PAIN LIKE I’ve never felt before. Agony. Shuddering through me in wave after wave. I’m trapped under a great weight, unable to open my eyes, unable to move. Cold and shivering—frozen to the core. My legs and arms are twisted into tight knots, as if I’m rolled up into a ball, yet I’m lying flat, pushed down onto a hard, uneven surface stabbing into my back and spine.
I’m underwater—surrounded by a thick cloying liquid. Despite the freezing cold, my chest burns with a desperate need for oxygen. The sensation turns into a raging fire. My mouth bursts open and, like a dam riven by a series of underwater explosions, I’m coughing one lungful of fluid after another. The sound is muffled, distant—unconnected.
The crushing weight disappears, my face is uncovered and I snatch at the air, hacking and gasping. The cold recedes from my limbs, replaced by a slow warmth crawling through me with the sluggish thud, thud, thud of my heart. And with the pounding beat comes more agony. Every capillary in my skin stings like hot acid. Muscles pulling against one other, dragging my joints apart. Tearing and snapping.
Something yanks at my head. My eyelids peel open. I see nothing more than vague blurs. I don’t care—my ears are full of a lunatic’s screams. A dreadful, screeching sound. With shock, I realise the screams are coming from my own throat. I try to close my mouth, yet the pain is too much. I scream again.
“For fuck’s sake, shut him up!” The voice comes from everywhere and nowhere. A man. Gruff, unfeeling and urgent.
Another voice, by my ear. Female, strained and under pressure: “This will help.”
A needle jabs me in the crease of my arm, releasing a heavy, soporific liquid that sprays into my heart and lurches down my arteries. Staunching the fire. Soothing my agonies. I relax, receding into a hypnotic haze.
I must’ve been in an accident—an accident I have no memory of. Everything is lost, even who I am. Only one image comes to me: I see a cheap hotel room with a viewing balcony. Stars hide behind a smoke-coloured fog, twinkling at me. Inside, stands a bed, the bedclothes tossed onto the floor. A black and white picture of a reclining woman with red lips is hung above. Sounds come from the bathroom. A female voice calling to me. And one other thing. I’m carrying a gun. I shake my head, trying to rid myself of the scene. I need to get away, to run—another needle stabs me in the neck and the memory fades.
“How is he?” asks the gruff voice.
“He’ll live, if that’s what you mean,” the woman snaps back. “He was lucky. The Company writes in a ten percent wastage clause on all their hypersleep transports. The carriers see that as carte blanche to rid themselves of one-tenth of their passenger list just to save a few nutrients. His was one of the pods they switched off.”
“And he’s still alive?”
“Unbelievable, but we know what he is.”
“So we did the creep a favour… shit.”
“He’s in a pretty bad way. Half starved. Nearly dead.”
“That doesn’t concern me. How long before you can get him on his feet?”
“A day or two. Three at the most.”
“You’ve got thirty minutes. I want him up and alert.”
The woman’s voice is full of consternation. “Thirty minutes? But that means—”
“I’m not gonna tell you twice.”
SOMETIME LATER, I’m sitting on the edge of a bunk in a small windowless chamber. It’s functional, lacking any character. This must be the Medical Bay. The name is far grander than the actual room, which contains nothing more than a few cabinets and a sterilisation alcove. A couple of framed anatomical diagrams—reproductions—try to give the chamber a degree of gravitas, but fail miserably. Off-white paint peels from sagging metal walls held together by massive rivets and bolts. A single harsh light washes out all colour—not that there is any. A background hum suffuses the sound, almost like it’s not there—a Matter Engine. I’m on a ship of some sort.
My mouth feels like a squad of shock-troops have used it for a toilet and my head is a screaming buzz gun, yet I’m over the worst of it.
A trolley full of syringes sits by my bunk, attended by the second voice: a worried looking woman in her late thirties. Ginger hair, dappled with the first hints of grey and out of condition from the recycled atmosphere, is pulled back from her face in a tight bun. Her skin is dry—flakes litter her forehead and cheeks. Large green eyes, slightly too wide apart, occasionally flick in my direction. Checking up on me, caring in a professional way. She’d be a looker given half a chance. Petite hands hold a flickering wafer from which red lights flash, bathing her features in crimson—like she’s blushing. She wears a lab coat over a functional uniform. A crescent on her shoulder tells me she’s a Medic. The woman says nothing, just grunts and curses. She’s under duress, although I admire her manner. With a nod, she puts the wafer down and chooses the next syringe, the next shot.
I take the jab. This time deep into my neck. I feel the fluids enter me, can track them through my body. I can’t tell what they’re doing, yet the deep ache inhabiting my limbs reduces to a more acceptable level.
