And So Space Burns
A short sci-fi story by Sam Oliver [Eris]
The red star is immense, filling the space surrounding it with ruddy red light and illuminating a dark metal monstrosity in orbit around it.
Slide in from the emptiness of that space, closer and closer, and you might make out Sirius Station, so filled with memory and regret, ancient and spinning forever through the vastness of space. Watch it turning slowly, and see the lights on the station, beacons to draw in the lost or desperate.
Or, in the case of one man currently slumped against a bulkhead, the vengeful and the grieving.
Adial Shard takes a long, deep breath, hands squeezed shut tight into fists, eyes closed, heart pounding in his breast. His heavy head aches with every step, every jarring movement he makes. His eyes are open, but they can’t see. Slowly, working from his name up, he tries to make sense of what has happened.
Pain fades from his eyes and his head, but slowly. With its departure, thought rolls in.
It’s too blurry to be coherent.
Am I alive? My body aches. I can’t think right. I’m bleeding!
The messages from his own body all scream at him at once.
“You’ll never get him back, Addy,” A taunting feminine voice jeers. The noise scrapes across his consciousness. That’s right.
She’d killed his partner. And he’d come back. Why had he come back? He could have just left this section of the station alone He hadn’t had any reason to come back.
He grinds his hands against the deck and then forces himself upright. A horrible stink, of burnt flesh and ozone, reaches his nose. He can’t tell if it’s his or not.
Shard grits his teeth, breath hissing between them as he staggers up.
His eyes are just opening when she strikes him. The blow cracks his ribs, knocking him backward, slamming him against the bulkhead, and dropping him to his knees, agony flaring up along splintered bone and jerking him wide awake. His eyes snap open fully, and catch a glimpse of her, sliding back into the shadows of one of Sirius Station’s many corridors. Her long, bony tail flicks out of the darkness and raps on the metal of the bulkhead near his face.
She isn’t growling or hissing, as he’d been told ferals would do. She isn’t in a horrible wild rage. She’s being cold, calculating…. cruel. A one hundred eighty degree reversal from her usual sunny self– but really he had expected nothing less.
If she’s smart, however… suddenly Adial feels too small, too alone, and too tired.
The licks of fire caress his ribs again as he pushes away from the damn bulkhead, staggering off, away from her, uselessly, helplessly.
His chest is burning, every step sends spikes of pain shuddering across his midriff.
“No,” He whispers, stumbling towards the airlock. He slams one hand into the scanner at its center, and then collapses against the door as the computer processes his request, blaring a warning as his blood is smeared against the metal.
Vital signs at 30% optimal level. the glowing yellow text flashes in his visor. Suggested course of action: Seek medical attention.
No shit, Shard thinks. Next it’ll tell me we’re in space.
Blood from his hand. Blood from his chest. He’s dripping it. He can taste it.
“Just open the damn door,” Shard hisses. “Before she gets bored.”
The airlock door unlocks and opens forth. Air sucks at him, pushing him forward into the chamber.
He half-turns, staring back out the door at her yellow eyes. They grow wide as the door slams shut but even as she pads out it’s too late, and just as the interlocking metal closes, he hears a hiss and the screech of her bony claws dragging down the shiny surface of the airlock’s exterior.
She hadn’t thought he had the heart to do it. Now she knows better.
Shard slumps against the side of the airlock. From here, will the computer even be able to understand him? His hands are shaking.
His whole body is shaking.
Shock. Or poison from her claws. Is that why his ribs feel as though they’ve been filled with molten lead? Is that the source of the burning in his blood? He doesn’t know. It could be either. It could be neither. Perhaps it’s both. It doesn’t matter. Shit.
“Computer, cold trace her for me, will you?”
Insufficient data. No scan has been run on her, Captain Shard.
“Huh. Could’ve sworn I ordered one when she first came aboard.”
Scanners were offline at the time. Your orders were to make sure that scans were done after they were repaired, but I still needed your authorization, and you never answered when I asked.
“When were they repaired?” Shard asks, a sinking feeling added to the burning of his nerves.
According to my memory banks, they were finished being repaired at exactly twenty cycles after her arrival.
Yes, Captain. Captain Shard, your injuries are likely to be life-threatening if they remain untreated. You should seek medical assistance immediately.
Adial Shard decides to ignore that. With blood running down the inside of his suit and dripping warmly down the side of a gash in the mesh on his leg, he knows full well just how badly injured he is. Without access to one of Sirius Station’s many medical bays– being in an airlock– his options are limited.
So. This is it, then. Better to die here than to be brought before the Archon, like Tymmet and Fade. Better to suffer the injustice of bleeding to death from an alien slash wound than face Sirius like he was.
Pounding against the door. She must be eager to get at him. Desperate even. If she suspected that he was about to die, she would be even more so, no doubt.
Blood trickles down his thigh. He watches the red mix with the white dimly. Reddish, really, more like purple. Oxygen deprived. When had he last taken a breath?
