Thousands of dead, kitted out in titanium battlesuits, rattle off our hull.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! Like we’re driving through an asteroid cluster. THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
I’ve gathered us in the bow of our ship near sickbay where the walls are the thinnest, so this crew–this greeny crew–can hear each and every one of those dead bodies drumming against us.
“That sound!” I say (shout more like). “Is the sound of credits plunking against our hull.”
I pause then, like the good captain I’m forced to be, and look them over. The ship’s power cycles are down to preserve energy, so their alien faces float disembodied-like in the gloom of the corridor.
I don’t know their names, just their morphology. There’s a Catargan’sia, face pulled long like an equine’s and bristling with fur; three bright jade eyes are set triangularly in the center of its forehead. A Starkinger, round white face with two huge coal eyes that, given the weak light, look like black holes in the center of its moony mug. A Pummleton, a blank, pumpkin-like face with vertical furrows that are filled with tiny gray vellus hairs. And a Labgraderon, a balloon of fat gray flesh with small red eyes that circle its head like a beaded halo.
They are the motliest of crew, from every backwater planet in the universe, suckered together here by a common cause: somehow, like me, they all owe Rex.
“All you need to do to get those credits,” I shout and then pause for effect. “Is to reach out and take them!”
I watch their reactions. Teeth bristle on the Catargansia’s long face, the Starkinger glows purple, the Pummleton’s vellus hairs flurry, and the Labgraderon’s gray balloon head swells. They are pleased.
The Pathosian, my second in command and Rex’s official plant, materializes out of the hallway gloom.
His legs, arms, and body are like cooked strips of lasagna that waver and wobble limply. He’s a morphological feat, not a bone in his body though he stands perfectly upright, orthostatically. With each step, his fluid like carapace hardens to keep his legs straight and his body upright, then softens to bend at the knee and step forward; it’s a fascinating dance between the conscious mind and his autonomous nervous system. He looks like he’s swimming through the air. It’s beautiful.
I’d love to get him on one of our autopsy tables and crack him open. Not just because I hate him, but because his structures are like nothing I’ve seen or studied back on Earth. Despite what I’ve done, that part of me, the scientist, is still there, still amazed by the morphological wonders of the universe.
His voice is like wet macaroni being stirred, which the adapter stapled into my auditory nerve translates to: “Jack, are you done with the pep talk? Now can we get to work?”
In his decentralized brain, the motivation for whyever we’re here should be good enough and pep talks are just a waste of time.
“Do you need a pep?” he asks. “A reminder of your son?”
After splitting him open, I’d jab a couple of fat needles into him and pump him full of radiocontrast, maybe a radium-phosphor mix, that would light his arteries up like a Solstice Tree. Then I’d like to mount him, take him back to Earth and hang him in the hallway at the Astrobiology section in the University of Antwerp, my old alma matter, so everyone walking by can gawk and learn.
But telling him off accomplishes nothing and jeopardizes the thin thread my son’s life hangs by, so I simply ignore him and press on.
“Gentlemen!” I say. “Let’s get out there and bag those bodies.”
The Labgraderon waits patiently by my side in the cold steel evis room. He stands so tall on willowy legs that his gray balloon head brushes the top of the 12-foot high ceiling.
The Pathosian swims in through the door and stops at the foot of the steel autopsy table. On it is the first battlesuit we recovered.
I take my place at the head of the table.
Of course, as with all of these, this could be a bust. The battlesuits may not have retained their seals over these hundred years and inside could be a useless lump of frozen matter that we’ll have to throw into the mechanical separator and then sell for pet food.
The battlesuit is not at all bulky. It hugs the contours of this creature’s body, which is human shaped, making it tricky to cut through without damaging the merchandise.
“This is a pulsor blade,” I say to the Labraderon as I take the black gun from the medieval-looking tool rack on the wall behind me.
“You only need a short flame,” I say and I turn the white dial on the gun up to level one. A thin, blue beam rises an inch from the muzzle. Carefully and slowly so the Labgraderon can follow my motions as he’s going to have to do this to the rest of them, I cut open the suit by tracing an outline of its body. Then I attached a suction clamp to the chest.