The Medic goes for another syringe.
I sit and watch, shivering and sweating—thin arms wrapped around myself like a child. Long, shaggy black hair encircles my shoulders and an immense beard tickles my chest. My legs shock me—nothing but skin and bone. I don’t yet know who I am, but I remember my physicality. I’m not tall, though I’ve always taken care of myself. This body is starved. A pale imitation of what I once was. I feel genuine sadness at the loss.
And then a word: Hypersleep. I’ve been in hibernation. The word sparks other memories. The Colonies.
“I’ve pushed everything on a bit,” says the Medic. “You may get the odd headache, but you should be starting to remember.”
I stare at her. “Hibernation?” The simple effort of speaking tightens my throat and I start coughing again.
The barest of nods, her lips pressing together in a muted frown. “I brought you out fast and hard. Sorry for the rough ride. Orders.” Her voice is typical of her profession. Curt and informative, yet softer than I expected. I sense anger and bitterness. She’s been forced into this.
Finally, the dreadful hacking ceases. “Where the hell am I?”
“The Company. Where else?”
Thoughts race into my mind: anger, resentment and loathing. I can’t remember who I am, but I know this organisation inside and out. “I hate the damn Company.”
Her head tilts to one side, the frown turning into a grin. “Yeah, we all do. Lean back.” The Medic pushes me down with a surprisingly strong hand. “You’d better hold still for this. The procedure isn’t as bad as you may think.”
I flatten myself on the hard bunk.
“Stare forward. First your left, then your right eye.” She stands over me and brings up a syringe.
I grab her wrist. “Not in a million years!”
If she’s scared, she doesn’t show it. “You wanna go blind?” Her voice is as perfunctory as it ever has been.
“Don’t ask me stupid questions.”
“I’ve two grunts outside who will be more than happy to come and hold you down, or you can man-up and take your medicine. Your choice?”
The threat isn’t an empty one—I believe she will do what she says, although her green eyes remind me this isn’t her decision. The curt redhead isn’t deliberately trying to hurt me. I let her go.
I don’t feel anything as the needle enters my pupil. A quick squirt and she moves to the other eye. A stab of pain and a burst of mist that clears almost instantly.
“You dealt better with the procedure than I could. Then again… you’re Skilled.”
The word is full of emphasis.
“There,” she says. “You’re done. Mostly.”
I sit back up, blinded by my rough shock of untended hair. “I need a haircut.”
The Medic’s face comes to sudden life. “You sure do.”
Creases appear around her lips. I sense she doesn’t smile often—she seems almost embarrassed. It’s now I notice the Triple Bar. Three horizontal lines sitting under the red crescent on her shoulder. “You’re a Patron?” The Triple Bar is just about the highest rank in the medical profession.
“You’re wondering why someone so highly qualified is stuck on a dumb ship like this? Mine is a long story. I won’t bore you with it. You don’t have the time. But it’s because of me that we were ordered to pick you up. No one else was qualified to pull you out of Hypersleep.”
I look around me. “You got anything to drink?”
“You’ve been given plenty of fluids, so you shouldn’t be feeling thirsty.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
Metal rasping on metal and a man enters. I haven’t seen him before, yet I recognise him. The first voice. It has to be. A thug resplendent in the light beige of the Company—the colours of all its personnel. An off-white typifying the organisation’s true nature: faded, impure and stained. His rows of medal-braid are also worn, yet there is nothing pale about the man. Bearlike and animal, his hands like sledgehammers—full of power and purpose. A bastard with Company written all over him. I resent him before he speaks a single word. The Medic says nothing, although she shares my dislike. I feel the emotion stabbing out of her in a wave of loathing.
“I see you’re starting to remember,” the man says, his voice sharp like vinegar spat into the eyes. “I’m Strategist Stranng.” He turns his attention to the Medic, his cheeks bulging with angry authority. “How is he?”
The redhead stares at her superior for a few moments. “Ready,” she says. “Took a rough ride, but he handled the procedure.”
The Strategist flicks a look of hatred in my direction. “It’s his type. Can he handle the brief?”
A nod from the Medic. “His memories are still returning. But he’s almost the real deal.”
Stranng produces a wafer and passes it to me.
At first, I ignore him. Not wanting to look.
“Read the damn thing!” Stranng barks. “It’s also your log for the mission. Data-tested and secure. Don’t lose it.”