Shard draws in air, and it tastes stale.
Captain Shard, the oxygen supply in the airlock is insufficient to support an organism of your size.
“No shit,” he whispers, barely daring to breathe. Which would be worse? Suffocation or laceration?
A howling, screeching cry sounds from the area behind him. He takes what might be his final breath, and just as he does, a warning displays in his visor. He stares at the words for a second without comprehending before they finally burn in his mind.
Brace for boarding procedure, Captain Shard.
There’s a dull thump and then Shard is thrown onto his cracked ribs, pitched forward as the whole lock rolls. Agony spikes through his nerves, and he writhes, kicking out and smacking his forehead against the metal frame of the floor.
Someone on the outside- the far side!- of the airlock is cycling the door. Shard can make them out as only a shadow as the door slides away and a single boot steps into the lock.
There’s a rush of fresh air blowing over his face and streaming over his cracked and burned arm. Dream-like, Shard pushes himself up onto his knees, and then stands, straightening slowly, staring at the shadow eclipsed by shining, blinding light.
The silhouette resolves itself into a blurry face. An androgynous face Captain Shard knows a little too well.
“Shard,” S/he says, folding he/r arms. “It’s been a while.”
“Mack?” Adial Shard whispers, swaying on his feet. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“You’re injured,” S/he says quietly, moving to stand next to him and taking his arm, inspecting it critically with a calm, matter-of-fact gaze before turning to his damaged ribs and his torn chest. S/he puts he/r hand on Shard’s cheek. Shard opens his mouth again.
“Shut up,” Mack says sharply, before he can even speak. “There’s no time for talk. What I’m going to do is gonna hurt, but you’ll feel better afterwards, so it’s best if you just sit back and try to relax. Just log away all your stupid questions for now.”
Shard closes his mouth again and sits there, staring at his old friend in a total stupor. Mack leans forward, and gods damn it, it all comes back to him. he/r swaying, curved hips, he/r freckled, pale skin. he/r completely bald, genetically altered body- round grey eyes as hard as marble. Mack is all about presentation, and s/he does it quite well. The only glaring flaw, in Shard’s opinion, is the embedded chip- right where he/r navel should be. A chip marking Mack as both a psionic and a Fluid.
S/he’d left without a word, years and years ago. Without a goodbye or a warning of any kind.
Shard reaches out and brushes his fingertips against Mack’s forehead. “Mack-”
“Shush.” S/he sets he/r hand on Shard’s arm, but doesn’t pull away from his touch.
“I’m not hurt there,” Shard protests weakly. “I-”
“Shard, you’ve been injured all over. I can feel your cuts, I can feel your pain, and frankly, I’m amazed you’re even conscious right now. Shut up, lie back, and hold still.”
Mack goes to work. Shard lies back, taking in a deep breath.
Fresh, freezing air enters his lungs. His cracked ribs ache, and when Mack’s hand touches his chest he feels he might just pass right out. Then, when s/he begins to knit his bones back together with he/r psionic power and all of Shard’s nerves scream at once, he does.
His eyes open again. It’s only been moments, of that he’s absolutely certain, but his chest and his ribs both feel as though they’ve been healing for months. They also feel compressed. He stares at Mack, who lies flat against his chest. S/he probably hadn’t been sleeping very well lately; by the look of it s/he hadn’t since the last time they saw one another, a year or so prior.
Gingerly, Shard moves under his friend, slowly shifting he/r off of himself and taking a deep breath. Sound asleep. How could he fall sound asleep so quickly?
Shard looks down and, in a moment of shock, realizes that Mack’s fingers are red with blood where s/he dug he/r nails into he/rself. S/he’d left stinging tracks all down his chest, too. He can feel the blood welling up under the ragged skin. Adial takes in another shuddering breath, pushing himself up to his feet. He sees Mack stir, but ignores he/r for now, staggering away to the side of the airlock.
Captain Shard. Are you well?
“Forget about me. Do a scan on Mack for me, will you?”
Certainly. One moment please.
Shard sways a little, curling his fingers against the wall. He feels dizzy. His whole world is spinning. But only a few things are on his mind.
The constant pounding on the airlock door had stopped, which likely meant Morfea had given up for the time being. His body isn’t aching anymore either- though his chest burns where Mack’s nails had touched him. What happened?
The computer gives him an answer after what feels like an eternity.
Lifeform ‘Mack’ recognized as Genetically Altered Fluid. Powerful psionic matrix detected in brain pattern. Type IV. Considered threat to ship: Minimal. Mack harbors romantic feelings for lifeform Adial Shard–
“That’s enough, thank you,” Shard snaps. “What’s her… his… uh… What’re Mack’s vitals like?”
