Sample Sunday – A Free Short Story: U5H3R
As part of the Sample Sunday event, here is my short story, U5H3R, totally free!
A man nearing the end of his fifth life is summoned to the edges of the known universe by an old friend who promises to show him the dawn of a new science.
In orbit of a dying star, the two men will struggle to understand the mysteries of life and that some things are better left dead…
A Mirrormask Fiction set in the distant future.
During the dull, dark days of the autumn of my fifth life, as my body began to collapse around me and my next reincarnation fast approached, I transferred my consciousness into a mime for the journey to the star U5H3R.
My reasons for travelling so late in life were twofold. First, I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that my fifth life was ending and that I would soon be diving down into the monotonous dark of the reincarnation process. A century spent away from my life, my friends and my art seemed too much to contemplate and I was looking for something to distract my mind.
Second, I had received a most peculiar communiqué carried between the songs of stars from a man who claimed to have once been my brother-in-law. It took a whole day of trawling through memories of my former lives before I found the remembrances I required.
Remembrances I had purposefully occulted from my third life.
Laura. The moment I downloaded the memories into my current body’s cybernetic cortex, all of the feelings flooded back. She was beautiful, a Terran rose with red hair and dusky skin, freckles that powdered her nose as much as her buxom bosom. We had met on Nova Terra, one of those nostalgic throw backs to early Empire Earth that were so in vogue in the mid-27th century. I spent three months there, travelling the perfectly reconstructed continents, from simulacra to simulacra –ParisandLondonand the Virginia Arcology. Laura and I met on a boat descending an old Earth river named theNile, marvelling at the ancient constructs that had stood the passage of time.
Our love affair was passionate and fiery and tender. We were married within the year, moving in to my full time home on the coast ofGrabledork. For two years, we were blissfully happy.
Until the day she was taken from me. Not for a reincarnation treatment, nor out of any desire on either of our behalves to taste the forbidden fruit of other flesh.
No, Laura was taken from me in the most brutal fashion possible – murdered in such a way as to make her resurrection impossible.
After downloading the memories – and feeling the pain of loss still not dulled by centuries and the passing of two full lives – I almost decided to pack them away again and forget. And yet something in Laura’s brother’s words called to me, an impulse I found I couldn’t ignore.
Arranging to travel to the coordinates Inigo had given me proved to be much more difficult than I had expected. The Third Empire might have collapsed into the Grovelling Regency, and yet I had come to expect a certain level of stability through the rise and fall of the human race’s governing entities. Unfortunately, that stability did not extend out to the Euribian Galaxy where Inigo had made his home.
Using the dart-network to transfer my consciousness as far as I could, I woke in a mime body on the outlier world of Charys. An industrial hole in the galaxy, Charys’ atmosphere was as full of poisons, dust and nuclear off throw as the late 21st century world that had given rise to my people. The human populace was small, overwhelmed by the indigenous population of tiny grey aliens. Still, I saw a large number of fellow mimes, most of them uncustomised ghosts with pale skin and no expression.
Once on Charys, I needed to find passage to the outer edge of the galactic circle. I managed to acquire a small mimetic needle, a flesh-and-steel construct made up of a tapering primary hull that could safely carry my mime, two thruster arrays and a folding engine. Transferring the funds from my bank account, I downloaded my consciousness into the needle and headed out into deep space.
Two days later, I arrived in the U5H3R system. Three planets spinning around a dying coldstar, and an Ooort cloud on the outskirts, the U5H3R system was desolate. There had never been the slightest hint of life on any of those planets, although the one closest to the star would have been a perfect location for nitrogen-based lifeforms to evolve.
Inigo Bornaris Lithews Brown Goliath Greel Tobin Smith, fifth of the name, had erected a scientific research station at the null point between the two outer planets. I picked it up through the needle’s outer scanning system and directed the thruster arrays to push me to the nearest docking port. As soon as the metal bridge had been extruded and connected to my tiny ship, I transferred my consciousness back into the mime and entered the station.
Five tiny animal mimes were waiting for me. A Terran rabbit, a Martian canite, a Groshenboor limolac, and two Terran dogs, the mimes wore grey suits over their fur – or, in the case of the limolac, reflective scales – and bowed as I stepped into the cool recycled air.
