As I recall, I was returning from a shower in the communal stalls at the heart of what I liked to call Hogwarts. Geneticode’s stone-walled ship was most likely meant to reflect the mood of a monastery, a place of peace for the Calm Bringers to train and recuperate after a mission. Fortunately or unfortunately, sanctity was a message few in the Order received.
In the showers, I’d barely escaped a snake nest entanglement of bodies moving and moaning as one orgiastic organism. It was a wet, soapy mess of revelry makers, each wantonly relieving the others of their tension—all wet sucking pink mouths of every opening—fingers stretching, reaching, grasping. Cocks and twats, anuses and lips, all engaged in individual purposes to bring about one glorious outcome.
Normally I would have joined in, but I’d heard a rumor from on high that I was to ship out in the next few hours to Descartes1, another in a long line of outpost gene-splicing ships that were out of sight, out of mind. Scientists on ships like those did the cloning and discovery work humans needed to combat disease, but they did it hidden away in the cold darkness of space where questions of morality were merely an occasional inconvenience. Given their task and distance, it was no surprise there were so many murders and mutilations.
Months before I’d lost a good friend and sometimes lover named Simon, on Magellan44. He was the Calm Bringer sent out to investigate, and he did not return. There was talk of his ginger hair being bleached. Some said he had turned to nothing more than a wraith and then simply disappeared. It was a story we’d all heard before, like a modern-day space ghost story of people too long in space losing their color and fading away. No one knew when or why the stories started.
They would look at me curiously with my colorless skin and hair. I liked to joke that I was born having been in space for too long.
What was strange to me in this case was Simon had sent me a mysterious message before he disappeared. Or died. Or became a wraith—whatever it was that happened to him, it was never clear.
The message read, “It’s you he’s looking for.”
There was none of Simon’s charisma or sardonic wit. None of his colorful observations about a crew too long isolated. I wondered who he was who was supposed to be looking for me, but when I brought the message before the heads of the Order, they explained that Simon had grown paranoid and delusional before he passed.
Or so I’ve been told.
Rumors were what passed for facts in the Order. Officially, we were deployed to investigate domestic disturbances. To those on the ships, we were mediators. To Geneticode, we were sometimes investigators, sometimes assassins, sometimes whores. It depended on what Geneticode needed of us. We were trained for every occasion.
I’d felt little other than numb since I came here. Sex was the easy out, but I preferred being sent out on missions. I felt like I was searching for something, but I could never put my finger on what. There was something beyond me, bigger than me. It was waiting for me somewhere out in the deep recesses of space.
Maybe I was looking for him.
I returned to my pod, which was decorated like a dungeon. Electronics were worked in amongst the plastic form stonework, giving a medieval look to what was otherwise a very conventional space pod that was equipped with only a basic fold out sleeping area, a desk with a monitor panel inlaid within the stone.
There was a message waiting for me and I flicked on the keyboard, which shone down in its qwerty glory on the dark surface of the desk. It responded to touch, leaving me to tap my pruny fingers on the slick surface to retrieve the message.
I hoped for was a file thick with details and explanations. What I got was a launch time and an advisory not to eat anything after 10, as it was going to be a long trip in the Kryo.
* * * *
The doors opened with a swish and a clang. It was the way of old ships to rattle. The air was stale. These people had been in the furthest regions of space for a long time. Only misanthropes welcomed this kind of seclusion. These were not well people. Skirmishes happened. The important thing was to protect the data and then the resources. Extract the troublemaker and Geneticode would send a replacement.
I was greeted by a gelatinous purple biped with deep, inky eyes that bulged like a fish. An amateurish gene hack—somewhere between amphibian and jellyfish with just enough human to allow him to walk, shake hands, and speak. It didn’t look like he could spend more than a couple of hours outside of a saline bath. Sad, but none of my business. My job wasn’t to judge what the scientists created, but to ascertain who was murdering them.
