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Fiction

Mix Tapes From Dead Boys

1: Retrograde, “Starry Messenger”

The derelict hangs in Neptune’s blue orbit, a chip of shadowy flint from a distance. Up close, it’s old and rusting, myriad old systems cobbled together, and Hadley swallows her nervous and exhilarated heart a dozen times as she latches the pod to its belly, makes a hard seal at the airlock, and geckos her team inside. The exterior of their spatulae suits—hands and knees and hips—permits them freedom of movement even in zero gee. Especially in zero gee. She glances back at their pod once, all golden warm waiting light, then allows the dark derelict interior to swallow her. Even her camlight seems small in this darkness, a pinprick in the surrounding black. Shaw and Newt are already far ahead in the corridors, pale lights bouncing off dark walls.

Hadley’s comms crackle with static as she geckos into a corridor filled with unspooled cable and debris. Blue and green environmental cables, red mechanical, yellow waste systems, purple gravitational. It’s all been undone. Hadley can’t stop studying the tangle of cables, the way they plait together and apart, control sliding into confusion. The cables coil around her as she moves through their mass, snake down the length of her body, between her legs. One thumps against her helmet, reminding her they do have weight, presence, but their touch is fleeting as she pushes herself into an adjoining corridor, the portal like the lens of a great eye, black until her camlight pierces it. The air feels strangely warm, a current of piss in a swimming pool, but Hadley knows that’s not possible. The ship is cold and frost glitters up its bulkheads.

“Hadley, report.”

There’s nothing to report and her camlight breaks the distant dark, revealing nothing more than another portal at the corridor’s end. The walls are marked here, directing crew aft and fore, reminding one where cockpit and head are. Hadley pushes toward the cockpit, the corridors spreading like lifeless arteries around the cold ship’s core. The core, three levels tall, once thrummed with life and would have filled corridors with waves of clear, pulsing light like a heartbeat, but now it sits in its own shadow, a rigid corpse. Hadley sees no damage to its exterior, but the smooth panels of transparent aluminum also don’t reveal any residual fuel. The ship is dry.

Hadley. Report.”

“There’s nothing,” she comms back to the station, to impatient Ferro.

She swims over to a window, looking high above where Urbain Station floats in Neptune’s light. The station resembles nothing more than a handful of scattered toothpicks set at odd angles and Hadley can’t stomach the sight of it. From this distance, it’s so small and she feels impossibly big. She pushes away from the window, scrambles up the wall, and deeper into the derelict. She snaps her camlight off and Ferro chirps in her ear.

“Your feed’s gone dark.”

Hadley turns the comms down and floats toward the cockpit in the silent dark. They don’t know how long the ship has been here; Hadley has never seen the derelict’s shadow against Neptune’s blue. But now here it is, caught in Neptune’s orbit with the station like the ship knew what it was doing. Shaw spotted it five days before, tried to raise it on comms. The ship, branded Gateway along its flanks, had no reply.

Hadley runs her hand over the wall and the ship moves beneath her touch. She is reminded of a cat arching under a stroke and is repulsed. Her throat closes and she pushes herself into the final hatch, the cockpit spreading beyond her. The space is small, windows giving view to Neptune, and somewhere beyond, the distant prick of the burning sun. She touches the panels and controls, each in turn, but none respond.

She turns Ferro’s volume back up, to find him in mid-summons. “—adley?”

“Ferro, there’s nothing.”

She touches the control panel again and it ripples beneath her gloved fingers. Beneath her touch, the startling face of a ghost assembles itself in the bright spectrogram of a glitch, the same glitches Hadley’s tracked for six months.

2: Rephlex Brothers, “Submerged”

Hadley hears her own voice whisper: “The interface is warm . . . the portal is cold . . . the interface is warm . . . the portal is—”

Her hands part the gelatin, only it feels like sun-warm flesh, like wet muscle against her fingertips as she pushes her arms and body through. She doesn’t know where she is—her world and another? One layered over the other, muscle moving bone. The muscle doesn’t part so much as it allows her inside, granting momentary access before it seals behind her.

