by Nick Wisseman
Mika’s throat had never felt tighter. Or drier. Every swallow felt like a risk — a compression that might keep squeezing and never stop until her esophagus imploded.
There were no cures in quarantine, though, and she was probably (hopefully, please God let it be true) just being a hypochondriac. So for the fifth time, Mika tried to make headway in Panic and Death: Early Colonists’ Improvised Responses to the KI’s Designer Plague — which, despite the title, was quite possibly the driest account of the subject she’d ever read, especially when viewed in dim lighting on an aging media-pad locked in power-saving mode. But after finally abandoning the effort, she called Atalia. “You up?”
“Yes,” the pilot’s voice crackled over the Mantis’s comm. “Except I didn’t figure you for the late-night booty-call type.”
Mika couldn’t help laughing. “I hate to break it to you, but you’re not my type.”
“Debatable — I’m a universal flavor. But I can’t sleep either. I get that this is all part of the protocol; I just hate being apart from Neto.”
“At least you’re in a bunk. The locker room benches are not comfortable.” The lockers didn’t smell great either — the men’s in particular. For some reason, the odor was more pronounced in the dark.
“It could be worse: Desmond could have assigned you to the gun well. That thing is tight. And dark as hell during a brownout.”
“I’m glad he took the hit on that one. How are you doing?”
“Still breathing, so I’m not complaining. What’s the isolation counter at?”
“You don’t have that up?”
“I only like countdowns that end with a takeoff.”
Mika glanced at the timer on her media-pad. “Three more hours until we’re clear. Although if we’d inhaled any Strangler spores, we’d know by now.” And there would have been absolutely nothing they could have done about it.
“I’m still not convinced we should be worried. I’ve been back and forth through the scanners — they’re all working fine. And they’re still not picking up any pods.”
“What else could it be? Those people …” Mika shook her head, but her mental image of the two corpses in the refinery refused to dissipate. The obvious agony of their deaths was one thing; the fact that no one had bothered — or been able — to bury them was another.
“Oh, it definitely looked like Strangler in the woman. The older pile of bones, I’m not so sure.”
“I reviewed my suit cam’s recording. The constriction damage to the cervical vertebrae is consistent in both remains. And they match what I saw on the Phoenix 10.” Although overall, Mika would have preferred if her forensic anthropology course — the last one she’d taken in grad school — hadn’t proven to be so handy of late.
“All the same, we should have had a ping. You got any more ideas about who they were?”
“Not really. I still think the older remains probably belong to an original colonist or a near descendant. But that’s just a guess based on the level of decomposition; with the clothing so deteriorated, it’s hard to tell. As for the woman … Maybe some of the colonists were left behind when the Phoenix 10 fled the planet?”
“And she’s their great-great-something or other?”
Atalia grunted. “My money’s on her being a strip miner.”
Mika sat up on the bench. “Why?”
“We’ve run into them on a few recons. They’re generally smash-and-grab types — they sneak in and get everything they can before the Restoration starts dictating what can be extracted and how. Not too concerned with safety, either, which is probably why that woman got a faceful of Strangler … Or whatever it was that did for her.”
“How would they know to come here?”
“Well, who else skimmed — I mean, faithfully read every last page of — your dissertation?”
Mika rolled her eyes. “It isn’t exactly a secret. The manuscript’s on file in my department and under consideration for publication by a university press. But aside from the editors, my dissertation committee, and you all … The Fleet auditors who approved the mission would have read it. Or they were supposed to, anyway.”
“So it’s out there. And anyone who got wind of the parts about mithrol could excerpt them and plot a side hustle.”
Was that why the second auditor had delayed the process? To get a jump on his own recon? This was still a longshot endeavor — Mika had never pretended otherwise — but if it paid off, the applications would be immense. And lucrative, depending on your mindset. “If there are strip miners, I hope they’re not damaging the archaeological record.”
“Oh, they probably are. But I’d be more worried about them shooting at us.”
Mika frowned. “Do scouting missions often get this complicated?”
“More than you’d think. At least we have a sample. Let me patch in Neto — you should hear what he’s learning about the bone fragment Rocket snagged.”
A moment later, the biologist’s voice joined their channel. “It’s not a standard bone. Some of the layers are analogous to portions of a woody plant stem — pitch, xylem, cambium. But I’m seeing other parts that look like spongy bone tissue, a marrow cavity, and the remnants of cartilage. I think we’re looking at a bone-wood hybrid.”
Rocket interrupted with a loud whoof.
“Sorry, something about having the ventilators on full blast in the cargo bay has him excited. He’s been a furry whirlwind ever since we got back.”
Mika grinned. The amount of clinking — the kind real and metal claws made on a ship’s floor — audible in the background suggested the dog was running laps around Neto. “So you’re still thinking the boneyard might be more of a bone forest?”
