The ship had crashed its first mission out.
Of course it had.
Everything else had been piling up that week, what was one more thing thrown into the mix?
They failed the first two times they tried to launch the damned thing. The first because some jokesters had decided to replace all the fuel with Gatorade, the second because the Andromedians had changed their minds and decided they didn't like the idea of a bunch of humans mucking about in their territory, and so the whole route had to be redone.
Then Kent MacMasters, purported ace pilot extraordinaire, had gotten drunk and flown straight through an asteroid belt. The ship had sustained massive damage, but even then it might've been able to land on a friendly or unoccupied planet for recovery. Instead, Kent had kept going with malfunctioning censors and crashed straight into a planet he thought was just a gaseous blip, but was actually solid and composed of iron and dirt frozen over.
When the retrieval team -who hadn't had a cushy, top of the line cruiser like he had, but a cramped, fuel efficient MediShip- found him two weeks later, they were greeted with the sight of a disheveled and obviously hungover Kent, who smiled tiredly at them and said,
"Hey, guys. I broke your spaceship. Can I get a ride home?"
The retrieval team, the team who'd just spent the last two weeks stuck together in close quarters with no leg room and had lived off a steady diet of freeze dried stuff, had not been amused.
One of the medics began fiddling with a syringe.
"Oh come on, guys," said Kent, sobering up. "Really, I feel fine. I don't need-"
There was a sharp pain in the side of his neck where the needle hit. The next thing Kent knew was that the edges of the world started to go fuzzy.
Nobody caught him when he fell. He hit the floor, hard.
* * * *
Kent sat in the high backed chair across from Everett Devadason and tried to bury himself.
Everett was a large man. Not fat, not particularly muscled, just big. Big in the same sense that a grizzly bear was big. Even while sitting he managed to loom over Kent. There were Rumors about Everett. That he'd killed a Centaurian ambassador for sabotaging the Andromedian/Sirian peace talks. That the scar on his forehead was from being grazed by a sniper's bullet when he saved the president's life. That his eyes could melt steel and read minds. Kent wasn't sure which of the stories, if any, were exaggerated.
At that precise moment, the only thing protecting Kent from Everett's metal-melting gaze was a handful of papers he was looking through. Since those papers were describing how fantastically he'd failed, Kent didn't find himself particularly comforted.
Kent closed his eyes. Maybe if he willed it hard enough, the ground would open up and swallow him. Maybe the floors would crack up right now and the last thing he'd see would be Devadason's puzzled face as he leaned over the desk to watch him go-
"I have to say, Mr. MacMasters. I am impressed."
The papers were set gently onto the desktop. Kent winced and pressed himself as far back into the chair as he could manage.
Everett didn't seem to notice. "I can honestly say that in all my years, never have I seen anyone crash under the influence while driving in space."
"I'm gone, aren't I?" said Kent miserably. "I'm fired."
"Mr. MacMasters, a firing is the least of your worries. Do you know how much that ship cost? Not only the ship itself, but all the man hours and side expenses put into it. That planet? Future location of a new -quite literal- Disneyworld. You've set construction back at least several months. The media is all over this; kids are learning about you in schools as an example why alcohol is bad. MADD and all those other moral guardian organizations are pressuring us to get rid of you, and I'm pretty sure the major breweries are having hits put on you as we speak for damaging their images. Plus there is the nasty issue of the law. Last I heard there were six different civil suits filed against you. The wolves aren't just at the door, Kent. They're at the windows and the chimney and holding protests on the lawn."
"If you're lucky." Everett sighed and rubbed his temples. "If it were up to me, you'd be fired. Hell, I'd toss you to the wolves and let them be the ones to decide what to do with you." He picked up another paper from the desk. "But an associate of mine has expressed an interest in accruing pilots for one of his pet projects, regardless of history." He slid the sheet across the desk. "You may have heard of him. Name's Vasson."
Kent gingerly picked up the paper as though it might bite him. Vasson, he thought. Why does that name ring a bell?
"What is it?"
"A new mining colony. Prison, I believe. Vasson's been dying to get his hands on some cheap fliers, but nobody wants to sign with him. Most hiring agencies have him blacklisted."
Kent read the name. "Roger Vasson? As in, Roger 'Craft-Kill' Vasson?" He started to crumple the paper, but at the last second stopped himself. He politely set the paper back on the desk.
"So you've heard of him."
"I've heard rumors."
Rumors that he works for the Triad getting rid of people they didn't like. That a few of his well insured public ships reached suspiciously timely ends while carrying important patrons. That he-
Kent straightened up. "I'm not signing up with him, sir. Pilots stuck with him have a habit of dying."