She lifts her chin, the damp muscle threatening to overwhelm as it enfolds bare shoulders and clenched jaw. Moving arms and legs is like swimming, but there’s no water, only strongly corded flesh that ripples and swallows. There’s no suit to secure her against the environment, and no air, but she breathes, and beyond the walls striated with ribbons of glistening, pearly fat, sees shadow forms moving in concert.

They are not bodies, nor are they plants; she cannot place a name to them. They move as if they are fucking—it’s not lovemaking, it’s not anything gentle or tender. It is one form violating another. One form consuming, the other consumed. She thinks about rain, about how droplets of water are so small and harmless on their own, yet as they gather and spread, they consume a thing, transform a thing. The shadow forms do this, spreading where once no shadow fell, devouring all she can see.

The walls once consumed by shadow ripple and slide her farther down, further on. She cannot hook her fingers into the warm walls to stop herself, so everything slides past her—or she past everything. The walls are slick, some of them pebbled with what seems gooseflesh. The scent of burning nutmeg and cheese mold envelop her, and she tastes the mouth of the first boy she ever kissed in a serious way. It wasn’t the right mouth, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

She tries now to press a foot against the walls that waffle beneath her weight, that expand and contract. She tries to press her mouth against their changing forms, but the walls spit her out, whole, drenched, unconscious.

3: Collapsed Young, “Floating Bodies”

Methane-blue Neptune, threaded with Monet clouds.

Hadley’s been on Urbain Station for thirteen years and sometimes still thinks she’s underwater, the current Great Dark Spot floating outside her windows like a cloud of tangled algae. She presses her bare hand against the window, against the edge of the distant spot, allowing dabbed clouds to spin through her splayed fingers. It’s only morning come again, she tells herself, and not underwater at all, but the sensation remains and she skims her hands over her arms, expecting water to pearl off. The distant fleck of the derelict comes into view, an eyelash scattered against Neptune’s cheek unless you knew otherwise. Hadley thinks about the way the ship moved beneath her hands, the way it fell dark when the crew left.

The way the ship offered her the thing she’d been looking for all this while. The ghosts she calls glitches.

Her comm crackles with Ferro’s voice, thunder and static. “Hadley, the interface is—”

warm.

“—acting up again, can you come?”

Hadley thinks about coming and her eyes slide shut, goosebumps running where she thought water had been a moment before. She remembers goosebumped walls beneath her hands and she thumbs the comm, savoring the cool round metal button under her finger, unseen. “Yes.”

Command deck smells like rain, always has. Something to do with the metal of the walls having inhabited vacuum so long, or so Ferro theorizes. Inside, the walls occasionally weep water and oil, and Hadley imagines every droplet flung wide when the station at last collapses, perfect spheres drifting forever in the black of space, unseen until they splat flat against something large, hulking. Hadley drags her fingers through any wetness as she glides toward Ferro’s station. She is surprised when the wall doesn’t move under her touch; it’s solid, her fingers smudged with black when she withdraws.

Ferro’s interface

—the interface is warm—

is cold beneath her fingers. It doesn’t take Hadley long to find the problem: a hiccup between channels, a kink when it comes to getting information from here to there. Hadley removes the obstacle, an endless, cycling glitch. It is much like the glitch the derelict gave up to her, full of static and hiss. The glitches are always old, degrading and decades out of sync. She sends the glitch to her private screen and locks it under code and key.

Hadley sees a distant spark of light in the station’s upper solar array, fire circling down and down, and she says nothing about it, does nothing, because she’s out here to study spikes in temperature, to figure out why blue Neptune’s thermosphere is so damn hot. She lingers in Ferro’s chair, thinking about fire and heat, thinking about the way the interface feels beneath her fingers—how it sometimes fragments with goosebumps—but then she’s gone and Ferro calls a thank you that she only partially hears. Her mind is on to the glitch, which she pulls up the second her chamber door seals.

The glitch’s spectrogram is cold blue, as blue as stormy Neptune out her window, running in streams and spiking into mountains of dialogue. The audio is static, as it so often is, and Hadley shunts it to the side. She inverts the display and there she finds the face, the image of a boy bathed in a blue, a boy beneath the waves, a boy whose eyes become pools, portals, passkeys into a stranger place. He is beautiful, wrought in hair-thin lines before the lines splice into the endless smaller channels she’s been hunting.