Not that hacking the genetic code was by any means new technology. I myself was a product of Geneticode’s Design Your Own Perfect Baby fad. My caregivers selected me, raised me, used me, and grew bored with me. I was Unwanted. I felt like a toy once so precious, so loved, and then returned to the store.
“Investigator Fine. We are honored by the presence of one of Geneticode’s finest from the Order of Calm Bringers.” The purple jellyfish thing bowed, its voice was deep enough that I believed it to be male; but then, it was hard to tell with sea life.
His voice was precise in spite of the tentacles around his mouth, perhaps as the result of elocution classes. It was difficult to read expression in a face so alien, but I could tell that this being was worried, as well he should be. Calm Bringers brought calm to a situation. Ruthlessly, if needs be. If the only way to settle a situation was to eliminate everyone, we were empowered to make that call.
He didn’t need to know Geneticode had selected me for this mission because of my ability and personal policy to spare life where possible. Someone or something on this ship was valuable, though I wasn’t told who or what that might be. I got the feeling the subordinates I spoke with didn’t have clearance to know.
I returned the curt bow. “It is an honor to be summoned and so warmly welcomed.”
I glanced around the empty bay, leaving the Squidman to puzzle over whether that was sarcasm directed at the lack of people there to greet me or not. I was not in a good mood. This outpost had taken much time to get to and I was still trying to work out the kinks from the Kryo sleep that kept me in suspended animation to withstand the teleportation.
“There is,” something in his black fishy eyes glimmered and he turned away, “much to show you. First I will show you to your room where you can prepare for dinner.”
I considered making a joke about what his preferred preparation of me for dinner would be, but I wasn’t sure he’d understand it wasn’t an invitation. I followed him through the tightly coiled corridors, down claustrophobic spiraled stairs where I would have hit my head had I not crouched as I descended them. We finally arrived at a tiny pod that was to be my living quarters. The room itself was high-ceilinged but unadorned; just hard metal with a hammock that looked more like a nest than a sleeping arrangement.
There was a folding chair and a desk. The thing hadn’t introduced itself or spoke a word as it led me into the bowels of the station. Once I was delivered, it turned on its heel and strode away into the gloom. I pressed the button to seal the door, turned the wheel to lock it, and set my bag down.
* * * *
My arrival was often highly anticipated amongst crews, not because of the calm I might bring by taking a serial killer out of their midst, but because I came with supplies. The good kind. The kind with alcohol, sedatives, ready to eat meals that still worked. Junk food. Perishables. All of those little comforts of home to be shared amongst them or used as bartering tools to get to the bottom of things.
I’d also bring letters from loved ones, things they couldn’t or didn’t want to send through the ether. Sure, there were satellite communications, and you could make contact in any number of ways from the little station, but it wasn’t the same as a handwritten letter.
Intimacy in space was hard to come by—ironic considering in what close quarters we all lived. You couldn’t help but feel the warm touch of another, chest pressing against chest as you crowded down the hallways. Even casual fucking was common. Opening up, sharing your feelings, that was rare.
I’d cleaned up and put on a fresh uniform when I heard a hard rapping at my door. When I opened it, a young woman stood there, several inches shorter than me, a little chubby, with bleached blond hair stood before me. There was something familiar about her, but I couldn’t place where I’d known her from.
“I’m her clone,” she said. Her eyes were dull. Bored, but alive. That was the difference. The photo I had seen of the crime scene featured this woman. Well, not this one. The original, or what I assume was the original. It was hard to know. These scientists, in order to keep their work from falling apart, had made back-ups of themselves. “They woke me after they found my—Misha’s—body. Do you want to see it?”
Her eyes held a bovine calm like she anticipated the coming of doom, but preferred to just chew her cud. Big, brown and staring, understanding she was the back-up plan, not the original, not real. It must be upsetting to not feel natural, to be unintended.
“Is it the sort of body one should see on an empty stomach before dinner?” I asked.
“I don’t have an opinion; I wasn’t programmed for dinner etiquette.” I wondered if she was programmed for droll humor or if I’d already found the end of her humanity.