"Well MacMasters, it seems to me like you have a choice. You can either stay on earth and go to prison if you're lucky, or you can sign on with Roger and wait until things quiet down."
Kent looked at Everett, then back down at the paper.
I am so totally fucked.
* * * *
He was shipped out he next day. Nobody wanted him around for any extended period of time. He figured they were probably afraid the stupid would rub off on them.
The third thing Kent noticed about Vasson's operation was how few people there really were on the ship. When Devadason had said there would be a prison mining operation, Kent had gotten the impression of hundreds of people working day in and out on some godforsaken piece of rock.
Instead, there was probably about a hundred guys, tops, most of which would be sticking to the cellblock for the trip.
The second thing he notices was how little crew there was. About fifty guards, tops, most armed with nothing more than a few stunners. Quite a few techies running around, though they never stopped rushing back and forth, so he never got a decent headcount. Other than that, though, nada. Someone had told him that all these inmates were offered the trip for good behavior, but he didn't think that meant 'throw all caution to the wind'.
The first thing he noticed, though, was Roger Vasson. That was because as soon as he set foot inside the ship, Vasson would not stop talking.
"So glad you've decided to join us," Vasson said, wrapping an arm companionably around Kent's shoulders and lead him briskly down the corridor before Kent could say anything.
Kent had seen an auction, once when he was small. It had been in a dusty old room full of even older people ant the only thing of any interest at all had been the auctioneer, a man who talked so fast Kent had been pretty sure the laws of physics dictate his lips catch fire do to the friction. Vasson put that man to shame.
"-And here's the mess hall though admittedly it's not really a hall and not particularly messy probably won't be either what with all the prisoners eating in the cellblock but hey maybe we can encourage the crew to have a food fight or something for appearance's sake I'm just kidding but you knew that and over here is a storage facility that you probably won't want to go in there on account of you not being clearanced to go in there and over here is-"
Kent nodded and tried desperately to keep up.
How is he breathing? he thought.
"And here," Vasson spread out his arms, gesturing to the consoles, "is the flight deck where you, Pendanski, Bidol and I will be dodging debris, alien attackers and space pirates." For the first time in what seemed like ages, Roger Vasson stopped talking.
"What?" said Kent weakly. "Really?
Roger shook his head pityingly, smile smaller and a little crooked but still otherwise intact. "No. It's actually a pretty straightforward jaunt. Two weeks tops, a week if traffic is good."
He had slowed down the motor mouth. A little. Thank God.
"Don't worry about when we get there: everything's already set up. Base, bunker, etcetera etcetera. It's all a bit Spartan, but hey, what'd you expect? Besides, the planet's pretty enough, though actually we'll be on one of the uglier bits digging it up. But the locals are nice folk. Don't bother construction or get in the way too much-"
"Locals?" Kent managed. "The planet's-"
"Occupied, yes." He leaned against one of the consoles, careful not to press any buttons. "Weird little fellows. Kind of froggy looking. A little on the oozy side. You might see them poking around when we get there. Just ignore them; they don't do any harm."
The sound of buzzing filled the room. Roger plucked a phone out of his pocket and had it open in one swift motion. "Yeah?" he said. "Uh huh. No, tell Markus to just get the blood samples done. Worry about the rest later, it's not like they're going anywhere." He covered the mouthpiece and gave Kent an apologetic shrug. "Gotta take this," he said. "Bidol and Pendanski will be up here shortly. They'll fill you in on all the technical mumbo-jumbo." He turned to leave before Kent could say anything. The farther down the hall he went, the faster he started talking.
"No, I'm telling you to just get the blood done now, that's the most important bit we need to make sure there's no complications No I know what they said now you listentowhatI'msayingwho'sinchargeofwho. . . "
Kent ran a hand through his hair and surveyed the compartment. He examined the consoles, and then let himself fall into one of the chairs.
Well, he thought. That didn't hurt nearly as much as I thought it would.
Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
* * * *
The trip was long and dull while it lasted. Most of Kent's time was spent staring blankly at a bunch on monitors in the hopes that something interesting would happen so he'd get the chance to actually do some piloting. Sometimes Roger would come in to chatter his ear off, in which case Kent's brain curled up in on itself in self-defense while his body nodded and made noncommittal 'Huh' noises.
Occasionally, one of the techies would come into the deck and just take notes on a clipboard. They'd ask him a few questions- usually about his health or family history. Sure, it was a little strange, but by the end of the trip Kent was willing to talk to sand if he thought it would break the tedium.
He did wish they'd stop trying to get blood samples off of him, though.
