Trigger warning (grief, mutilation, body horror, suicide)
The little drone marched up the wall, dollar signs still running around its spherical body. We looked at its slow progress. Shepherd put her hand on my shoulder. I was about to compliment her, but she only wiped the goo off of her hand. ”Thank you, doll.”
A huge bang made us jump and crouch. The room shook, gave way a bit. The structure was unstable, or was it hit by floating debris? It was enough to persuade us to follow the spider-drone’s example and to leave the floor.
“It’s just a snowball. Everything’s fine.” The drone tried to reassure us. Mother looked at us. I deactivated my boots and floated, while the others just stood on the wall, the sphere started climbing. Mother switched his jammer off and told us to be on the lookout. Duh!
I wondered how he wanted to play this game, no cards or only the aces up his sleeve. Buzzing reached me. I couldn’t tell if it was Cricket, or something else outside my head, or the satellite itself. I floated in front of Mother’s visor and recognized the strange look on his face.
“Soup Sandwich,” I told nobody in particular. Cricket floated under me, observing curiously. I remembered the time when Mother and I were pinned trench monkeys in the biggest shelling of the largest outpost on icy Europe. He had that same look on his face before he took down six Whiskey Black Vipers belonging to the Interregnum Forces. Instead of chest candy, we got slapped in cuffs for it.
“What was that?” Shepherd asked me. Before anybody could comment on her slowness, the drone whooped and a door opened on the ceiling. It flashed an animated hand beckoning us to follow it. Mother and Shepherd just walked up the wall after the drone. Behind the opening was a long tunnel of some kind. I fired up my guiding jets for one and a half seconds and accelerated towards the ceiling. The buzzing intensified and there was a high-pitched whine, that only I seemed to hear. It came from the tunnel. “It follows a pattern,” Cricket spurred me on. Then it hit me. The noise was a comm-algorithm for encrypted messages piggybacking on high-energy pings. Crap. Company was on its way.
I knew what I had to do. I activated two mines and dropped them. Casually. They floated towards the new entrance the drone was flashing its hand from and drilled themselves into the doorframe. The locking mechanism shorted out without much fuss. The drone was busy climbing further inside, even if it had noticed, it didn’t concern it in any visible way. I briefly connected to the ceiling and pushed off. Mother was the first one reaching the entrance, and I tackled him into the opening. Shepherd caught me by my ankle and swore. The dead-man’s switch flashed prominently in my left hand. I proudly showed it under her nose. “SOUP SANDWICH!” I explained, gesturing at everything around us.
“I swear I will tear your head off, play bowling with it if you keep this up,” Shepherd growled and yanked me almost out of the opening. The drone scurried further up the corridor and whistled incredulously. Mother grabbed my fist holding the switch and pulled me back in. I couldn’t help but notice the corridor was made of many different alloys randomly welded together. This place was a handful of ships cannibalized into a fairly big satellite. Or a tiny private moon. I bet it could blast any approaching ship to bits if it meant to. I knew a kaboom if I saw one.
“This way, gaaang!” The drone’s vocal mannerism changed dramatically. It sounded more like a real person now. “We have time for that kind of banter later.” Shepherd sighed and decided she was done with my nonsense. Soft music seeped from behind the drone. It was an achy-breaky love song. Rock music, her favorite. Huh. She shoved Mother and me out of her way and floated towards the drone, which was flashing her with more eggplants.”What’s that all about?” Mother whispered. I pushed him forward instead of answering. On my way up the tunnel, I peppered the corridor to the next room with small explosives, which weren’t magnetic and would still explode after an EMP. They wouldn’t destroy the structure, just tip an already moving scale in favor of destruction. I kept those inactive until the situation proved otherwise necessary.