Hadley adds the glitch to the host of others, projecting the spectrograms onto her chamber walls. Her room is shrouded in blue and violet lines that resolve into faces, into hands, into screaming mouths cascading from glitch to glitch and back again. Where do they come from? What do they mean?

They are never the same boy; they are never quite the same image. Hadley stretches in her rack and counts them as they slide across the ceiling, the windows. There are ten and then thirty and then fifty-seven, including the one the derelict gave her.

4: Saint Lo, “Fundamental Ephemeris”

This hexagon of oil.

Hadley’s body is three times its size as it expands in every direction all at once. The oil was beneath her, but it also hangs above. She cannot precisely say where her eyes are, because she can see to the horizon in every direction without turning her burgeoning head. The distant sun sets and Neptune’s orbiting moons rise and Hadley cannot tell the light from the darkness or the heat from the cold. Blue looks gray and tastes like strawberries. (She hasn’t eaten a strawberry in thirteen years, but remembers the gooseflesh red skins against her tongue.)

She thinks it’s cold—the portal is cold. That’s what the oil is, the portal she used, the portal that opened for her like a flower. She tells herself this over and over in an effort to keep herself oriented; she repeats the steps as if it were a test. The portal opened and she— She . . . went? Yes, stepped inside.

The liquid black paints her body as it swallows her, up her toes and over her knees until she is black as the heavens and expanding. Pushing outward, farther from that constant center, every direction, all at once. She expands so quickly, crosses those vast distances in a blink, that stellar winds chap her cheeks, skimming like fingers over skull and down spine. She feels the wind within every vertebrae. Hadley believes she will rip to pieces, that bits of her will drift between the stars for eternity, but she doesn’t. She keeps going, keeps reaching, while a low keening pours from her distending mouth.

Her mouth births fat, particolored planets like bubbles. Before and behind her, they fall into their orbits, a dance she can predict. She knows how each will move, how each moves with the others; she knows that in one point three million years, this system will collapse into the violent nova of its sun; this system that lingers sulfuric on her nursing tongue will have come and gone and none will be the wiser. Hadley tells herself she will know, she will remember what these worlds tasted like in the back of her throat; beneath her collarbone; behind her heart.

Hadley stretches past them in every direction, until they are a single prick of blurred light against the dark. She angles herself up and down, until she sees the spiral arm in which these worlds reside. She is small then and falling, an arrow, a comet, shrieking into galactic clusters, into planetary bodies, past worlds that have been declassified as planets at all. Past everything, and into a cool blue hexagon of oil.

5: Quiet Cantina, “Help Not Wanted”

The interior of the derelict smells like rust and the cockpit’s main console moves like an ocean beneath Hadley’s body. Her gloves will not adhere to the console while it moves, so she’s beholden to its motion; when it rocks up, she slides back. When it anchors down, she props up. When Shaw enters the cockpit, the motion ceases, a secret Gateway reveals only to Hadley. Hadley eases her glove from the still surface, dropping another glitch into her private files before she looks at Shaw.

“Ferro wonders if the engines—”

But Shaw doesn’t get to finish. The derelict buckles, as if something has impacted it. Hadley moves from console to window; debris spirals past, past Gateway and toward the station itself. Hadley is captivated by the debris. The edges of the fragment glow as if it were newly cut from a larger body. Glowing, burning metal, streaking in great profusion toward Urbain Station. Toothpicks, Hadley thinks, and Shaw’s already on the comms, yelling at Ferro.

It’s not like the station can be moved. Hadley puts her hand to the window, gloved fingers eclipsing Urbain Station, but not the explosion that soon follows. Her fingers appear to bloom bright petals, orange pollen scattering after. Lilies, Hadley thinks, the damage seeming far distant to her.

Shaw hurries; Hadley sits on the console, considering. Debris was not unknown to the system, but was largely predictable and easy to track. This, this was unknown, and as she ponders what it might have been—Shaw relaying that they’re to shelter in place on the derelict—a strange possibility overcomes Hadley.

“Hadley, are you even hearing me?”

