Pitch black with a hint of navy blue, that’s what greeted Shyah from the panoramic window of her space shuttle. The closest stars were thousands of miles away, so the only lights she saw were man-made, a double row of twinkling guiding beacons on the landing deck of the space lab. Shyah yawned, counting down the seconds before her shuttle made contact. “Ready to dock in five, four, three, two-”
Based on the telltale rocking clang and hard entry of her small ship, the vessel was now firmly anchored to the Xiomara, a flying laboratory orbiting an uninhabited, similarly named planet. Swinging her legs off of the shuttle’s control panel, Shyah stretched and shook out her limbs. Waking from a six month sleep in order to get to the lab always made her cranky. Once she stepped out of the shuttlepod and onto the bay of the station, artificial gravity at the highest level would affect her body in some of the worst ways possible.
It was part of the tradeoffs of having this job.
There was a figure waiting to greet her behind the first airlock hatch. Probably Mags, or Maggie Wells, the ship’s engineering officer and second in command. “Hey Maggie, what time is dinner and what did you cook?”
The door handle turned, and the hatch slid open. It wasn’t Maggie, but Pierce, commander of the lab station. “Yeoman Gossett, welcome back.”
“Pierce- I mean, Commander Zaslav.” After a hasty salute, Shyah asked about Maggie. “I got her transmission as soon as I exited stasis. I thought she said she’d be meeting me once I got here.”
“I know, but she’s on Xiomara, so she won’t be joining us.” Reading the question in her eyes, he added, “I just talked to her. There’s some sort of storm going on so she’s hunkering down for the night at base camp.”
Shyah managed a smile. Commander Pierce Zaslav wasn’t a bad guy. He was just a really shitty administrator. There used to be a rotation of six on these deep space runs, but Pierce didn’t bother to speak up for their crew when the budget meetings were held. The previous senior officers found jobs on other ships, and from what she’d heard they were making a lot more money while clocking less time in space. She stepped around the Commander, since he was acting like he was about to join her in the airlock. “Guess it’s just you and me and the bot. Are you gonna use that thing as our butler?” Pierce didn’t answer, so she looked over her shoulder. His expression stopped Shyah in her tracks. “It was a joke, Commander. You know I hate MACRObots, whether they’re male or female.”
“I’m sorry about your sister. Her death was a terrible tragedy,” Pierce murmured.
She’d worked with Pierce and Maggie for over five years, but this was the first time he’d expressed any sympathy about her younger sister’s murder. “A bot is only as good as its programming. And these things shouldn’t be for public use, not until they get a fix on whatever virus corrupts their empath chip.”
Speak of the devil. They were walking right by the science bay, and there was the lab’s resident mandroid in his almost seven foot high enclosure. A peaches and crème, perfect 8D specimen of what men on their Homeworld wished they could look like. Maggie liked to say the thing was “lightly tanned.” She got a kick out of tying an apron on him, making the bot act as their waiter whenever Pierce was away at base camp.
“I won’t need the bot to assist me,” Shyah said. “I’ll start working on the specimens in the que after I eat.”
He agreed with her, going on to explain that he’d already eaten, but a meal would be waiting for her in the galley. A soft meow had Shyah bending down to pick up Maggie’s cat. “Hello, Jonesy. Maggie left you up here? I’m surprised she didn’t take you down to Xiomara.”
Pierce watched her cuddling and stroking ‘Jonesy’ the name Maggie had given a stray cat left by the previous crew on the station. “You need to report in to Homebase. I want you to do that before you eat.”
The sudden attitude in Pierce’s voice rubbed her the wrong way. Sure, check-in was mandatory, but as long as it was done within twenty-four hours then admin was fine with it. They knew some downtime was expected after being in cryostasis for several months. Her reply was just as frosty. “Is that an order, sir?”
“It is, Yeoman Gossett.”
After getting out of her flight suit and changing into her lab uniform, Shyah headed to the mess hall with Jonesy fast on her heels. There was no sign of Pierce, which was a relief. Trying to make small talk with him would’ve been awkward. In the beginning Maggie and Pierce couldn’t keep their hands off each other. It was against protocol, but after their affair cooled off they were still able to work together, so what Homebase didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Outer space was a hell of a place to try to find love.