“Welcome to the Goliath Greel Tobin Smith Research Station,” the rabbit muttered, peering through thick glasses. “I am B78, the master’s primary welcoming slervant.”
I bowed to the rabbit – although Inigo’s slervant force was certainly original, it was far from being the most eccentric mimecry I had ever seen.
“The master will receive you in his inner sanctum, sir.”
“That will be fine, thank you.”
Hopping until he had turned around completely, B78 led the way down the polished steel corridor, the other slervants following behind me. After a few minutes, the corridors changed from the blank metal of the outer tubes to a more homey enhanced wood panelling. The temperature rose as well, to a balmy 35° according to my mime’s internal systems.
It took us about ten minutes to reach the inner sanctum, a large library study that seemed to be located in the inner core of the station. Inigo was waiting for me.
I had done some searching when I received his invitation and had learned that he had suffered through five reincarnations since we had been related. It was a large number, explained by a number of strange accidents and unusual deaths that had led to his constant recycling. His current form, a trueform not a mimetic one, was that of a petite lanky man in his late twenties, with dark hair that tumbled down over a short forehead and into his bespectacled eyes. There was no physical need for the glasses, of course – the reincarnation process could easily have corrected whatever defects might once have existed in his genetic code – so I assumed he wore them for the effect. He looked the part of the tortured scientist.
He gave me a watery smile as I entered his study and stood to shake my hand.
“Welcome, my dear, dear friend,” he enthused, his hand like a limp fish between my fingers. “”It has been so long.”
“Two lifetimes,” I replied dryly.
He gave a squeaking little laugh that grated on my nerves. “Very droll, very droll. I see that those lifetimes haven’t changed you.”
I almost told him that I couldn’t say likewise since my memories of him were vague at best. We had not spent much time together when I was married to his sister, which made his enthusiasm all the more inexplicable.
“Thank you,” I said at last.
A slightly uneasy feeling crept over me. Inigo fell back, allowing me to walk fully into his study. I looked around – the room looked like a reproduction of an old Earth Baroque-style drawing room. Wood panels, heavy drapes, physical books in every nook and cranny. The style had come in and out of fashion two dozen times in the millennia since, though it was hard to know whether this current reproduction was the result of one of those cycles or simply Inigo’s extravagant tastes.
“How have you been?” Inigo asked as I sat.
“Old,” I replied, hearing a slight catch in my voice as I thought about the reincarnation process awaiting me. “You know how it is.”
“It has been a while.”
I smiled at his weak joke, and then looked around the drawing room.
“Quite a place you have constructed here.”
“Thank you. I wanted it to be a reminder of the family home back on Goliath. This and my bedroom are direct replicas. The rest of the station is much more utilitarian – I need space and equipment for my experiments.”
“You mentioned a break through,” I said, referring to the message he had sent me, “but I wasn’t very clear on what exactly you were researching here. And why you thought it would interest me.”
“Well, my research was only part of my reason for asking you here, David. I also wanted to see you. I have been thinking about family a lot in the past few months, and my dear sister in particular. I wanted to see you because we shared a link for a little while there, not a very strong one but one that existed regardless.”
I nodded, a tad worried by the slightly maddened look in my former brother-in-law’s eyes.
“As to what I’m researching, perhaps you would like to see my laboratories?”
Shrugging, I stood up and followed Inigo out of the study. The slervants had vanished, going about their own little duties, leaving us to our own affairs. We made our way through the perfectly clean corridors, eventually coming to a door. Inigo pressed his hand to the plate, revealing a spotless laboratory on the other side.
Strange machines, humming with nanite activity, filled most of the space. A few tables, almost overwhelmed with glass bottles, gleaming tech and more plexipaper than I could count, completed the lab equipment. A massive reinforced wall window gave us a spectacular view of the icedwarf, a perfectly white ball of fire and ice spinning in the dark.
I have to admit that I was quite overcome by the view. I have seen many things in my years, but the icedwarf of U5H3R is one of the most impressive.
“Quite a sight, isn’t she?”