Scan indicates the lifeform ‘Mack’ is functioning at 90% optimal. Scan indicates that Mack is currently conscious, but he/r psionic presence is at present hovering outside of the airlock door. Moderately damaging abrasions have been detected on Mack’s hands.
Source suggests that these abrasions are due to the subject’s nails digging deeply into he/r palms.
Mack has sustained extreme mental stress. It is likely s/he is simply busy attempting to heal he/r mind.
“Very thorough, computer. Thank you. Keep a cold trace on Mack for me, will you?”
As you wish, Captain. Are you planning to go somewhere?
Yeah, Shard thinks to himself. He doesn’t answer out loud. Instead, he walks to the other side of the airlock. “Computer, send a bot to come collect Mack. I’m… going to provide a diversion.”
Captain, that is highly inadvisable. The lifeform Morfea is–
“Yeah, I know,” Shard mutters, slapping a hand against the lock door. “I’ll take care of her. You get Mack somewhere safe. I’m not about to let a debt go unpaid. Hook he/r up to the psyche lab. I’ll deal with he/r when I get there. I’ll be fine.”
Just fine, Shard thinks to himself. It’s not like I’ll be using tranq rounds this time.
Morfea, beyond the lock door as it opens, trills, a low, vibrating sound that rises in pitch into a howl the moment he steps from the lock. Shard stands between the feral creature and Mack, and he’s keenly aware of the situation he’s in. The hairs on his arms rise as the noise turns into something more primal, something darker, edgier.
The flickering lights shining down from the overgrown ceiling overstimulate his eyes. The airlock had been dim, and the sudden transition nearly staggers him. A sickly sweet smell reaches his nostrils– he can feel his heart beating, and it makes him tremble. It’s just as bad as it had been when he first faced her. This time, though, he has a purpose other than simple survival.
“He’s gone, Addy,” That soft, mercurial voice hisses from the shadows. “I’ve gnawed on his bones. I’ve tasted his sweet flesh and made his essence my own.”
Her voice is sending chills down his spine. Adial Shard steps away from the lock door. A sense of powerless terror takes root in the pit of his stomach.
Shard unholsters his pistol. He’d put phosphorescent rounds in it earlier. The clip had been exceedingly expensive. Three whole chips’ worth.
Shard’s finger touches the firing stud as he draws away from the wall. A classic chamber-fired vacuum-capable pistol. The thing uses the first dimensional principle to store twice as much energy as a conventional railer might. Firing it once would begin the storing process, and if allowed to hit the maximum capacitor limit, the weapon could punch a hole three inches deep in solid hullmetal.
They had been banned in the old cycles because of accidental discharges– which, due to the sheer penetration power of the rounds, could in turn lead to the explosive decompression of whole sections of the station.
Shard thumbs the firing stud, checking quickly to make sure the round is in, and feels the gun vibrate in his hand, a slow, steady thrum.
Adial Shard takes one step forward and certain as starlight, Morfea the Feral pads out in front of him and fixes those enormous steel grey eyes on him. Her bony tail slams into the floor on either side of her, denting the metal as it flicks back and forth catlike. She stretches lazily, never taking her eyes off him. Sharp claws drag screeching trails across the floor, digging in and scraping long tracks, kicking up green and white sparks.
Suddenly, Shard feels like his gun isn’t going to make any difference at all. He fingers the firing stud, gun still pointed straight down. Behind him, the scratched, ancient airlock closes with a screech.
Captain Shard, the scan has been completed. A cold trace is now attached to Morfea. Uploading to Heads Up Display.
Morfea glows in Shard’s vision, outlined in hot white. She opens her first jaw and two of her four eyes glare right at him. Teeth bared, she snarls. “Your stupid little computer won’t help you, and I’m not afraid of some little gun, human.”
How to get her away from here?
Shard’s legs are shaking under him, but his eyes flick to the west corridor, and the welcoming darkness beyond it. It’s a path he knows well. And, he reflects, as Morfea bounds to block it, following his gaze, exactly why he sure as fuck won’t be taking it.
The deck heaves beneath him for a second as the computer throws the station’s spin out of phase. Whether it was for his benefit or not doesn’t matter. He doesn’t really care. He sprints for the east corridor instead, hopping over a sprawling snake briar, wincing as the fangs snap shut next to his toes.
He strides four paces further, whirls and depresses the firing stud with barely a second to aim. The slug hisses through the air and slams Morfea in the shoulder, spinning her around and spattering purple blood across the bulkhead. She barely even slows, leaping, claws raking metal, pushing away and bounding from the wall towards him. Shard thumbs the trigger again, too terrified to swear, turning again, running as the pistol vibrates in his fingers, charging in preparation for a second round. It automatically ejects steam from small slits along its grip as a cooling agent is applied to the dimensional rails. He doesn’t have time to load another slug.
A side passage yawns at him from the right as his feet slap the metal deck. He can practically feel Morfea breathing, bearing down on him, and, desperate, he ducks into it, gasping for breath and swallowing pure terror.