* * * *
The arrival was even duller than the trip. All of the prisoners had been heavily sedated before landing, meaning that there were no riots or jailbreaks. They were filed out in neat and orderly rows and into the barracks without issue. The only interesting thing to happen was when one of them fell down and knocked out three rows domino-style.
Kent sighed and left the guards to pick everyone up.
The base was small and a few miles away from the actual mining area. He wandered around the grounds for a while, making sure to steer clear of the hubbub.
Kent was not an outdoorsy sort of person. The planet did not have a lot of interesting outdoors to offer. There were trees, there were plants, there was rock and there was dirt.
"Hey!" he shouted for the hell of it. "Anyone out there?"
"MacMasters!" Bidol was calling him. "Come on. Vasson's got a job for you."
"'Kay," he said, taking one last look around. No amphibious, oozing aliens presented themselves. "Coming."
* * * *
People went missing.
Kent thought he was imagining it, at first. Vasson had him loading and unloading and stocking and doing every other errand imaginable, so he put it down to his own general inattentiveness. So what if there were empty seats in worker's mess? They were probably out somewhere doing heavy lifting, or shanking each other in the back. After all they were criminals, right?
But days passed and as the faces became more familiar, they started vanishing more frequently. By the end of what his electronic calendar assured him as the second month, the number of prisoners had changed from about a hundred to maybe seventy five, tops.
"Doesn't that worry anyone?" he said to Vasson once.
"Why should it?" said Rogers, looking around through the storage room. He was loading boxes onto the trolley next to him. "Lots of people can't count to one hundred properly. Nothing to be ashamed of. Oh, send this over to Markus and his lot, will you?"
Kent took the loaded trolley. "But-"
"Kent," he said sternly. "Relax. I will handle this. I will get a headcount if it will make you feel better, and then we'll all have a good laugh about how you got worked up over nothing. Now, shoo. Go on."
Condescending bastard, thought Kent. He made his way down the halls until he came across one of Markus' minions.
"Hey," he said. "Do you know where Markus is? I'm supposed to give this to him."
The techie glanced up from his clipboard, gave him an appraising look, then started shuffling papers around. "Here," he said in a thick, brusque accent Kent couldn't place. "MacMasters. You haven't had your tests done."
"Oh, uh, no. I haven't."
The techie pulled a syringe out of the pocket of his lab coat.
"I can do test here."
"You just carry that around? Is that even sanitary?"
"It's sanitary enough. Give me your wrist. I'll take hair and skin samples later. Run more tests then."
Kent subconsciously let go of the trolley and pulled his arms closer to himself. "No, really. I've kinda got this thing about needles. Listen, I just need to find-"
"You really should to go have yourself checked," said the man disapprovingly.
Kent shifted uncomfortably. He was at least a foot taller than the man, but the look the techie was giving him was intense."Why do you guys need that stuff anyway?" he said, trying to cover up the awkwardness.
The tech guy flustered up. "To make sure you're adjusting properly. Some have been suffering from bone loss, light-headedness, narcolepsy,-"
"The runs, the bends, yeah yeah. I got the health spiel when we landed. I'm fine. Now, please, quit trying to stick that needle into me."
The techie glared at him, but stepped out of the way. he took hold of the trolley. "Markus in the D wing. I will deliver this for you."
"Thank you," said Kent gratefully. He turned to go. There was a sharp sting in his shoulder.
He turned, but the techie was already heading down the hall as fast as his legs could carry him.
* * * *
Roger gave him the headcount the next day.
"You were right, we are missing a few people."
Kent put down the gear he'd been carrying. "How many is a few?"
"Ah." Roger checked through the ream of papers he was holding. "Three. We suspect they ran off during a shift change. I've got security already posted on it, but we're not too concerned. Worst case scenario, they die out there. most likely case, they come back when they're hungry."
"Three? Just three? But-"
"Hey, would you take these over to Pendanski?" He shoved the papers at Kent.
"Thanks, really appreciate it." He breezed out of the room, leaving Kent staring dejectedly at the papers.
* * * *
Nobody knew where Pendanski was. Or rather, everyone knew, and the answer was 'Here, about thirty seconds ago. You just missed him.'
He wasn't in the barracks. He wasn't out with the miners. He wasn't in the kitchens, or on the ship, or in any of the bathrooms. The way Kent saw it, this meant two things:
Pendanski had joined the other "three" people who'd gone missing and would never be heard from again, or;
He was in the D Wing the tech guys were always running in and out of.
Kent was not an outdoorsy person. He picked the option that let him remain indoors while still technically following orders. Besides, he hadn't been down the D wing before. Every time he'd tried, the techies would always glare at him and herd him out.