Speechless, I simply nodded.
“This is where I do most of my work into pneumography.”
“Pneumography? I’m not familiar with that branch of the sciences. The study of… breath?”
Inigo chuckled. “An easy translational mistake. No, Pneuma in the ancient sense of the world. The Biblical sense of the word, you could say.”
My incomprehension must have been evident on my face, because Inigo quickly continued, “In the Bible, in the ancient Greek, Pneuma meant more than just breath. It meant the soul.”
The soul. I was familiar with the concept, one that had taken on a wholly different, non-religious connotation in this age of reincarnation and biomimecry. When anyone’s memories and consciousness could be transmitted across light-decades of space, or reincarnated into a brand new body every few hundred years, the idea of a separate entity did not seem so outlandish anymore. However, the idea of such an entity being able to continue its existence without the aid of modern science… I would have scoffed if Inigo had not seemed so damned intense.
“The study of the soul.”
“A fledgling discipline. I am one of its few practitioners, though there are others of us.”
“And what is pneumography exactly?”
“Why, my dear friend, it is the study of no less than the mystery that is immortality. The discovery of that ineffable jewel that is the true human soul.”
I tried to make sense of what he was saying, though the depths of his words was thrown off slightly by the zeal I heard in his voice. I struggled to come up with a way of asking the question I wanted to ask without insulting my host, but in the end I decided that the direct approach was probably best.
“And why, in this day and age, would you want to study that?”
He seemed taken aback by my question, his eyes bulging slightly, the whites catching the reflected yellow of a nearby tabletop.
He spluttered. “But, how can you ask that? You of all men.”
Me of all- Ah. Suddenly, I understood why he had contacted me, why he had been so intent on my coming to visit him here on this lonely station at the edge of a dying galaxy.
“You,” Inigo went on, “who have loved and lost. We have abandoned so much, my brother, now that we have the Reincarnation Protocol. What of religion? What of God?”
My unease grew. I had heard others expound such thoughts, mad-men who accosted people outside Reincarnation centres, or waved banners in the mimecry stations. I was beginning to think that my former brother-in-law was not totally sane.
“My work will be a balm to the lost souls of the Nine Galaxies, my brother! With my discoveries, we will be able to once again reclaim the title of human. The mortal world that we turned away from so many millennia ago is once more within our grasp.”
“But how?” I wanted to reiterate my question of why, but I got the feeling that Inigo would not appreciate his work being brought into question a second time. Better to keep him talking. At least until I could safely slip away back to my ship.
“Why do you think I created my workshop here, so far away from the centre of proto-human activity?” He swept his arms out wide, as if to embrace the whole star system. “This place. This star, to be specific. It is a gateway, my brother. A gateway to the souls of all those we have lost.”
Some of my scepticism must have shone through. Inigo smiled. “I can see that you are far from convinced. I understand. You would not be the first who has trouble embracing the wonders of pneumography. But I will show you, my brother. I will prove to you that my theories work.”
“I would certainly like to see that.”
“Oh you will, brother. Tonight, after dinner, I will give you a demonstration. One that you will not soon forget.”
Inigo dismissed me soon afterwards, claiming that he needed to get back to work. His claim to be able to prove what he claimed left me feeling uneasy, and any hope I had to be able to slip away back to my ship was dashed by the presence of his slervants, who met me outside the library and led me to a room that Inigo had set aside for me.
I rested all the rest of that day, wondering exactly what Inigo hoped to prove to me. More importantly, I wanted to know why he had called me to view his experiments. As he had said, there were other proponents of his kind of thinking out in the Nine Galaxies – surely one of them would have been more suited to serve as a witness.
As the day ended, two of the slervants came to collect me. Neither of them were the ones I had seen earlier – one was a canine derivative, while the other appeared to be some kind of simian. Both of them bowed their heads, though the simian looked at me strangely.
They led me through the corridors, back towards the library where I had first encountered Inigo earlier on. This time, though, I found myself in a small dining room, a holoprojection creating the impression of a hearth and a fire in the far corner. Inigo waited in front of the fireplace, dressed in a dark blue uniform, that of an admiral in the Third Empire’s naval forces. I held back a sardonic snort at the sight – from everything I had learned about my former brother-in-law, the closest he had come to service in the armed forces was a dinner party he held for the High Admirals of the Krundin Hegemony.