Morfea is too large to follow him, but she doesn’t do anything so dramatic as slap at the hullmetal. Instead, she sits down to wait outside of the slim passage, steel orbs fixed on his retreating back. Shard can feel her there.
Captain Shard, you are bleeding.
Pain doesn’t hit until he has a moment, the passage widening slightly, coming to a small alcove in the station, overgrown with harmless– though ominous– Gameric’s Creeper. Its skull-patterned leaves seem to shift as he walks by.
He blinks at the text for a moment, not registering it, before he leans against the wall and is calm enough to feel the stinging, burning pain all along his right calve. Three long, barbed spines leave wounds as he tugs them out. They aren’t particularly big ones, but they are easily large enough to worry him. The blood-loss could have unpleasant side-effects.
He rolls his thumb against the firing stud absently as he thinks, and the motion triggers its release, causing the gun’s silvered frame to quiver in his grip a moment, almost a mechanical purr.
A dull beep sounds from the hazard symbol at the bottom of his Heads Up Display, the corner of his visor flashing a bright orange and red.
He’d removed the spines. It hadn’t been an intentional, logical action, but one spurred by terror, and now, as he sits here in the calm pool of adrenaline fueled fear, he realizes that it had been an immense mistake. Blood trickles down from the wounds, each little hole streaming it, and even as he drops a hand to cover them, he knows before he touches them and asks for a scan.
“Computer, do a scan on the contents of the blood on my fingers, please.”
As you command Captain Shard. One moment.
He already knows the results, but even so he needs to keep talking, needs to gauge his reactions.
“One, two, three… two… three…” Shard pauses, realizes he’s unable to remember the number after it. “Three…. shit.” He resists the urge to shake his head to try to clear it. If anything, this only confirms his fear. There will be nothing he can do soon. Hopefully he’d provided enough of a distraction for Computer to tend to Mack, but there isn’t any real way to know for sure.
Captain, you have contracted a toxin. The source is suspected to be those spines you recently removed from your leg. As the computer responsible for your safety, I would advise that you make your way to the nearest medical bay.
“Hah,” Shard grunts. “Yeah.”
It’s a mild paralytic. It will slow your reactions and dull your memory.
It also appears to have anti-coagulative properties.
“Uh huh,” Shard mutters, staggering away from the little alcove, ducking under an old sign flashing an advertisement– cycles and full spins old. The hall widens into a streetway, long since overgrown with Creeper and Agnes’s Fern. Sirius Station had been full of people once.
Now? Ghosts and memories, augments and ashes.
Captain Shard clutches at his calf a moment, applying direct pressure to the three deep punctures, even as he steps out onto the street. His fingers are warm. It’s not from the actual Station temperature so much as the hot blood running around them. His hand– his whole leg– is red with it.
Captain Adial Shard, you need to seek medical attention. Your vitals are far too low for you to be upright. You are pushing your body too hard.
Tell me something I don’t know, Shard answers in his head. Out loud: “If you care so much, why don’t you send a bot?”
Captain, you and I both know that I cannot do that. Shame to you for suggesting it. All bots are sealed in Medical Ward and are under standing, Full Priority One orders not to leave until the quarantine is complete.
“Seems like it’s been a little long since that order was issued, yeah?”
Time means nothing, Computer returns silently– but the text seems almost reproachful. I cannot be released from this order by any but the one worthy of finding the command center.
“And only one man has that access, yeah, I get it,” Shard says sharply. “I just wish it were easier to get there.”
He brushes against a curious fern, and it retracts back into its stalk to stare at him with a single eyed tendril.
Shard picks his way carefully around each stalk, frowning as his feet crunch unpleasantly on an ancient, brittle piece of hullmetal, worn down from so many maintenance cycles. The whole street feels eerie.
Captain Shard, the target you asked me to cold trace is nearing your position. I believe she has found you. Morfea is not going to let you live.
Blurrily, Shard curls his fingers against his palms. Hazily, he reaches out for a flashing pad, stumbling towards it from the darkened street. His palm meets the pad’s soft, gelatin surface, and it accepts his touch with a hiss and the screech of ancient hydraulics with too little water.
The door the pad adorns slides to the side. Captain Adial Shard takes a step through into the threshold and, breathing heavy and slow, grits his teeth as he slaps the pad on the wall next to him, simultaneously bringing in flickering light and forcing the dilapidated door to close again. Then he takes another two tottering steps into the room, barely glancing at the surroundings– a simple one room prefab, almost empty, as the inhabitants had long since evacuated. Nothing remains but cold and bitter memory. Shard makes it to the opposite wall before he slumps, shivering uncontrollably, but lifting his pistol and aiming it at the door.
He has no doubt that Morfea will find and try to kill him here. Whether or not she will succeed depends entirely on his aim, and right now he doesn’t feel capable of shooting his own foot, let alone the monster hunting him. Still, he thumbs the firing stud, shaking so badly that the barrel of the gone weaves erratically in his grip.