And Hadley laughs soft.

The strange possibility is this: that the burning fragment looked like the curved hull of the Gateway, shattered and burning and flung with great force, but Gateway stands whole around them, and so Hadley discards the idea. She knows she should not be able to see into the past or future, but time is weird here. Time hurts.

Pain draws her back to the glitch like addict to pill. The glitch the derelict gave her pulls up as static. Hadley, on her private tablet, cycles the sound into her helmet. The static spectrogram is a flat field of gray, sprinkled with salt and pepper. But a yellow speck blooms in this field, arcing up like a sundog as it is joined by another and another. This yellow speck becomes a line which describes the shape of a lip, the shape of lips parting, of lips speaking, and amid the static there is a low hum that Hadley can feel at the base of her own throat. She cannot press fingers to the spot, given her protective suit, but longs to.

Hadley hums with the glitch, and within its matrix, the low hum resolves itself into a voice. A male voice, a male mouth, a mouth spreading wide like a pool of oil, to spit a ship into the universe, a ship that should not be. Hadley stares—does not know if her eyes are open or shut—and the glitch voice that has resolved from the static hum says pleh pleh pleh in an endless heartbeat.

6: Tusi, “And Yet, It Moves”

Everything is backwards.

Hadley holds the heavy length of her leg within her own gloveless hands. She thinks the severed stump of it, cut so cleanly at the knee, should be pouring blood, but it’s only the occasional droplet that drifts upward, smooth red spheres that fly forever. She would envision them caught in a planet’s gravity, but it’s the weight of her own leg that captivates her and takes every thought. Her bones are impossibly white and if she stares long enough, the individual cells and channels become apparent to her. Some parts of the bone are like a river, running with marrow, blood, and stem cells.

Her fingers tighten around her calf, leaving pale white marks. There should be more blood, she thinks, but then: There should be more pain. There’s no pain whatsoever. She stands on her whole leg and grips the other, and thinks she should be shaking, unconscious, bleeding out, but there is an absence of everything.

Until everything that was lacking pours over her like scalding oil. As if a switch is flipped, Hadley feels everything—the cut of the blade that severs her knee, the wrenching fibrous twist as it is forcibly removed and placed within her cold hands.

The portal is—

Shut up shut the fu—

Hadley cannot breathe, cannot think, and her lungs catch fire, begging her to take a breath. She does and breath becomes blood, filling her lungs to overflowing. She bucks under the flood, held within restraints she cannot see. She strains against the hold, wrenching shoulders and hips, and in this she drops her leg. A shriek rips from her bloodied mouth, and against the vault of sky above her, a face is framed within Neptune’s blue. The spot is an eye, narrowing as it surveys her. Hadley cannot breathe, but it no longer matters.

The foot of her severed leg brushes against her cheek and she presses into it, wrapping her arms around the limb in a clumsy hug. Leg as anchor now, to keep herself from falling into that dark Neptune eye. She stares at the severed limb, uncertain what it means, what the face of Neptune wants from her. She cannot stop shaking; cannot separate herself from the pain that engulfs her. She is shrieking and whimpering in the same instant, until the Great Dark Spot blinks and all goes mercifully numb. Hadley sags against the restraints, clutching her severed leg.

“Wh—”

She tries to speak, but her bloodied mouth cannot form words. Everything is so far away: the station, the faces, the derelict.

At the thought of the ship, Hadley’s body bucks with a fresh wave of pain. They don’t want her to think about it. They? Who? Hadley sees no one. She pushes the idea of the ship away, until she no longer feels anything, until it is as though she’s been wrapped in cotton. The predatory blue orb of Neptune is erased from her sight, and she sinks though blissful layers of nothing, watching the toes on her severed leg wriggle.

7: Violet Mondays, “Breathless, Here I Lay”

“Hadley.”

The span of a minute.

Hadley.”

“The interface is warm . . . the portal is c-cold.”

Shaw’s face is overrun with the spectrograms spiraling over Hadley’s walls. Shaw looks like every boy Hadley has pulled from the glitches until she hefts Hadley from the floor and smooths her back into bed. There, Shaw’s face is her own once more, softly lined, her eyes portals that—

The portal is cold.

