

  Riggs got like this after a session. He got chatty, and he got annoying. But as far as I was concerned, his job was done, and I was already feeling detachment from him. Almost as soon as the act was over, I started to feel jumpy again; felt my eyes unconsciously darting to my wrist-comp. The tiny cabin—stinking of sweat and sex—had started to press in around me.

  I untangled myself from the bedsheets that were pooled at the foot of the cot. Pulled on a tanktop and walked to the view-port in the bulkhead. There was nothing to see out there except another anonymous sector of deep-space. We were in what had once been known as the Quarantine Zone; that vast ranch of deep-space that was the divide between us and the Krell Empire. A holo-display above the port read 1:57:03 UNTIL DROP. Less than two hours until we reached the assault point. Right now, the UAS Bainbridge was slowing down—her enormous sublight engines ensuring that when we reached the appointed coordinates, we would be travelling at just the right velocity. The starship’s inertial damper field meant that I would never be able to physically feel the deceleration, but the mental weight was another matter.

  “Get dressed,” I said, matter-of-factly. “We’ve got work to do.”

  I tugged on the rest of my duty fatigues, pressed down the various holo-tabs on my uniform tunic. The identifier there read ‘210’. Those numbers made me a long-termer of the Simulant Operations Programme—sufferer of an effective two hundred and ten simulated deaths.

  “I want you down on the prep deck, overseeing simulant loading,” I said, dropping into command-mode.

  “The Jackals are primed and ready to drop,” Riggs said. “The lifer is marking the suits, and I ordered Private Feng to check on the ammunition loads—”

  “Feng’s no good at that,” I said. “You know that he can’t be trusted.”


  “I didn’t mean it like that,” I corrected. “Just get dressed.”

  Riggs detected the change in my voice; he’d be an idiot not to. While he wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the box, neither was he a fool.

  “Affirmative,” he said.

  I watched as he put on his uniform. Riggs was tall and well-built; his chest a wall of muscle, neck almost as wide as my waist. Hair dark and short, nicely messy in a way that skirted military protocol. The tattoo of a winged planet on his left bicep indicated that he was a former Off-World Marine aviator, while the blue-and-green globe on his right marked him as a paid-up Gaia Cultist. The data-ports on his chest, shoulders and neck stood out against his tanned skin, the flesh around them still raised. He looked new, and he looked young. Riggs hadn’t yet been spat out by the war machine.

  “So we’re being deployed against the Black Spiral?” he asked, velcroing his tunic in place. The holo-identifier on his chest flashed “10”; and sickeningly enough, Riggs was the most experienced trooper on my team. “That’s the scuttlebutt.”

  “Maybe,” I said. “That’s likely.” I knew very little about the next operation, because that was how Captain Heinrich—the Bainbridge’s senior officer—liked to keep things. “It’s need to know.”

  “And you don’t need to know,” Riggs said, nodding to himself. “Heinrich is such an asshole.”

  “Talk like that’ll get you reprimanded, Corporal.” I snapped my wrist-computer into place, the vambrace closing around my left wrist. “Same arrangement as before. Don’t let the rest of the team know.”

  Riggs grinned. “So long as you don’t either—”

  The cabin lights dipped. Something clunked inside the ship. At about the same time, my wrist-comp chimed with an incoming priority communication: an officers-only alert.

  EARLY DROP, it said.

  The wrist-comp’s small screen activated, and a head-and-shoulders image appeared there. A young woman with ginger hair pulled back from a heavily freckled face. Early twenties, with anxiety-filled eyes. She leaned close into the camera at her end of the connection. Sergeant Zoe Campbell, more commonly known as Zero.

  “Lieutenant, ma’am,” she babbled. “Do you copy?”

  “I copy,” I said.

have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for the last thirty minutes. Your communicator was off. I tried your cube, but that was set to private. I guess that I could’ve sent someone down there, but I know how you get before a drop and—”

  “Whoa, whoa. Calm down, Zero. What’s happening?”

  Zero grimaced. “Captain Heinrich has authorised immediate military action on Daktar Outpost.”

  Zero was the squad’s handler. She was already in the Sim Ops bay, and the image behind her showed a bank of operational simulator-tanks, assorted science officers tending them. It looked like the op was well underway rather than just commencing.

  “Is Heinrich calling a briefing?” I asked, hustling Riggs to finish getting dressed, trying to keep him out of view of the wrist-comp’s cam. I needed him gone from the room, pronto.

  Zero shook her head. “Captain Heinrich says there isn’t time. He’s distributed a mission plan instead. I really should’ve sent someone down to fetch you …”

  “Never mind about that now,” I said. Talking over her was often the only way to deal with Zero’s constant state of anxiety. “What’s our tactical situation? Why the early drop?”

  At that moment, a nasal siren sounded throughout the Bainbridge’s decks. Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, the engines were cutting, the gravity field fluctuating just a little to compensate.

  The ship’s AI began a looped message: “This is a general alert. All operators must immediately report to the Simulant Operations Centre. This is a general alert …”

  I could already hear boots on deck around me, as the sixty qualified operators made haste to the Science Deck. My data-ports—those bio-mechanical connections that would allow me to make transition into my simulant—were beginning to throb.