Biting down on his lip, he wrenches his other hand away from his blood encrusted leg– which, in scabbing over, has at least stopped its bleeding– and instead grips the haft of his weapon, locking his elbows together to keep them from shaking and throwing off his aim. His HUD shows, when he commands for it, a calculation depicting an accuracy estimate of about 70%. With the way Morfea is likely to move, Shard puts his odds more at 2%.
He doesn’t care. He is already set.
He takes a deep, calming breath, and turns his mind towards other things for a time. Morfea isn’t here right now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his mind drifts towards Mack.
Shard had never really understood the entity known as Mack. In all the years that he’d known her– er… him… Shard had been incapable of figuring the thing out. Doubtless she– he– whatever– had been frustrated with Shard for taking so long, but from Mack’s own mouth, Mack had never really expected Shard to understand he/r. S/he wasn’t an androgyn, s/he wasn’t a mutant– Mack was always just Mack, and always would be.
Mack’s body was alluringly alien. To Shard, Mack was beautiful. Is beautiful.
To Shard, such beauty is more than worth fighting for. His fists clench as the gun begins to vibrate loudly in his hand, the hum rising to a roar in his ears.
Shard closes his eyes again, breathing in deeply, letting it go, letting he/r go, letting Mack go in his heart and his mind.
Then the door opens, his eyes snap back, his thumb slams into the stud.
A red hot round grazes Mack’s cheek, hissing by he/r ear and making he/r whole body shake a little. “Shard, what the hell?” S/he snaps. “What are you doing?”
Shard stares, openmouthed, as the Computer’s apologetic text flashes an embarrassed pink along the bottom of his visor.
Captain Shard, I was incapable of tracking it. My systems have never been perfect. When Mack left the airlock I lost sight and only now have I regained a hold on where s/he is. I had not acquired the time to inform you of he/r disappearance.
“Mack,” Shard hisses flatly. “What are you doing? You should be sleeping in med bay by now.”
“So your plan was to send me there before Morfea could get at me?” Mack asks, equally flat. “You’re on the right track. Keep it up.”
Shard focuses, his eyes finding the splotch of red on the side of Mack’s pale, freckled face. The angry burn is swollen already. His overzealous trigger finger had touched off the stud, but had also thrown his aim, or Mack would be sporting a cloud of expanding red and pink mist for a face.
“Fuck,” Shard breathes, pushing himself to his feet and taking a step towards his Fluid friend. “Are you alright?” He reaches out, and Mack stares up at him with those blank steel eyes.
“I haven’t been right for damn close to two years now, Addy,” Mack replies quietly. Shard’s fingers brush he/r cheek. Mack winces, but doesn’t draw back. “You know that you’ll need me if you want to beat her.”
Shard closes his eyes, not trusting his voice, barely trusting his thoughts.
You’ll get hurt, He thinks, as plain as can be.
So what? Mack replies, he/r psionic presence overlapping with Shard’s, though s/he is obviously unimpressed. I get hurt all the time. If you don’t have me with you, you’ll die.
You don’t know that, Shard returns. The thought of losing any part of Mack is making him sick to his stomach. He’d been ready before, now he’s sure he can’t handle life without he/r.
Yes, I do, Mack transmits quietly. I know your limits better than you, Shard. If you fight Morfea alone, you will die.
“I don’t understand,” Shard whispers, voice cracking a little. “Mack…”
Oh, stop being so melodramatic, Mack’s voice says into his mind. The Fluid reaches out and taps his forehead lightly, and for a moment he/r face softens. S/he mouths the words as s/he whispers them in Shard’s head.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Shard closes his eyes.
“Fine,” He says, a little more sharply than he means to. “But stick close to me, and if you so much as feel a pinch from her–”
“I’ll let you know. You act as though we’ve never partnered up before,” Mack interrupts dryly.
“If this goes wrong, we might not have the chance again,” Shard replies, voice tight.
He straightens and, slipping his hand down to clasp Mack’s, lets the Fluid lead him away from the prefab and out onto the wild streets. With his other hand, he gently touches the firing stud on his pistol, priming the charge again. He’s about to load it when Mack speaks.
“Don’t bother, Shard,” Mack says quietly.
“I’m starting the charge,” Shard starts, then replays Mack’s last sentence in his head. S/he’d answered him before he’d said anything. In fact, s/he’d answered him mere moments before the words had escaped his lips.
“Yes, but you won’t get a chance to fire if she attacks.”
“Why, she could attack at any time, right?”
“How good you are doesn’t mean a thing– she’s a psionic abomination with skin and scales. She knows you have a gun– the first damn thing she’ll take care of is that weapon, and the second thing will be you if you play into her hands.”
“I’m a good shot.”