“Moment of truth gentleman,” I say and I lift up hard on the clamp.
With a metallic crack, the front of the suit easily lifts away.
I gasp and drop everything to the ground with a terrible clatter, the Labgraderon’s head shrinks in on itself, and the Pathosian makes wet noodly sounds, which the translator stapled into my auditory nerve can’t translate, but I’m guessing is a kind of swear.
The lizard’s face is beautiful, untouched. I can’t see a single sign of decay or even any damage from the cold. No fissures in the scales or cracks or discoloration; each one glows like a gemstone. Though their ship must have exploded and hurtled it into the vastness of space to die horribly, its expression is peaceful, calm.
“Well, what is it?” the Pathosian asks.
I start my patter then, walking slowly around the body and listing off its features to identify it. This is the only part of the job I enjoy, and I can’t help but smile as I do it; I can’t help but feel a little alive.
“Obviously bipedal and descended from a saurian-like race.”
I take a caliper from the rack on the wall and measure the length of one of the scales.
“Jade-green scales, 2 inches in length. Nostrils and mouth…an air breather. Flat teeth…plant eater. What’s fascinating are the three small humps on their backs. Their suits are built to curve around them. For a creature like this, they are a bizarre biological outcropping, likely vestigial. They remind me…”
And then I trail off because it all clicks wonderfully together in my head and I suddenly know what it is and what this means.
“Yes. Yes. What is it?” the Pathosian asks impatiently.
“It’s a Jajj’ssj,” I hiss through my teeth to get the pronunciations right, which I’m sure I don’t.
“Which is worth what?” the Pathosian asks.
Even though I do what I do, I still have respect for the creatures I pillage. I nearly reach across the table and slap the Pathosian.
“They’re warm-blooded and judging from how well-preserved they are, their blood can likely be reconstituted. From what I’ve read, it contains extraordinary high levels of antibodies, platelets, and red blood cells. Some of the races will pay through the nose to use this blood in medical procedures, sports cheating, and as I recall some metaphysical rituals.”
“Excellent!” the Pathosian says. In his mind, he’s already converting the number of bodies and the information I told him into hard currency.
“Their scales can be stripped and used for pigment coloration in high-end makeup products and adornments. Also, the Qui’en’sts race likes to ground them up and use them in medicines that supposedly makes their sex glands really hard.”
“Wonderful!” he says and his body quivers in delight. He turns abruptly to leave, likely hurrying back to a COM to tell Rex of the wonderful job he’s done.
“There’s more,” I say.
The Pathosian stops and turns. His yellow face doesn’t have any eyes, but if they did, I’m sure they’d be narrowing.
“More?” he asks.
“Their three humps are hollow organs that fill themselves with spermaceti, which can be processed into a very high-quality skin moisturizer. Pharmaceutical companies will kill for this.”
He’s stunned. I’m stunned. The Labgraderon doesn’t know what the hell we’re talking about, so he’s kind of stunned too.
This is a gold rush.
I see my nine-year-old son in my mind, stretched out in his cryogen chamber. Huge clear boils cover every inch of his body, and in the center of each is a tiny black tadpole. I froze him just before they hatched and swam into his arteries to feed and grow. The parasites visible on his skin I can easily remove, but the tiny ones in his spine, brain, and heart–I can’t.
It is my fault he lies there in Rex’s cold hock storage. A trip I shouldn’t have taken him on, in a suit I hadn’t properly checked, on a world I knew nothing about–a fool, a murderous fool I was. I reclaim the dead, so I can reclaim the life of my son. Every credit I earn goes to the team of scientists back on Earth, who I employ to find a cure for these vile and vicious things. And now this…this fortune falls into my lap, and I can’t help but cry as I stand there. I shiver and shake and lower my head so they can’t see the tears running from my eyes.
Then the lizard on the table stirs. A gold eye snaps open and its great slitted pupil narrows.