“Brother. Thank you for joining me.”
He seemed to tense slightly at the cool tinge to my words and his smile was forced.
I joined him at the table, taking a seat opposite him. With a whir of gears, an ancient android stepped out of a nearby alcove, carrying a tray piled high with an assortment of amuse-bouches. Setting it down carefully, the gold-plated droid servant stepped back out of the way, awaiting further instructions.
“Quite a model,” I commented, studying the centuries old antique.
“My father’s,” Inigo said, helping himself to some kind of paste on bread. “I inherited him after their retirement. IC has been with me for centuries.”
“I can see that.” The droid seemed to be in perfect shape, obviously tended by someone who knew what they were doing. “Do you service him yourself?”
Inigo laughed. “Of course not. I keep a spare mime around and every two years hire a downloadable serviceman program to do the work. I have no interest in mechanics.”
A shame. We might actually have had something to talk about.
The rest of the meal proceeded in the same manner – the droid walked back and forth from the kitchen area, carrying tray after tray of delectable dishes, many of which obviously made of home grown ingredients. Somewhere aboard this station, Inigo had a well stocked farm-module. I wondered whether his slervants worked it, or whether he had an army of antique droids to do his bidding.
As the meal drew to an end, Inigo began to draw the conversation back to his projects. I was reluctant to step back out onto that thin ice, afraid of where his ideas were leading us. Still, I couldn’t exactly refuse to talk to him so I bore his mad ranting as best I could.
“You see,” he began, a glass of amber fusion cradled in his hands, “we have never in all our long history tried to make sense of what happens to our souls when we retire. Whether that retirement be voluntary – as in the case of my parents – or due to a horrid accident, like poor Laura.” He gave a little shiver. “Laura. I still dream of her, you know. My poor sister.”
The silence cut like knives.
“After she died, I devoted myself to the study of the ancients, to their beliefs. Do you know that every single culture in Old Earth history had the belief in an immortal soul of one form or another? Eternal life, resurrection, reincarnation… All of these terms that we bandy around so easily today, found their origins within those ancient beliefs. But we have not found a way to harness the immortal soul, brother. No. We have simply discovered a way to prolong our existence here, on the mortal coil. What of those who were lost? Those who died in such a way that the Reincarnation process was not able to take effect? What of them?”
I didn’t have an answer for him, and I had the distinct impression that he didn’t want one anyway.
“That is what I wish to achieve. What I have achieved.”
“What you have achieved?”
He nodded his head. “Yes, brother. My theories are much more than that. I have done it. I have found a way through the very fabric of mortality, down into the core of existence. I have pierced the mysteries of God, brother.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Resurrection. True resurrection. The ability to bring back from true-death those who have been lost.”
I shook my head. “That’s not possible.”
“Not possible?” He laughed, a hard dry sound, like sand against stone. “I have done it. I’ve seen her.”
His eyes bored into mine, mad and full of fire. “My sister. I have brought her back.”
I fled. After he made his crazy avowal, I pushed my chair away from the table and fled. I heard his voice calling me back, ordering me to return and bear witness to his genius, but I ignored him. I had to get away from him.
The slervants carolled me, of course, forced me away from my ship and back to the room that Inigo had set aside for me. I could have fought them, but in all honesty I needed time to think before I returned to my ship.
Inigo was mad. That much was obvious. He had spent too long on this tiny station with nothing but antique droids and his own slervant creations to keep him company. He had become so obsessed by his research that he had convinced himself that it had succeeded. That he had succeeded. I knew how impossible that had to be.
The question was what I was going to do about it? I could abandon him here to his delusions, allow him to wallow in this madness he had built up around himself. Or I could try and convince him of the folly of his ways, drag him back from the precipice at the top of which he teetered. Bring him back to reality. To civilisation.
As I lay in the darkness of my room, I tried to decide which would be best. Inigo would fight me, I was sure of that. It would take time to convince him of his own madness. I had time, though not an infinite amount. Five years. Five years before I had to be back at one of the Reincarnation Institues, to have my mind hardwired into a Celestial Machine while I waited for a new clone body to be grown. Five years before my century long sleep.