Hadley reaches for her own leg, but Shaw’s hand intercepts hers; Shaw straps Hadley down and seals the blankets and Hadley finally feels the weight of her attached legs. She wriggles her toes beneath the blanket and—

“Doc is coming to take a look,” Shaw whispers, and the spectrograms snap off, leaving them in a stunningly plain sleeping cell.

“Don’t go,” Hadley says.

Shaw doesn’t leave, but that’s not what Hadley means. The derelict, Hadley thinks, and beyond the cell’s windows, she sees it, hanging like an eyelash against blue Neptune.

Gateway,” she whispers, and Shaw shushes her.

Gateway to what?

Hadley takes a deep breath, marveling at the way her lungs don’t fill and overrun with blood. She closes her eyes and revels in the lack of pain. But the longing is still there, the longing to float inside Gateway and go. The spectrograms snap back on, as if Hadley called them. Maybe she did.

“Hadley, what are these things?”

Shaw’s warmth moves off Hadley’s rack; she floats among the swirling spectrograms and Hadley loses herself in the ballet, Shaw consumed by the light. The faces of the boys ripple over her, rest between her shoulders, laugh against her calves.

“Ghosts,” Hadley says, and reaches for her legs. She can only touch the top of her knee, but it’s like fire when she does. Soft, gelatinous fire. She jerks her hand back, but her hand misses the weight of her detached leg, and a sob escapes her.

“Ghosts don’t exist,” Shaw says.

She dives toward Hadley’s workstation, anchoring herself there, and Hadley tries to open her mouth, tries to speak, but nothing comes out. Shaw pulls up the files—all the glitches spread before her, low and pulsing under her fingers. Hadley tries to tell her no, they aren’t meant for you, but the glitches say no first.

Shaw is pulled into the spectrograms and they slice through her as if they are not light, but wire. Hadley makes a choked sound, but cannot move—can barely breathe—and Shaw . . . Shaw floats in countless pieces around the room, droplets of blood moving unobstructed through the strange blue light. Hadley bucks against the straps that hold her down, but she cannot get free, her legs somehow liquid beneath the blankets. She embraces the feeling, melting out of her skin to run off the edge of the bed, spreading across the floor, which is impossible—she knows she would float, just as what remains of Shaw floats, splatting flat against the walls when the motion of one intersects with the other.

8: Burned for Knowledge, “It’s Just Science”

Hadley fills the derelict. She is blood and heat and fury. Is she on the station? She tells herself she is not, pushing herself deeper into the derelict’s haunted corridors, screaming. You want to cut us apart, come for me, come for me!

The image of light cutting Shaw into pieces will not leave her; the blue ghost boys run Shaw through over and over, so Hadley embraces the image, nodding every time it starts anew, ripping the anger she feels from it, transforming it into fuel. She finds she can ride the waves of their violence, pushing deeper into the derelict than any went before. She finds the boys in the bowels—where else, she thinks, where else. Stinking, black with rot, dead but sobbing.

“Hadley, what are these things?”

Shaw is dead, Hadley is certain, but the woman floats at her side, studying the dead boys before them in the world that layers over their own. The boys hang in decaying cocoons, as if they’ve been preserved, as if someone tried to save them but then forgot about them. The boys are networked through cocoons and other fibrous cords she doesn’t want to think overly long about. Hadley floats closer, her fury sending a scalding light over the nearest boy, and she can see: He’s been cut, he’s been disassembled and reconstructed, like a small toy. His hair should have rotted away, but Hadley finds she can take a fistful of it and lift his head. His eyes should have disintegrated, but the boy looks at her across a hundred years.

“It’s just science,” he says, and Hadley startles so badly she drops his head. It sags limp, chin touching chest.

Hadley paddles away, but comes too close to another dead boy, whose arms encircle her. He pulls her back against his bony body, and she grows impossibly warm, his skeletal hands spanning her belly.

“They’ll take you apart, too,” he says.

Another boy across the ragged circle of cocoons lifts his dead head. “If they haven’t started already.”