Shard holsters the pistol, releasing the charge with the flick of his index finger and cursing quietly. Too fast. Mack would always be just a little too fast with he/r mind-reading for his comfort. He’d forgotten about that. Even when he got the last word in it never felt like he could get anywhere with he/r.
They continue their walk down the neon streets, past strands of glowing feathered fern. Shard’s hand grips Mack’s tight, as though afraid that he’ll lose he/r. The Fluid isn’t showing anything outwardly. Inwardly, Shard is certain s/he’s just as scared as he is.
Neon streets give way to an immense, softly glowing forest of metal pillars and ribs, prefabs parting and then disappearing to left and right, the path widening out into a long, flat plain stacked with overgrown boxes– in eerie, dormant pillars, covered in Creeper, snake briars. Some Agnes’s Fern stares at the pair as they walk between them, tendrils retracted, watching in solemn silence. Shard follows Mack, picking his way over a snake briar as it lunges for him, envious of the grace with which Mack moves and he/r obvious skill, even in an environment that must be alien to he/r.
“Mack,” Adial Shard starts quietly, after a while. “My computer has a cold trace on her. Couldn’t we just…?”
“No,” Mack replies simply. “The trace won’t work.”
“Computer, do me a favor and tell me where Morfea is, will you?” Shard asks.
Mack gives him a look, but within moments a small display appears at the bottom of Shard’s visor. From the security shot, Shard can make out two figures walking down a wide pathway. One of them is hunched and cat-like with a long, long tail and sharp talons, standing with difficulty on two legs, clutching at the other figure’s hand. The other is himself. He recognizes the dark blood down his back leg.
Shard whirls, spinning around and looking into the glowing dark around him. His heart beats wildly and his thumb slips down to the stud, while his other hand reaches for a slug to load. Surely it was an exaggeration.
Mack reaches out and gently pulls his hand back into he/r own. It feels strangely cold. And not like true flesh, but more like… scale… “Adial! Relax,” S/he whispers sharply. “I need you. Come on, calm down.”
“She’s right here with us,” Shard says hoarsely, tense from head to foot and shaking. “I know she’s there!”
“You saw it on the computer, right?” Mack asks, voice grim.
“It’s faulty. The information is wrong, the feed is wrong– it’s under Morfea’s influence and has been this entire time,” Mack replies flatly. “Shut it down.”
Shard stops dead. Mack, takes one step more and then turns on him. He/r eyes flash, metallic. Steel… Steel.
“Shut it down?” Shard asks quietly. “And for whose benefit would that be?”
Mack’s pupils glow bright yellow, surrounded by a steel iris. He/r mouth is full of jagged fangs.
A report from Morfea’s dossier comes to Shard’s mind almost immediately.
Every single one of her victims had been killed in the same way. Disemboweled and left to die a slow, horrible death. The kicker, the thing he hadn’t understood, was how she’d managed to get close enough. True she was fast, but the victims had seemed to have been in placed without any real cover for her to hide in. It was as if she’d simply pranced up to each of them and they’d been completely unaware of her presence until they were dead. Occasionally one had been found in a room near covered with mildly radioactive burn marks from the civilian-issued gamma pistol, as if he’d been firing randomly in the hopes of hitting something.
Shard’s heart pounds in his chest again, and he pulls his hand from “Mack”, backing away as before his eyes, s/he changes.
Shard loads the slug and taps the stud, then whips the gun up as Morfea materializes where his partner used to be.
Her voice, however, is still Mack’s when she speaks, and after a split second of confusion, Shard has just enough time to process those words before a roaring presence shatters his mind and he blacks out:
“Shard! What are you doing?”
Mack kneels over Shard where he lies on the floor, one hand on the pistol at his side, the other on his forehead. Beside he/r s/he can feel the presence of Morfea, who, frozen in stasis, is completely motionless, mid-swipe, claws extended and mere inches from Mack’s back.
For he/r part, Mack concentrates almost solely on keeping he/r at the edge of containment, working a double-sided battle, tending to the awful red wounds on Shard’s chest and fighting off Morfea’s attempts to break free at the same time. He/r mind shudders under the strain, and he/r breathing quickens as something similar to panic gathers in he/r heart.
Shard can’t be moved. That much is absolutely certain. S/he needs more time to deal with those wounds.
That much is also certain.
Mack stands and steps back, but not before taking the pistol up and holding it in an awkward ready position and what s/he sincerely hopes is the right way. Then, trying not to faint, s/he reverses the stasis while he/r thumb mimics what she saw Shard do, stroking the stud near the top of the grip. It seems to work– she can hear the charge being primed.
As soon as Morfea is free of her private time-bubble, Mack hurls the remnants of the energy towards Shard, freezing him in a similar state, bluish lightning crackling around him and then fading, sparks leaping around him. S/he can’t afford to keep him like that long.
But maybe- just maybe s/he’ll be able to finish this before that becomes a problem.