Could I do it in that time? More importantly, would I be able to survive here, on this station, listening to Inigo’s mad rantings about my former wife? I wasn’t sure. The return of my memories of Laura had shown me how much I had cared for her and the pain I had felt on her passing was much more immediate now that those memories were back in the fore of my brain. Could I really listen to him going on about bringing her back from the dead for five whole years?
By the time sleep claimed me, I had yet to make a decision.
I continued to prevaricate over the next few days. I could not seem to make my mind up. I avoided Inigo as much as I could, seeing him only once or twice, and each time he asked me to accompany him to his laboratory again. He claimed to have something to show me, something that would open my mind to the “possibilities” of pneumography. I refused.
Days passed. My feeling of unease grew, fed by strange occurrences that seemed to follow me around the station. As I explored those nooks and crannies that the slervants would allow me to access, I began to feel what people in older, less scientific times would have called hauntings. Whispers echoing in darkened rooms. Cold shivers running down my spine. Flickers of movement in the corner of my eyes. I put it all down to the impression Inigo had made with his wild stories, but a part of me could not help but wonder. What if he was right?
Eventually, my wanderings led me to a control room. Inigo had pushed it far out of the way, leaving the actual day in-day out handling of the station to the sapient intelligence he had installed in its mainframe. Unfortunately, such a sapient can only go so far in its duties. What I discovered on the screens in that darkened chamber convinced me that I had no more time to lose.
I had to get myself and Inigo off the station. Before it was too late.
I met Inigo in the dining room that evening.
He had taken the time to shower and dress, changing out of his white work clothes into a more comfortable dark grey suit that would not have looked out of place on pre-Awakening Earth. When I walked in, still dressed in the same dusty jumpsuit I had worn in my explorations, he stood over by the main viewer, staring out at the star.
Turning to greet me, he afforded me a bright smile. “Brother. You finally decided to join me.” He took in my dirt ridden clothes and sniffed. “Though you might have made an effort in your dining attire.”
“I’m not here to play games with you, Inigo. I came to tell you that we have to leave.”
His amiable expression faded, replaced by an angry countenance. “I thought we had been over this, brother. I am not leaving. I have no intention of leaving. You can’t make me leave.”
“You don’t understand. If you don’t listen to me, you’re going to die. Both of us are.”
He snorted. “Impossible. Or rather entirely possible, but not for a good long while. That is the whole reason I have launched these studies of-“
“Don’t.” He closed his mouth, surprised by my seething tones. “Just don’t. I don’t want to hear about your experiments. Whatever you think you may have found here, whatever this gateway that you believe you’ve located, one thing is certain. The star we’re orbiting is dying. And in a few days, it is going to take us with it.”
For the first time since I had arrived on the cursed station, Inigo reacted with genuine surprise. His eyes flared, and he took a step back, clutching at his chest.
“That… That is impossible.” His voice came out as a hoarse whisper.
“I’m afraid it isn’t, Inigo. I can show you the proof if you wish, taken directly from your own station’s computers. I am sorry, but it is true. U5H3R is going to die. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
His eyes dropped to the floor, the skin on his face taking on a pale glow. I could see his left hand shaking slightly, and I felt sorry for him. His plans might have been insane, but they were the only things holding him together. I took a step towards him.
“I am sorry, Inigo, truly I am. Perhaps we can find another star, one more suited to-“
“No!” He spat the word at me, his face lifting and his eyes boring into mine. “There is no other star. This is the gateway. She told me it was. She told me.”
I allowed myself to fall back a step. His insanity had obviously taken a stronger hold than I had initially believed. I tried to take a soothing tone of voice. “Inigo, I am sure there will be other opportunities, but this is not worth your life.” Or mine. “Please, if you’ll just come with me, I’m sure we can…”
Inigo moved before I had a chance to finish. With surprising speed, he threw himself at me. I felt his weight hit me and then I was down, the room spinning around me. I lifted my hands to try and force him off, but my former brother-in-law was stronger than I had expected. Perhaps it was the strength of the mad, or perhaps he had enhanced this body in some way, but he was able to subdue me much too easily.