I let out a girlish scream, and the Labgraderon and the Pathosian leap back from the table.
“It’s alive!” one of us shouts, probably me.
“What the hell!” I exclaim at the Pathosian. “You said this battle happened centuries ago!”
“That’s what the informant said!” the Pathosian replies.
I put my hand on the lizard’s chest. It’s a solid block of ice. A very faint heartbeat pulses deep in its chest.
“Dormant,” I say, which wasn’t written up about them, but it’s obvious now that I think about it. Given their saurian heritage, of course they would slip into a kind of hibernation out there in the cold black nothingness of space.
Another gold eye flickers open and the pupil contracts.
The Labgraderon wheezes out a good question from the windbags in its head: “What do we do?”
“I have no idea,” I reply and I look at the Pathosian to see if he has any ideas.
“Kill it,” he replies like he was talking about some fly that buzzed in.
I give my head a little tap to reorient the translator stapled into my auditory nerve, because clearly it’s mistranslated that last reply.
“Come again?” I say.
“Nobody knows they are here and alive,” he mushes. “As you said, they are worth their weight and more in credits.”
And he leaves it at that. Like that’s enough for him and that should be enough for me.
But it’s not.
“I can’t just kill it,” I say.
Its chest begins to slowly rise and fall. Bit by bit, it’s slowly coming back to itself.
“Your son,” the Pathosian says.
I don’t get mad when I hear those words because I’m expecting those words and I’m already thinking about those words.
“If not your son, then you,” the Pathosian says.
“How the hell do you figure that?” I ask, an edge rising in my voice.
“Think of it,” he says. “These creatures are warriors, killers. He was trying to kill right up to the second he was blasted into space. To him, that was just moments ago.”
My eyes are drawn to the sharp black claws on its hands, the powerful arms, and its many shiny teeth.
“When it wakes it will kill,” the Pathosian continues. “And if it doesn’t, when it learns about us and what we intend to do, it will most certainly kill.”
“You don’t know that!”
“But I do. We are a threat to its brethren that float helplessly out there in the stars. It will kill to protect them.”
He isn’t convincing me in the slightest. His words are meaningless to me. I hate him and everything he says slides right off my back. The problem is that I’m convincing me. There will never be a score like this again. There will never be an opportunity like this again for my son. I see his sweet face, his gentle brown eyes, and the festering boils on his skin.
“No,” I whisper so quietly that I can’t tell if I actually said that; it’s more a sigh than anything.
“No?” the Pathosian asks. Its entire yellow body quivers in jello-like rage. “No to your son?”
“No,” I say more firmly. It feels so wrong inside me to say it that it must mean it’s the right thing to do.
“We’ll let him recover,” I say. “Then we’ll drop him off near his home planet, so he can tell his authorities and they can rescue their citizens.”
“But Rex…” the Pathosian starts to say.
“The hell with Rex!” I interject. “I can’t take a life! Look, Rex doesn’t need to know. We can make up the credits with another score like this. A find like this can be found again. The galaxy is full of the dead.”
I say the last bit with as much conviction as I can muster, but there isn’t a lick of truth in it and I think the Pathosian can sense this.
He turns and glides out of the room so abruptly I stand there for minutes wondering what’s happened. I was expecting a retort, more argument, more attempts to convince me. Not that.
“What’s he doing?” I ask the Labgraderon, but he merely shrugs his thin shoulders.
It’s obvious he’s calling him to tell him of my betrayal. One flick of a switch and my son’s cryogen is shut off and the parasites begin to hatch.
I start to run after the Pathosian, but then the whole room somersaults around me and I smash to the floor. I roll over and look up, dazed and tasting a mouthful of blood. The Jajj’ssj is sitting up in its cut-out suit and is staring at me with gold flecked eyes. With a simple flick of its powerful wrist, it’s tossed me clean across the room.
I see the Labgraderon is about to make a move for the lizard.
“Don’t,” I say, raising my hand to stop him. He freezes and the two dozen red eyes circling his head turn ever so slightly towards me.