We caught up to Shepherd smoothly. The music was distinct, but I didn’t recognize the tune. “-If this feelin’ flows both ways? Sad to see you go, was sorta hopin’ that you’d stay-” She entered the room that must have been the mess some time ago. Mother and I filed out of the corridor behind her. The remains of a kitchen greeted us. Broken chairs, an overturned table, and a couch, ripped-down cabinets, broken china littered the floor. In a corner, there were several dead plants and mummified rodents sticking out of ripped pillows. The cleaning lady must have died in the closet a decade ago. We stood again securely on the floor and I pulled Mother some steps away. Something was up with Shepherd. “-Baby, we both know, that the nights were mainly made; For sayin’ things that you can’t say tomorrow day-”
On the opposing wall to the entrance, a floor-to-ceiling army of monitors came to live.“-Crawlin’ back to you, ever thought of callin’ when you’ve had a few?-” What they displayed wasn’t what I expected. Really. I could stand a lot, but what I saw, pulled my stomach into a knot. From the look on Shepherd’s face, she was shocked too. It was Tampo’s magnified swollen face that observed us entering the room. It reminded me of a badly made mask. A puppet. A hollow skin filled with ants. He winked at us, raised his eyebrows slowly, and smacked his lips. He didn’t look, uh, healthy or alive.“-‘Cause I always do, maybe I’m too busy bein’ yours-” The music faded slowly.
I couldn’t look away. The way that translucent doughy skin stretched over his ill-fitting skull was unnerving. Behind those waxy pale lips were a row of brownish teeth. His yellow hair stuck to the scalp, his eyelashes were gone, and the nose had a dried-up quality. The cartilage poked through the leather-like grayish discoloration on the tip. Thin brown flakes were visible at the corners of his mouth and the nostril where he had bled a long time ago. I’ve seen many corpses, but this one looked- weird. The eyes were the only things seemingly fresher than the rest of him. Still, they were sunken in, a tiny bit milky in the center, and with that thousand-yard stare that no living sentient being could hold for so long. That person was very dead, still, the face kept moving. Something underneath the skin imitated muscle movement. His smile stretched too far. The corners of the lips tore a tiny bit. Ugh. The hair in the back of my neck stood on end. Mother turned to me then to Shepherd. We weren’t the only ones taken aback.
Shepherd cried. She cried! The first time I ever saw tears running down her cheeks. She was devastated. This must be a bad joke. Somebody offed her acquaintance and made a puppet out of him. “STOP IT!” She screamed at the monitors. “STOP!” The feed cut to black and the voice of the drone purred. “Oh, my love. I have preserved this face the best I could, for the sake of who I was. I thought you wanted to see a friendly face if you were ever to find me again.” The voice had no hint of malice. It talked softly. “I’m so sorry if this was upsetting for you.”
“What the hell did you do to yourself?” Shepherd sobbed. “Did you kill yourself?” Oh, no. The drone that had led the way, rolled to her feet and rubbed itself against her. She picked it up and hugged it. He was more than acquaintance, he must have been a friend. The black ball vibrated in her arms. “You know this was the next logical step. We talked about this for so long. Even if you didn’t like what needed to be done. I wanted to follow you on your path, but without burdening you. I wanted to be with you no matter what.”
“Why. Why. WHY?” She sat down on the floor, rocked herself. “I had nothing to lose, but all to win.” The voice smiled. Oh, this was bad. Her tears landed on the sphere. “I’m so sorry that there isn’t more of me left to comfort you. But you see love, I’m still here. I have his memories, his feelings and his ideals. Unchanged. I will never stop loving you. His soul is here, embedded into this matter, but no body to age, or to die. I reached immortality. I went ahead, tested the waters and waited for you to return, so I would lead the way. For you only.”
These were strange negotiation tactics. They had nothing to do with the sample or the money. No threats, no nothing. Did I miss the threat? This string of events was only meant for Shepherd. We and the sample were just silent extras.
I looked at Mother. He stared at Shepherd intently and tried to piece together what just happened. The fix was rigged. Big time. We bumbled into a whole new world without an inkling of the rules. This was going to be hard. I wasn’t sure if it was safe to approach Shepherd, to pat her on the back, or if she’d punch a hole in whoever dared to step closer. Before I could decide, the drone howled and disintegrated to sand.
Shepherd yelped with surprise, looked at her hands and arms with helpless horror, then at us. The silent plea shocked me, but her vulnerability turned my stomach. That was it! I strode over and grabbed her arm to help her up. The sand sibilated and lit up.
Things went sideways. Badly. I got the biggest shock of my life. Literally! A bolt of lightning kicked me into the monitor wall. All I could make out before the room faded, was Shepherd’s arching body rocked by seizures and Mother jumping out of harm’s way.