He growled, a guttural sound coming from deep inside his throat, his hands gripping my throat while his legs held my lower body tight. I grabbed at his chin with my own hands, pushing backwards as hard as I could to throw him off of me. Although his head did begin to inch upwards, I could tell that I was going to lose consciousness before I could actually stop him. Black spots had already begun to whirl in the corners of my vision.
“Inigo.” I tried to say his name, but it came out as a choked sob. “Please.”
The last thing I saw before the darkness surrounded me completely and dragged me down into its cold embrace were Inigo’s maddened eyes filling up with tears.
I woke up in my room.
After a moment of confused disorientation, memory flooded back with the force of the tide. Along with the recollections of Inigo’s enraged attack came the pain. I felt at my neck with shaky hands, wincing as my fingertips touched the raw bands where Inigo’s fingers had tried to choke me.
Gingerly, I sat up, finding the living chamber draped in darkness. Inigo must have had some of his slervants carry me back, but at least I was alive and relatively unharmed. For now. If I didn’t manage to get out of this room, though, I knew that I would die – no matter what Inigo did. U5H3R would see to that.
Managing to get to my feet, I made my way over to the door. A futile gesture. The door remained as firmly shut as I had expected, locked from the outside. Inigo had decided that I posed too much of a risk to be allowed free access to his station anymore. That meant I was going to have to try and find some way out of the room to have any chance of escaping with my life. I had still not decided whether I was going to try and take Inigo with me.
I spent the next hour or so moving around the walls of my prison, testing the plates and searching for the wiring I knew must control the inner controls. All to no avail. One thing I had to allow my former brother-in-law – he knew how to build a space station. There was not a single wall plate nor access pad out of place. I was trapped.
Or so it seemed. After checking the room, I collapsed onto the bed, despair seizing me. I had my face buried in the pillow when I heard a scratching sound from just outside my cell door. I looked up just in time to see it swish open, revealing the corridor beyond.
I scrambled to my feet and was about to leave when a wolf appeared in the doorway. I froze, staring at it, feeling my fear rise to my gorge.
“What… What do you want? Did he send you?” Thoughts of Inigo roused my anger and I shouted at the wolf. “Did he? Did your master send you to collect me? To kill me?”
The wolf slervant shook its head slightly from side to side. “Well what then? Come on, tell me!”
The wolf shook its head again. Her silence confounded me and my anger faded. All slervants, no matter what they started their lives as, were given the gift of speech along with the gift of sentience. It was part of the raising process. Why did this wolf seem unable?
Seeing the understanding dawning in my eyes, the wolf barked once. Then it turned and darted away from the door.
“Hey,” I shouted, following it out into the corridor. Instead of finding it empty, as I had expected, the wolf was waiting for me at the corner. It barked again, encouraging me to follow.
So began one of the strangest pursuits in my life. I followed the wolf through the corridors of Inigo’s station, always a few steps behind, responding to its barks of encouragement with a quickening of my step. It led me through the maze until eventually I turned a corner and found it waiting for me in front of a small door.
My ageing body had betrayed me and I was huffing and panting by the time I caught up. The wolf sat on its haunches, looking at me with its tongue lolling out. I got the feeling that it was laughing at me, and for a moment something in the wolf’s expression seemed hauntingly familiar. The feeling vanished as quickly as it had appeared, though, and I pushed it away.
The wolf barked after a moment, and I nodded, pushing myself upright again. I stepped over to the door and to my surprise it swished open, revealing a finely appointed bed chamber. The furnishings were Imperial, all artificial woods and polished metals. I walked into the plush room, looking around in astonishment as the sight sparked memories.
The room was a perfect facsimile of the bed chamber I had once shared with Laura.
Before I could try and make sense of what I was seeing, the wolf pushed past me, padding over to the bed. I noticed the holographic projector a second before the wolf placed one paw on the controls, activating it with a dull hum.
Immediately, two figures appeared on the bed, the holographic projection as solid as if they were real. It took me a moment to identify both naked bodies as myself and Laura.