He waited 'till lunchtime before going, making sure to avoid everyone else at all costs in case they gave him some other errand to run. After they'd gone to lunch, it was just a simple matter of casually waltzing in.
The D Wing was inappropriately named. There was not just onewing. There were dozens of them, all crossing and twining at seemingly random intervals. He passed rooms filled with computers and suitably advanced technological things, he passed rooms filled with strange machines and weird green goop kept in tubs. Once or twice he passed a techie, though there were enough places for him to easily duck out of the way. It helped that the techies were never too observant.
After about an hour of wandering around, he came across a long hallway he hoped led to an exit. The walls were lined with large windows peering into rooms. All of the rooms seemed to be empty, furnished only with a single cot. A few had large green and brown splotches on the floor, or splattered on the cots. Some were dirtier than others.
The ceiling. he thought. How the heck did they get that stuff on the ceiling?
He shook his head and let it go. He'd ask Roger about it later.
The next few minutes or so were spent wandering aimlessly around, peering into the rooms and wondering again and again what they were for.
The very last room was occupied.
It took Kent a moment to absorb what he was seeing: his mind could only take it in pieces.
There was a man. He was lying down on the cot, presumably asleep. Kent recognized him as one of the kitchen staffers, the one who served everyone extra helpings of peas and cursed a lot in Spanish.
His leg was huge. It was swollen several times the usual size and covered in bulbous tumors the size of soccer balls. Stretch marks showed light pink against the bright red skin.
The tumor began to move.
Kent watched in horror as the tumor throbbed, then split open. Blood and some green substance spurted out, and a small glob of something fell to the floor. It kicked and writhed and eventually got to its feet, making a keening sound high enough to crack the observation window's glass.
It saw Kent and ran to the window, still keening.
He turned tail and ran.
Everett, he thought. I've gotta tell Everett. He didn't know why, but it was suddenly very important that Devadason knew what was going on.
He ran to Vasson's office. It was the only thing he could think to do. Maybe there was a comms device in there. Heck, maybe he had this all wrong; maybe there was a reasonable explanation. Maybe the cook had just been infected with something? Maybe they'd all been infected, and that was the hospice wing. Yeah, that would make sense, right?
They just left the stains, said a treacherous little voice in his head. Hospitals don't leave people splattered all over the place. . .
Vasson was in there, sitting at his desk and looking over some papers.
"Oh, Kent. Did you find Pendanski?"
"I was just in the D Wing!"
Vasson winced. "Ooooh. Not good."
"Roger! What are they doing? What are you doing? Those people- and those things. "
"Alright," said Roger, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "You caught me."
He was still smiling! It wasn't even a real smile. It was the smile of a little boy when he thinks he's done something clever.
Kent suddenly felt very cold. "You're murdering people."
Roger waved a hand. "No no no. Not at all. When you do it for science it's called 'research'."
"You're killing them. You're injecting them with those things-"
"Now now, no need to be rude. I mean really, 'things'? Those 'things' happen to be the newest members of the Quizzackanry family dynasty. Sure, being rulers of a little dirt spot planet like this might not be all that important to you, but they seem to like it." He went behind the desk, his hands clasped behind his back. "They like humans, too. We apparently make great hosts. much better than the Andromedans or Centuarians who used to own this place. They died too easily, too fast."
"Why?" said Kent. He glanced around the room, looking for something with a little heft to it. All he needed to do was hit Vasson upside the head, drag him out, tell everyone what was going on and then get the hell off this rock. "The prison crew, the fake mining operation-"
"Oh that bit's not fake. It's the only real part, actually. They mine for us. See, all the good stuff my employers seem to need is way down there. If we tried for it, we'd pop like grapes. Quizzys, though, clever little bastards. Pressure doesn't bother them. In return, we give them decent hosts to lay their young in." He gave a little half-shrug. "We've even streamlined the process a bit. It seems pretty fair to me."
There. On the bookshelf. That candelabra was looking pretty good right about now. It even had decorative –and more importantly pointy leaves on it to ensure Vasson couldn't get back up. How thoughtful. Kent inched towards it as subtly as he could. "You can't do this," he said.
"Don't see why not. I've been at it for a couple years and things have turned out pretty well." He examined his hand, as though looking for dirt on the nails. "You do realize though that we can't have you blabbing about this."
Kent grabbed the candelabra and hurled himself at Vasson. Roger stepped to the side and Kent went flying over the desk, right into the chair behind it, and then into the wall behind that.