They both look at me like they’re waiting for me to say something or do something, and I do. I get up and run out of the room.
I blast down the steel corridor. A left, a right, and another left and I barrel into the command room. But it’s empty. Nothing but blinking computers and a ten-foot wide monitor that shows a bristling expanse of steel wreckage and battlesuits, all whirling endlessly in space. I expected the Pathosian to be here, calling up Rex to tell him about what I’ve done.
Why isn’t he here? What the hell did he rush from the room to do?
I snap on the camera in the evis room. On the main monitor, I see the willowy Labgraderon standing beside the lizard who’s still sitting up on the steel table. The Labgraderon seems to be talking to him. I change cameras to show the outside of the ship. The top half of the scene is the star-speckled universe and the rest is the silver curve of hull. The remaining crew are out there in steel suits with big red magnaboots. Each crew member holds a long black pole to snag the battlesuits trundling by.
I start flicking through the cameras as fast as I can: bunks, kitchen, hallways. Then I see the yellow invertebrate on my monitor.
He’s standing by the prep room door. Inside are stacks of bodies waiting to be processed.
I instantly know what he’s doing, and I’m out the door and firing down the hallway to stop him.
I round the corner and slam into his side like a footballer making a tackle. We go rolling and bouncing down the steel hallway. Somehow he gets over top of me and steps away. I wrap my arms around his whacky legs to hold him, but he easily wiggles free; his carapace is like a wet rubber tire in my hands.
“It’s done,” he mushes. “You’re too late.”
And then he kicks me hard and square in the stomach. I reel like I’ve been hit by a cinder block and I gasp and cough my lunch away.
He swims a few steps back. “You’re not the only one with family,” he says. “You’re just the only one that’s willing to risk their lives.”
That hits me harder than his blow to my guts.
“And that justifies taking these creatures’ lives?” I ask as I rise into a sitting position on the steel grate flooring, wincing at the needles prickling in my stomach. That son of a bitch can kick.
“For family, everything is justified.” He replies. “Life is as precious as death. That is why we do what we do.”
I open my mouth, but my argument turns to ash on my lips. I had thought his kind to be oviparous, birthed in a shell and then abandoned by its mother. The hallmarks of a race like that are strong self-reliance and absolutely no caring for family–they are alone in this universe in a way that no other race understands. I figured he owed Rex money and that’s why he did this ghoulish job. It never occurred to me he was here for the same reason I am–that what was driving me was the same thing driving him.
Groaning in pain, I rise to my feet. He leaves me as our conversation is done. He’s won.
I check the computer on the wall beside the prep room’s door. It’s as I thought: he’s flooded the room with rads. Not even their battlesuits can protect them from that.
I cycle the system down to safe levels and open the door.
From floor to ceiling, are maybe a thousand battlesuits stacked in jumbled piles.
I weep for them. I don’t even know if any of them were alive in the first place, but I break down onto my knees and weep.
Then I stand, turn my back on them, and walk down the hall to the evis room. The Labgraderon is helping the lizard get to his feet. When the lizard sees the gun in my hand, his gold eyes go frightfully wide.
With a soft phut! the gun sends a sliver of adamantium through the center of its forehead and the wall behind goes a splattered crimson. The creature drops to the ground like a stone and the Labgraderon wheezes hysterically.
I leave him to wheeze and think, and I make my way down the hallway to the command room.
Life is as precious as death, the Pathosian said so smugly. I slam my gun back into its holster. That bastard. That cold evil monster. He forced me to murder that creature. There was no other way. If he lived, he would have told the authorities and they would have torn us apart. The universe has a special hatred for people like us, we resurrectionists.
Worse than the rancor boiling through my veins, is the gratefulness I feel towards him. When I opened the prep room door, relief coursed through me. Utter relief.
I am sickened by my feelings, my elation for all this inestimable death, and I wonder when this is done, will I be able to reclaim myself?
I stomp into the command room and initiate the call to Rex. I’m going to tell him the fantastic news and ask for another photo of my son.