Morfea lands on her claws, digging them into the hullmetal to stop her momentum and gain complete control of herself. Mack would be impressed if s/he wasn’t terrified. The creature’s psionic strength had been much better than s/he had expected.
But unfocused. Morfea is, after all, an adolescent. Though given raw power by her recent advancement to the second phase of her life-circle, Morfea hasn’t had enough time to learn control.
Mack straightens shakily, the pistol primed and charged, aimed at the alien’s head, held in both hands. “Easy there,” Mack whispers. “Come on now, why are you even here?”
S/he’s glad Shard isn’t awake to see he/r trembling. She knows where it comes from. Any stage past child– from adolescent up– would release pheromones. Unique ones, specially crafted for mammalian types, to fill them with overwhelming fear. They are immensely powerful, this close. Mack is finding it difficult to remain standing, and he/r aim is anything but steady. The charge in he/r hand– the pistol’s dull hum slowly rising into a roar– as the gun shakes is not helping at all.
Morfea sits and begins cleaning herself, but her glowing eyes are fixed on Mack’s. Daring the Fluid to fire.
Mack is so startled when Morfea speaks, s/he nearly drops Shard’s pistol.
“Adial is mine,” She hisses, voice low, smoothness gone. “Find your own.”
For a moment, for one moment, Mack sees a flicker, a glimmer in Morfea’s mind, as the walls part for a moment to reveal jealousy and… and something else. Mack strikes at it, diverting some of he/r remaining psionic energies to launch a cautious bolt. It stretches the distance between their minds, but the gap is gone before he/r bolt can even land, and in the time it takes for the bolt to rebound and slam into Mack squarely, Morfea is moving, lightning fast.
Mack stumbles backwards from the force of the mental blow, and then, suddenly, is jerked right off he/r feet as a snake briar snaps around he/r ankles. He/r head slams into the deck as s/he falls, and there’s a brief sense of something immense bounding too far, over he/r. Even so, the movement is so fast that before s/he even hits, s/he feels a raking pain across the top of he/r head.
Mack catches he/rself, years of training flinging he/r into a roll. A roll which would have ended in he/r immediate death, if not for the snake briar wrapped around he/r ankles. S/he is yanked back towards the maw of the plant as Morfea’s razor claws dig into the deck where s/he would have been if Mack had been allowed to complete he/r maneuver.
The snake briar has time to start latching onto he/r ankle, and searing pain lances up Mack’s leg. Mack jerks the pistol around, points it at the briar’s general mass, and taps off the firing stud. Hastily, almost as an afterthought, s/he uses some of he/r energy to erect a quick psionic barrier.
The discharge is like thunder as it shudders through he/r, but the briar disintegrates in a flaming mess, seeds in letting out eerily human screams as they burst from the heat of the slug’s passage. The overcharged round explodes on contact with the hullmetal of the ship, and Mack is peppered with tiny fragments of superheated metal. He/r barrier holds, but can’t stop the shockwave from tearing the pistol from he/r fingers and flinging it across the deck towards Shard’s unconscious body.
Mack rolls away as the toothy vines of the dying snake briar unlatch from around he/r legs. Precognition flares in he/r head. S/he stops midroll, and Morfea slams into the deck beside he/r. In a flash, the creature leaps on Mack.
Somehow the barrier repels Morfea’s attack, literally returning the force of the creature’s leap tenfold, sending the psionic monster hurtling away.
Mack brings he/rself up to he/r knees. Morfea, staggering to her taloned feet, lets out a roar of rage.
For one, blessed moment, she leaves her mind completely open.
Mack unleashes the entirety of he/r psionic strength in one blow, putting everything s/he has into it. S/he cancels he/r shield and wipes he/r own mental defenses in the process of gathering he/rself, and then flings it all at Morfea’s unprotected psyche in one overwhelming burst.
Morfea’s mind shatters and her body reels, but she isn’t down. Now nothing but a mindless monster, she coils and leaps towards Mack like a murderous spring, unheeding anything but raw, primal fury. She is an unstoppable force, and Mack, who lifts up he/r hands weakly in futile defense, is about to be crushed. The Fluid closes he/r eyes.
A shot thunders out.
The round slams into the side of Morfea’s body and tumbles her through the air for a good fifteen feet before she slams into the bulkhead. She leaves a trail of blood on the wall before she rolls back on her belly and lies there, unmoving.
Shard, from where he propped himself up on the deck, lowers the pistol and slumps against the hullmetal.
Mack comes back to he/rself after a moment, eyes opening, snapping to Morfea, then to Shard and the steaming, vacuum-capable revolver in his hand.
“No,” S/he breathes. S/he can’t stand– s/he just crawls over to him, putting a hand to his shoulder and rolling him over on his back. “Shard…”
How had he broken he/r stasis?