Pierce couldn’t cook for shit. He’d made a mountainous jell of goulash with extra meat. The stuff almost made Shyah lose her appetite, so she didn’t touch it. Checking her electro wristband for any messages, she wondered why Maggie hadn’t returned any of her calls. Not a peep. Not even a message from any of Maggie’s silly, wise cracking avatars telling her to fuck off because the boss was asleep. Nothing.
She had so much to tell Maggie about her down time on Homebase. There was a quickie affair with an ambitious space cadet that was a total bust. Next came a flirtation with a rear admiral that might lead to something, like a chance to escape this dead-end job.
While Shyah went rummaging in the pantry for something else to eat, Jonesy made a play for the food, leaping stealthy on the table and licking at the plate. She shooed the cat away with a threat. “Get off of there before I decide to kilowatt your butt for dinner.”
Jonesy’s big gray eyes widened. He let out an unearthly hiss, and then keeled over.
Shyah mouthed the words WTF? The sealed food bags cradled in her arms were thrown aside as she attended to the cat. Heavily panting with his tongue hanging out, Jonesy’s breathing slowed and then stopped. Looking from the cat to the food and back again, all she could repeat was “WTF just happened?”
How was she gonna explain this to Maggie? One minute Jonesy’s fine, the next he does a taste test on Pierce’s leftovers and dies . . . none of it made any sense. Until it did.
Smashing a fist against the intercom button, she screamed into the transmitter. “What the hell was in that food?!”
“S-Shyah?” Pierce’s surprised stutter spoke volumes.
“What did you do to the food?”
“I just used seasoning. I don’t understand . . . I- I’ll be right there.”
“No, you stay where you are. I’m coming to you.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
“I’ll explain once I get there-”
“Fuck you. Where’s Maggie? Is she really down there on the planet?”
“Parts of her are.”
The bitter taste of hysteria and horror filled Shyah’s throat. “You sick fuck. You’re a sociopath, a monster.”
Fear made her run. The mess hall led straight to the science bay, so that’s where she ran. She made it in before he locked all the connecting doors. Her vision wandered to the reflection of the MACRObot in his sterile cocoon, its clear blue eyes staring straight ahead, blank and motionless, like a child’s doll in a plastic box.
Pierce had been lying in wait for her, like a spider anxious to catch a fly in its web. That whole “I want you to check into Homebase” was just a ruse. He needed her to confirm that everything was okay, and she’d unknowingly given the all-clear.
Think! Think like him. What will he do next?
He’ll need to buy time, so he’ll disengage communications.
Since he’s already killed one crewmember, another wouldn’t make much difference, she reasoned. He’d already put his plan into motion, looping a video over the ship’s loudspeakers, letting her hear a conversation that had already happened, a previous transmission from months ago. All three of them sounded professional during a brighter moment of their work shift. It was a smart move, because Homebase won’t suspect anything, thinking that all three of them were too preoccupied to respond. By the time they checked the log date, he’d be long gone.
Pierce used to be a surgeon, so she could only imagine what grisly end he’d carried out on Maggie. That had been personal. What he’d do to her would be clinical, like destroying a microbe in a Petri dish. She was nothing. A lower ranked officer with only three scientific degrees.
We were on a mission. We had a purpose, a directive that ruled our lives. We were a team! What the fuck happened to cause such madness?
The Macrobot would know. That thing didn’t eat or sleep, or shit. But it did record, because its circuitry was tied into the ship’s computer. Shoot! Pierce probably knew she’d hesitate to power him up.
Hearing Pierce’s voice made her jump. An overhead camera had been tracking her movements. Lunging for a mobile laser scalpel, she aimed the pen’s beam at the camera. The camera’s lens blew out in a fizz of color.
That’s it. Do something he won’t expect. There wasn’t enough power in the scalpel to cut a hole out of the science bay, so she decided to use it as a weapon. The camera in the hall jerked, circling her way. It had to be Pierce’s plan B in order to spy on her. Holding up the scalpel in one hand while giving him her middle finger with the other, Shyah trembled in fury. “Come on you coward! I’ve got enough juice left to fry you!”
“Goodbye, Shyah.” There was a pause, and as an afterthought he added, “I always liked you.”
The camera stayed focused on her. The next move was his. He’d have to come past her to get to the weapons bay, and while she couldn’t stop him outright, the laser could light him up with enough burns to make his life unbearable.
For Maggie. She’d do this for Maggie
The silence was chilling.
END OF EXCERPT