Roger shook his head pityingly. "You really aren't any good at this, are you?" He opened up a drawer and brought out a syringe. "To be expected, I suppose. Ah well. You're down as expendable, so I suppose that's okay." He tapped he glass, getting its contents to liven up. "As it is, I'm pretty sure Disney already has a hit out on you, so in the grand scheme of things, this doesn't actually make a difference."
He bent down to where Kent was still untangling himself from the chair. "Hold still. This might hurt."
Kent shoved the chair at him and got to his feet. Vasson tackled him, and they both fell over the side of the desk. For one hectic moment, there was nothing but a tangle of kicking, scratching and the occasional weak punch thrown. In the midst of it all, Kent felt something catch his arm, right in the tender spot opposite his elbow. He grew sluggish. The world began to spin and fade.
"Finally," said someone very far away.
* * * *
Kent woke up with a spilling headache and the strangest feeling in his left arm. He squinted through the bright light. He was in one of the observation rooms, resting on the cot. There was an IV attached to his arm. He watched for a moment as unfamiliar green liquid dripped down into the tube.
"You just had to move, didn't you?"
Kent craned his head and saw Roger leaning against the wall. "Just had to be difficult. Now it's going to hurt a whole lot more, and you have only yourself to blame."
Something clicked in the deep sludge coating Kent's brain. "My arm?"
Roger shot him a finger-gun salute. "Bingo. No easy torso or leg bursters for you." He stood up and walked over beside the bed. "Has the fever kicked in yet?" he said cheerfully. He put the back of his hand against Kent's forhead. "No? It will, soon enough. See, apparently the human body doesn't like it when Quizzys try to respawn inside them. Who knew, right?"
Kent struggled to sit up. His arm was already turning a sickly shade of purple where the needle had got it. It didn't hurt. Yet. "What now?"
"Typically at this stage, there are two options."
Kent unclenched his jaw. "What?" he managed.
"Well, you can stay awake in what I've been assured is excruciating pain for the procedure, writhing in agony and cursing my name until the moment you die- which will actually take a while because the little baby in you needs time to grow. First it will start secreting these digestive fluids, see-"
"And the other choice?"
Roger shrugged. "We knock you out. Pump you full of pain killers, keep you on life support. You'll still die- quite messily, actually, but you won't be there to care, if you get my meaning."
"You can't do this."
"Still on that? Kent, look at your arm. I have done it. I'm sorry, really. But science marches on-"
The sound of an angry bee emanated from Roger's pants. He pulled a phone out and read the screen. "And so must I, apparently. I'll have Markus bring in the anesthesia-"
"No anesthesia. You're not getting rid of me that easy."
"I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you prop-"
"I do not need anesthesia because I am not going to die in this fucking hellhole." He didn't shout the words. He said them calmly and quietly with the absolute certainty of someone speaking truth.
"I really don't think you know what you're. . . no," said Roger slowly. "You do know. Or you think you do." He turned to go. "Fine. Have it your way."
He left without another word.
Kent refused to look at his arm. Already it was starting to hurt. Already he could feel it swelling up.
He had to think. There had to be a way out. He just needed to contact Everett, tell everyone what Roger was up to, then somebody would send help and shut everything down. That was how it worked, right? And that was how it was going to work. Just as soon as he thought of a way out.
Instead, he found himself unable to think of anything except the brown and green stains in the other rooms. Would they leave him there, splattered over the floor? Or did Vasson respect him enough to clean up afterward?
No, he thought, struggling upright. A white-hot streak of pain shot up his arm. He winced and tried to ignore it. No. He couldn't think like that. He was not going to die in here.
He wriggled off the cot and got unsteadily to his feet. Walking was harder than he thought it would be. His arm was all but dead and the weight of it threw him off balance. All the same, he staggered over to the window and began beating the glass with his good hand.
He was going to die out there.
The world was beginning to fade. He was going to pass out soon. No, he thought, reduced to weakly thumping on the window with the side of his fist. If he went down now, he wouldn't wake up again.
And wouldn't that be nice? he stopped hitting the glass. Wouldn't it be nice to just go to sleep? It wouldn't hurt, then.
I should have taken the meds, he thought. He slid to the floor without noticing. No longer was this about getting out. Now he just wanted it all to end.
Something gently nudged its way through the fog in his head. It poke around, sifting through the clutter until it found him in the walled up place he was hiding in.
Kent cracked open an eye. He was still alone.
? came the thought again, more urgently than before.
I'm hallucinating, thought Kent. The curious presence gave him another mental nudge. Pain flared up in his arm again. Whatever was inside it was moving around.
Oh God, he thought, closing his eyes. Let it be over soon.
The bubble burst.
Kent didn't notice: he'd had the good fortune to faint exactly thirty seconds before.