“Too early to say. But I for sure want to check it out once Desmond lifts the quarantine.”
“I bet you’re right. Those spikes that looked like they were designed to drain the big bones — or branches? — in the refinery made me think of how people on yesterEarth used to tap maple trees for sap. Or rubber trees for latex.”
Atalia grunted again. “Then why do they look like fucking dinosaurs on steroids? Some of those bones are so big you could drive a ground transport through the cavities — assuming we had a transport.”
“I bet they looked even wilder pre-harvest,” Neto said. “The imaging I got of the refinery’s interior walls suggests the paneling is another version of bark. Thinner, though, and easier to use modularly.”
Mika pictured how indigenous peoples had once incorporated animal hides in structures such as wigwams and teepees. Except the panels in the refinery had looked like … “Scales. Big ones.”
“Maybe. Regardless, I bet Kady’s itching to get back to the refinery so she can search for traces of mithrol.”
“Did you let her look at the bone fragment?”
“Not yet, since we’re supposed to be keeping our distance. But Rocket’s not a risk to spread Strangler, right?”
“Only if we’re dealing with a mutated strain.” In which case, all bets were off.
“You think that’s likely? I was going to have Rocket carry the fragment to her.”
“We should probably wait. You’re the only one exposed to him.”
“Desmond would agree,” said Atalia. “And he and Kady both set their status to ‘sleeping’ anyway. I guess she’ll just have to bide her time like the rest of — shit.”
Mika cocked her head; Atalia rarely swore with actual emotion. “What is it?”
“Don’t tell Desmond, but I have alerts set on the rifles. I get a ping when they’re armed.”
“An old habit after a nasty stowaway incident on another planet,” Neto cut in. “Where on the ship did it trigger?”
“Not on the ship,” Atalia said. “Back in the refinery.”
“Is it a malfunction?”
“Or maybe we left one behind?”
“That I doubt — I’m showing a second rifle unarmed but also outside the ship … Damn. I guess it’s time to come clean about the alerts: Desmond, we have a potential situation … Desmond? … Kady, you need to wake up too … Please respond.”
Mika realized the fingers of her right hand were drumming on the bench and forced them to curl into her palm. “You want to blast your lovely thrasher music?” No one liked it besides Atalia, but it was extremely effective as a wake-up call.
“No, I’m going to override their privacy controls — don’t tell Desmond I can do that either … Fuck.”
“They’re not there.”
“Either of them?”
“Infrared shows the gun well is empty. So is the kitchen. And now I’m picking up rifle discharges from the first location in the refinery.”
Neto muttered something incomprehensible. “Why did they go out there?”
“Kady I’m sure got impatient and went to collect samples; she’s probably been playing with her scopes and singing old-ass show tunes out there for hours. At least she remembered to take a gun. Desmond … I don’t know. His lone-wolf streak usually doesn’t kick in unless — shit. Holy fucking shit.”
Mika bit her lip. “What now?” And what lone-wolf streak?
“I got another ping.”
“More issues with the rifles?”
“No, it’s the KI alert. It tripped over the others.”
Someone — probably Neto — breathed in so fast it made a whistling noise. “How is that possible?” he asked. “We already scanned for neural circuitry.”
“Maybe the bastards learned to cloak themselves.”
“What do we do?”
Atalia whispered a few rhythmic words that might have constituted a short prayer. Then the locker room’s lights returned to full illumination as the Mantis powered out of brownout mode. “We say fuck you to quarantine and fuel rationing, go pick up our idiot teammates, and fly our asses out of here.”
“I’ll meet you in the cockpit.”
“No, get to the gun well and tell me when you’re there.”
Sounds of running thudded over the comm while Mika lingered in the locker room. What should she do?
“Buckle up,” Atalia ordered as if sensing Mika’s uncertainty. “Babe, you in position?”
“Just got here,” Neto panted.
“Good. The solar sails are almost retracted. Warm up the cannon. We’re taking off in three …”
Mika slid over to the locker room’s wall-mounted harness.
She tried to fasten the main restraint, but its rust-speckled buckle wouldn’t close all the way.
The secondary strap wouldn’t cooperate either, so she grabbed hold of the adjacent support bars and braced herself.
“Fucking, fucking shit,” muttered Atalia.
Rocket barked over Neto’s comm; the dog had probably been anticipating liftoff too. “Is it the cycler?” the biologist asked.
“No, amazingly. It’s the suborbital engine.” A metallic thump suggested Atalia had smacked something, probably the dashboard. “All the readings are going haywire, and the rifles’ locators just quit. We’re being jammed left and right. This is not a coincidence.”
“You think we’ve been hacked?”
“Or old-fashioned sabotaged. I won’t know until I get under the hood.” Atalia smacked the same unlucky something again. “In the meantime, we should gear up. We’re going to have to hoof it.”