His eyes are closed. His breathing is shallow, but, as s/he leans over him, putting a useless hand on his chest, he smiles. Mack gulps down he/r feelings for a moment, and takes quick stock of he/r options. S/he’s out of energy. S/he could pull some from reserves, but to do so would risk losing control and becoming like Morfea. A feral.
Mack takes Shard’s helmet off. It can’t be doing him much good right now.
S/he finds, as s/he strokes Shard’s short black hair, that s/he could bear it if it meant s/he could save him…
Mack closes he/r eyes and opens a door in the back of he/r mind, slowly at first, letting just a crack show…
An alarm breaks he/r out of he/r semiconscious state, startles he/r from he/r trance. It’s a dull beep, but sufficiently disturbing enough to make he/r pay attention. S/he searches, spending precious seconds attempting to find out where the noise had come from. Following it to its source, the Fluid finds a short, black panel on the wall. S/he doesn’t recognize any of the symbols on it. Whatever it’s written in, it isn’t Standard. S/he catches sight of a terminal, set in just above it, with characters s/he can read.
Adial Shard’s lifesigns are critical. Dispatching medical assistance bots. Do not apply psionic pressure to Captain Shard’s wounds. The cuts created by Morfea’s claws are filled with a toxin that reacts violently to mental command. Scans indicate that Morfea is still living. Do what is necessary.
The computer’s words end there. No more seem forthcoming, though Mack waits a few seconds just to be sure.
Mack turns, walks back to Shard, tears strips of he/r simple white suit away, wraps them around his wounds, and finally turns to Morfea’s unconscious form. Her breathing is ragged and the creature is lying in a pool of its own blood.
She’d killed Shard’s partner, attacked Adial Shard, and nearly killed Mack he/rself. To leave her alive would be the most dangerous thing Mack feels s/he could possibly do.
Mack retrieves the pistol from Shard’s unconscious hand and does exactly what she feels is necessary.
“It’s not a perfect universe,” Mack whispers quietly, much, much later. S/he kneels next to Captain Shard’s medical bed, hands folded on his arm. “I think we can be sure of that.”
“It isn’t,” Shard agrees. “If it were, these beds’d be a lot more comfortable.”
“You know what I mean.”
Shard sighs, closing his eyes a moment. He opens them again and stares at the ceiling.
“You loved her,” Mack says softly.
“She was like a daughter to me, Mack,” Shard says, voice breaking a little. “I helped raise her, you know that. You shut yourself down to these thoughts when you’re on the job, but…”
Shard is silent a while. Then he takes a deep breath and lets it out in another sigh.
“Well, I’m sure you made the right choice.”
“We’ll see,” Mack replies lightly.
Quiet descends again. Captain and Fluid lock gazes, then let them fall away, eyes drifting elsewhere, neither one willing to bear witness to the pain of the other.
“Archon will pay for what he made her into,” Shard says suddenly, fiercely. “I’ll punt him out the nearest airlock.”
“Archon is out of our reach right now, Shard,” Mack’s voice is matter-of-fact. “Besides that, I wouldn’t want you to kill him so fast.”
“There might be a way to reverse it.”
“Reverse…?” Shard starts, then it hits him. “Morfea? You think she can still be saved?”
“I think if anyone knows how, it’ll be that bastard Archon. In the meantime, stasis isn’t that bad. It’s like… a long sleep. When she wakes up, maybe she’ll be right again,” Mack smiles a little, then shakes he/r head.
“I told you about her when I woke up, I know, but I’m still curious,” Shard whispers, leaning over onto his side and wincing. “How did you know I didn’t want her killed?”
Mack rolls he/r eyes. “You shot her with a tranq, Shard. You had phosphorescent rounds loaded the entire time, but you never shot a single one at her. Under the effects of her pheromones you were trying your damnedest not to kill her. Even when she screwed with your perceptions and made me start to look like her, you still hesitated. If you really had wanted her dead, you would’ve fired at the slightest hint of her.”
“Ah. Well, when you put it like that, it sounds perfectly obvious.”
“You’re an idiot, Shard,” Mack says affectionately, and runs a hand through his black hair. He opens his mouth as if about to protest, but closes it again when he sees he/r expression. Mack grins down at him.
S/he leans forward until h/er lips graze his forehead.
“But you’re my idiot.”
Adial Shard, his body on fire in many more ways than one, pushes past the pain to embrace his Fluid friend. They cling to each other, lost, desperate, and certain of only one thing.
Pull away from Sirius Station, so filled with memory and regret, ancient and spinning forever through space. Watch it turning slowly, and see the lights on the station, beacons to draw in the lost or desperate.
See them as they are dwarfed by the star which they orbit, an immense red star that seems to set the entirety of the system ablaze.
©2012 Sam Oliver [Eris]
Well, here it is after forever. Sci fi, this time! You can tell because of the space. I hope you all enjoy it, because it took me quite a while! Questions, comments, criticism? Slap it down here! I’m always looking for advice and thought out comments!