Hadley elbows the skeletal boy straight in his ribs, which crack and shatter to dust. There are ten boys on the derelict, and they tell her of twenty others, and twenty-seven more, including the one the derelict gave her. His name was Galle, they tell her, and the last thing he ever saw of this life was Neptune hanging clear in the night sky, so clear and blue he believed he was underwater. Believed it so much that even as they tore him apart, he reached out to brush the dotted water from his forearms.

“They?” Hadley has no breath, floating in bright fury before the dead boys. But if they can answer her now, they do not.

Fifty-seven glitches—fifty-seven lives.

Fifty-seven messages cycling beyond their graves, into Hadley’s consciousness. A hidden track that unexpectedly floods the reaching silence. A cry. A warning. A—

9. Galilei Sea, “Mover of the Earth, Stopper of the Sun”

The interface is warm . . . the portal is cold . . . the interface is warm . . . the portal is—

Her hands part the gelatin, only it feels like sun-warm flesh, like wet muscle against her fingertips as she pushes her arms and body through. The muscle doesn’t part so much as it allows her inside, granting momentary access before it seals behind her.

She lifts her chin—by this time she knows what to expect, the damp muscle threatening to overwhelm as it enfolds bare shoulders and clenched jaw. She tries to break free, but the strongly corded flesh ripples and swallows hers. There’s no suit to secure her against the environment, and no air, but she breathes and beyond the walls striated with ribbons of glistening, pearly fat, sees shadow forms moving in concert.

They, she thinks.

Some of her fire has died, especially as the forms now turn toward her, as they stare and approach. There are no eyes, but Hadley feels their regard nonetheless; they have a presence, they have a weight, and this settles against her, pinning her where she floats within the corded muscle. The shadows close, closer now, and Hadley cannot breathe, but she suspects she never has in this half-dreaming place, this place they have brought her.

“You all struggle,” the voice says. “You all resist. Down through the ages, this remains true. No matter what we may do—you resist. Some start willing—so beautifully curious—and then resistance.”

Hadley doesn’t like to think of it, all they may have done. All those bodies, some old and some young, some human and others not; some dressed in uniforms and others draped in only the rotting cocoons. Hadley doesn’t like to think of it, but cannot help it, because the glitches haven’t let her go for six months. Maybe longer? She doesn’t know. Cannot count in this space with these forms pressing closer to her, their hands not quite moving over her, but inside her nonetheless. When one strays up her throat, she bites until she tastes its blood and it is bright against her tongue, bright like Neptune in the sky.

She spits, blue blood streaking bright against the pearls of fat in the muscle walls. “It’s just science, is that what you told them? Is that what they believed?”

The glitches run behind her eyes, all those faces, all those silent pleas. The spectrogram faces flood the chamber, so bright Hadley cannot see anything else. But she can hear—and in the endless heartbeat of the glitch voice, pleh pleh pleh, in the static that she’s shunted to the side, she hears it, and she knows. It was never a silent plea. It was always right there, wanting what every communication wants—to be heard. But those boys . . . those bodies . . .

Hadley fills the chamber the way she filled the derelict, fury overflowing her until it cannot be contained, until it is brighter than the distant sun. She is fire and rage, and the forms withdraw but do not entirely retreat. They, like humanity, are curious, and cannot help but watch. Hadley doesn’t know what she can do, but she knows what she intends. She reaches for all those dead boys, human and alien and others beyond, reaches for the network they have made of themselves, until she is inside every part of them. Until they know they’ve been heard, until they can hear her reply.

But more than that.

Hadley fills the derelict, flooding every dark corridor until the ship burns, until its dead engine kicks with fresh and furious life. Gateway thrums and it’s then Hadley knows—it’s a gateway for them, a lens, a door. With the engine throbbing, they see their chance, the door opening wide again, taking them places they might otherwise never reach. The shadows writhe and reach. And Hadley—

Hadley fills Gateway to overflowing.

10: Mazzoleni, “Arcsecond”

“—adley, report!

“Ferro—get down.”

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E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine Tobler is in possession of two mix tapes from dead boys and she treasures them. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and on the Sturgeon Award ballot. The fourth book in her Folley & Mallory series is out in the summer of 2017. Follow her @ECthetwit.