“I’m sure you know which fork to eat salad with.” If my response stymied her, I would never know. She said nothing, just turned on her heel and started walking.
I followed her down more endless, convoluted corridors until I smelled the greasy, instant potato smell of space cuisine. She had decided, in her infinite clone wisdom that seeing the body on a full stomach was the way to go. As I was peckish, I didn’t object and took a seat at the long table between some crew members before tucking into a tepid mush of noodles with brown sauce.
After a couple of bites, I noticed a man seated as far away from the others as possible. He hunched over his meal, eating with feral vigor—downing it without tasting it. Given its lack of flavor, it was a brilliant strategy to obtain nourishment with minimal gagging. A dark mop of shiny hair hid most of his face. All I could see of it was his long tongue whipping out to meet the noodles as he spooned them deftly into his mouth.
“That’s Dr. Ted.” The masculine voice from behind broke my concentration and I turned towards it. The man’s smile was almost too bright framed by his dark skin, but he was undeniably handsome. “I’m Dr. Max, by the way. I’m researching how to convert certain planetary atmospheres into a breathable environment.”
I looked at Dr. Max, at his black hair, his dark eyes, and warm, friendly face. He seemed nice. Nice rarely impresses me. You never know where nice is coming from or what nice wants.
“Well, we all need to breathe, so thank you.” I smiled back and wondered what Dr. Max thought about my nice smile. “What does Dr. Ted do?”
Dr. Max was not impressed with my change of subject, or that I was blowing him off. His expression told me he’d much rather be blown. There was still plenty of time for that. I gave him a wink to appease his ego. He deigned to answer.
“Oh, he’s a slice-and-dicer slash AI gene hack guy. He’s supposedly creating robots that can cultivate the ground of hostile planets, but so far he just loses monkeys.”
“That’s what we call the robots we launch — you know, in honor of the actual monkeys they used to shoot into space. But these don’t have fear or pain, or want bananas.”
After shooting him a look, I turned back to Dr. Ted just in time to catch his gaze.He finally looked up from his bowl of mush. His eyes were dark, deep; they’d be doe-like if they weren’t so intense. There wasn’t just intelligence there, but a scary intelligence, possessed of knowledge you can’t unlearn no matter how hard you try. Like how death smells. Or how it feels to realize you will die and then there is nothing.
Dr. Ted looked at me as if he was thinking about my limbs as separate objects, not to be considered together. Like if he had a chance, he would take me apart and put me back together just to see if he could.
I was sure he could, but I wasn’t as sure he’d find it worth the trouble once I was in pieces.
My study of him was interrupted as the kitchen crew brought out the wine. To endear myself to the crew, I’d brought bottles of replicated wine, a rare delicacy on outposts like this. Most of the swill they drank on the fringe of known space was closer to paint thinner than Merlot. This wasn’t the best, but it was infinitely better than what they usually had. As their plastic cups were filled, the scientists gave a toast to each other and their fine works, but not to me.
I took the opportunity to ditch Dr. Max.
While they were distracted, I took a seat next to Dr. Ted. He started at me for a long while, possibly trying to figure out whether I was brave or stupid. The man pouring the wine had put off Dr. Ted’s table until last. As he approached, he looked like a frightened rabbit caught in a wolf’s line of sight, like he was debating whether to serve Dr. Ted the wine or just run for it. He sighed gratefully when I plucked the bottle from his grip and poured it for Dr. Ted myself. When I handed the bottle back, he disappeared at once.
For a while, Dr. Ted stared at the cup. Then he snatched it and drank the wine in one gulp. I followed suit, and we shared a smile. Then he returned to his meal, dismissing me without a word.
I gazed for a while at the stubble on his chiseled jaw, the wild waves of hair obscuring his features. I’ve never been one to shy away from conversation or even confrontation, but I had the feeling he wouldn’t talk until he was good and ready. Any attempt to open him up before then would be a waste of time. Dr. Ted didn’t even look up when I stood and wandered over to Misha’s clone.
“I’m ready to see the body.”
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