By Balthazar and his Beard. What the hell was my brother-in-law doing with this?
As I watched us make love passionately on the bed, the wolf padded over to me, nudging my leg with its head. I absently reached down and patted it, my eyes fixed on the astonishing spectacle. Only when the wolf nudged me again did I look down.
It had a small leather bound book gripped between its teeth. The wolf lifted its snout towards me, indicating that I should take possession of the journal. I did so, glancing back at the bed to see Laura arch her back as I entered her from behind, her moans and gasps sending tiny shivers down my spine.
Flicking the book open, my mouth gaped open. The first page I saw had an elaborate drawing of Laura, naked as her holographic projection, every detail perfectly rendered. A man was nestled between her legs, back to whoever studied the picture.
That man was Inigo.
It took me a few minutes of reading the journal to realise that Inigo had been – and remained – totally obsessed with his sister. He had been madly in love with her, and had harboured a wild hatred for me.
He had also murdered her.
When I read his insane confessions, full of justifications, I felt a bitter hatred twist my belly, filling my throat with the sour taste of bile. The memory of losing her was fresh, so recently excavated from my own past, and the desire any man has to bring death and destruction to those who hurt the other half of his soul still filled me. Throwing the book across the room, I stormed out, intent on finding Inigo.
The wolf didn’t follow me, so I made my own way through the corridors of Inigo’s space station. In the time I had spent locked up and then watching the recordings in Inigo’s hologram room, the situation with U5H3R had degraded. Power fluctuations set the lights to flickering and I could hear the strain being placed on the station’s superstructure by the intense gravitic fluctuations. I didn’t have much time.
After half an hour of searching, I found my way back to the laboratory where Inigo had first told me about his work in pneumography. I did not hesitate, pushing my way past the slervants who stood guard outside, determined to confront my former brother-in-law about his confessed crimes.
The moment I stepped through the door, though, I came to a sudden stop. There, laid out on a cold slab like a piece of meat, was my wife’s body.
The word escaped my lips, drawing Inigo’s attention. When he saw me, his face devolved into a primitive snarl.
He spat the words at me, but they only served to inflame my anger even further. I strode towards him, my hands clenching to fists.
“I dare? How could you? She was your sister, you bastard.”
“You’re going to ruin everything,” he cried, stepping away from me, putting the slab and body between us. “I’m almost there, don’t you see. A few more minutes and I can do it. I’ll bring her back. And she’ll be mine. Mine! I loved her her whole life. We were special to each other. Until you came along. I loved her, more than you ever could.”
“You killed her, you fucking son-of-a-bitch.”
I tried to get at him, moving to walk around the slab. He moved with me, dancing away from my outstretched hands. I glanced down at Laura – he had preserved her perfectly and she looked as beautiful as the last time I had seen her. Her dusky skin seemed to glow like gold or copper, as if she were about to incandesce.
“I didn’t mean to.” Inigo’s voice had taken on a plaintive tone, and he looked down at his sister’s corpse. “It was an accident. I tried to tell her, tried to make her see…” He looked up at me, his eyes burning. “But I can make it right. I can make it better. Don’t you see? With pneumography, I can bring her back.”
Everything he had explained, his whole endeavour, came crashing suddenly down. I understood. All of this – pneumography, this station, his obsession with remaining in orbit of this dying world – it all stemmed back to this. He had done all of it to get her back.
Suddenly, all of my anger drained away, replaced by an all encompassing fatigue. I shook my head. “There’s no way, Inigo. It’s too late. You have to let her go.”
“No! Never! You say you love her, but you don’t. If you did, you would be doing what I’m doing. If you loved her, you’d try to save her. You’d help me.”
He gave me such a look of anxious hope that I felt a faint stirring of pity for him. “Inigo, it’s over. The station is going to die. You have to come with me.”
He was acting like a spoiled child. So I did the only thing that I knew would get through to him. Reaching down, I picked Laura’s frigid body up, cradling it in my arms.
“Then I’m taking her with me.”
He stared at me for a moment with wide eyes, unbelieving. His surprise turned to fury, though, and he launched himself across the table at me.
I had been expecting it and was already moving backwards. Spinning on one foot, I gracefully placed Laura’s body on the table to one side, and then spun back in one smooth motion, my fist catching Inigo on the chin, sending him crashing backwards against the table.
I went to continue my attack, but by the time I reached him he had fallen unconscious. I must have hit him harder than I had thought. As I bent down to check his pulse, the station shook beneath my feet, almost sending me tumbling to the floor.
No more time, I thought. I tried to lift Inigo in the same way as I had Laura, but even with my enhanced strength he was too heavy for me. After a couple of attempts, I gave up, grabbed Inigo by the collar and began to drag him out of the laboratory.
The slervants had abandoned their posts. I had heard of such things before – their animal instincts taking over their neural programming in cases of extreme danger. They were probably cowering somewhere, waiting for the end. I had no intention of following their example. I was going to get Inigo off this station, whatever it took.
As I neared my ship, I began to activate the neural pathways within the needle. If I was going to get Inigo off, I would have to abandon my mime here, after using the disposable body to ensconce my former brother-in-law safely in the hold. My mind would only exist within the needle ship until I returned to Charys.
My mind taken up with the challenge of controlling my mime while transferring my consciousness thought by thought back into the needle, I did not see the wolf until we were almost upon it. The lights had almost failed completely, while the station spiralled towards its death by star. My first indication of the wolf’s presence was a low growl from the dimness in front of me.
I blinked, activating the low-illumination settings within my mime’s optical nerves. The wolf stood between me and the entrance to my ship, teeth bared, eyes locked on both of us. I froze.
Another growl rose into an echoing bark, sending shivers down my spine. I could see the spittle dripping from the creature’s fangs, and remembered what I had been thinking just before. Primitive programming.
Slowly, I lowered Inigo down to the floor and raised my hands. I had to find some way of keeping the creature calm, some way of avoiding a confrontation that could easily escalate into violence. If this slervant had completely lost its programming, nothing would stop it from attacking us.
“Slowly,” I whispered, “slowly. I don’t want to hurt you.”
While I was talking, I reached out with my mind to the needle ship. If I could activate the security systems, I might be able to disable the wolf before it could attack us. Might.
Before I could finish the thought, though, the wolf moved. Moved so fast, there was nothing I could do but close my eyes and say a quick prayer to whatever gods might still be out there. Wait for death.
It never came. I heard a scream and opened my eyes. The wolf was gone. I turned. It had leapt past me and grabbed a hold of Inigo by the ankle. The pain of those fangs biting into his flesh, drawing blood down to the bone, had brought him back awake. His eyes were wide, fixed on the wolf.
“No Laura. No.”
The words chilled my blood.
The wolf looked at me, then. And I saw something in those eyes, something I am still unable to accept. I saw a soul staring back.
The contact lasted only a moment. The station shook and the wolf growled, dragging Inigo back into the darkness. I went to go after it – after her – but a growl convinced me to stay where I was. Inigo shrieked and fought, but the wolf was stronger. Both of them vanished into the dark.
I managed to get my mime securely into the needle’s hold and transferred my consciousness, activating the ship’s systems minutes before it would have been too late to escape the star’s grasp.
Once the needle was at a safe distance, I turned her around with a thought and activated the external sensors, piping the images through to my own neural cortex. I had to see. I had to see the station’s last moments. Laura’s last moments.
I watched through the needle’s eyes as the gravitic currents surrounding U5H3R seized the station in its remorseless grip, dragging it in a spiraling dance towards its embrace. There was something beautiful and yet terrible about the sight, something horribly inevitable. If, as Inigo had believed, U5H3R was some kind of gateway to a world of the dead, then it seemed that the dead had decided to reclaim what was there’s. And to bring down the man who had dared to disturb their slumber as well.
Inigo’s station began to collapse as it drew closer to the star’s outer corona. It imploded, drawing down into itself. It would have been reduced to nothing long before the heat of the star burned it. In my mind’s eyes, I saw Inigo and Laura, wolf and man, locked in a feral embrace as the walls closed in around them.
I waited until the star reached up and engulfed the last smoldering remains, before turning the needle away from U5H3R, and towards home.