I take the handheld off him. The wafer is as big as my hand. A screen from which my face floats in 3D. I know the photo is of me. I just do. Thick black hair, a grizzled chin, intense blue eyes staring back. Staring into me. High cheekbones and wide, pursed lips like some digivid of any half good-looking, thirty-something wannabee. I keep going back to those eyes. My eyes. There’s something odd about them. Like I’m wired. Above this disturbing visage: one word: Vatic. The name scythes through me, releasing memories like the scatter of so many stun-gun pellets.
“I’m Vatic,” I say, the croak of my voice less hollow, less painful.
“Yeah. That’s you, all right. One of the Skilled. One of the Chosen—not that I’m a religious man. Far from it.”
I try to give the wafer back to Stranng.
He thrusts out his lower jaw and sneers. “You deaf? The handheld is yours for the duration of the mission. Preloaded with everything you’ll need to know. Or have you forgotten what you are?”
I want to speak again, but can only croak.
“And what on earth were you doing on a colony ship?” he barks, his grey eyes bright and challenging.
The question jars. “I… I wanted to start a plantation,” I finally manage to spit out. “Away from all this shit.” The statement sounds outlandish to my ears. A farmer is the polar-opposite of what I think I am. Yet, I remember the planet Jason. A place of opportunity, of plenty and… escape. Or so the datavids lied. “I have land waiting for me.”
A snort. “Well get this, it turns out that until you put your feet on that poisonous dust-ball you were heading for, you’re still owned by the Company. And it seems they have a job for you.” He turned again to the Medic. “Kit him out in a skinsuit and bring him to the airlock.” Stranng spins around and leaves the room.
I brush the hair away from my face. “Airlock?”
The redhead’s green eyes narrow slightly. “There’s been a death.”
THE MEDIC pushes me through the ship, followed by two CPs—Company Policemen. Tight corridors stinking of sweat and piss. Gunmetal painted white. The floor is worn from the passing of many feet and stained with splashes of spilled coffee and space knows what other fluids. We walk past ship personnel. Nervous eyes dart at me—frightened eyes, worried. My attention is elsewhere—I’m trying to remember who and what I am. I wear a simple head-to-foot skinsuit tightly embracing my emaciated frame. Only my face is visible. My long hair and beard, still untrimmed, are tucked inside a tight hood. I feel safe, protected. But it’s more than that—the skinsuit hugs my body in a familiar way.
Hydraulic doors clang shut and hiss open until I arrive at the cargo airlock. A dimly lit square of a room full of discarded equipment. Why have they brought me here?
Stranng arrives. The CPs salute, the Medic a moment behind them. She’s purposely slow—disrespectful—and I’m liking her attitude. Stranng assesses the assembled bodies, taking the required number of seconds that authority dictates, and begins to speak. His eyes sparkling in the relative gloom as if powered by his own inner purpose. “Some scientist has wound up dead at one of the Company’s secret laboratories,” the Strategist says matter-of-factly, as if giving a briefing.
And then I realise… that’s exactly what he’s doing.
“Probably suicide,” he continues. “Almost certainly.” A shrug of muscled shoulders. “Not my call. The Company wants someone Skilled to go investigate—they’ve chosen you.”
That word again. Skilled. I still have no idea what it means. I can’t remember everything yet, although I feel a deep-seated resentment for the Company. “I won’t do it,” I croak through chapped lips.
“You think you’ve got a choice?” Stranng nods to the Medic. “Tell him.”
I’ve no idea why a Patron with a Triple Bar is stuck on this ship with brutes like this, but it can’t be a picnic.
“You’ve got six hours, give or take,” she says. “Six hours before your organs start giving up. You may last a further hour, if you’re lucky.”
“What the hell is this?”
Stranng smirks. “An added incentive to get the job done.”
The Medic continues. “The drugs I gave you, coupled with the accelerated process to bring you out of hypersleep, filled your system with toxins. Not even you can handle that amount of poison without a full blood scrub. I’m sorry.”
Stranng puts his face in front of mine. “A scrub we’re withholding until you do what you’re told to do… Unnerstand?”
I repeat the Medic’s words in my head. Even you can’t handle that. There’s something about me. Something special. And I’ve got six hours to find out what that is. Six hours to do this dumb job. “I’m an investigator?”
A nod from Stranng. “Of a sort.” His mouth curls into a winner’s smile. “If it was up to me, I’d have left you to rot in the hold of your colony ship. Only losers and fools trust the cargo-traffickers—you must have had quite some angle. Judging by the state of you, whatever it was backfired. And now you’re here. Working for the Company again.” The smile turns into a sneer of disgust. “And I thought we’d got rid of your type of scum a long time ago.”
“He’s not scum,” says the Medic. “No matter what he’s done, he’s not that.”
It’s obvious Stranng is not used to being talked to in this way, but he says nothing. Somehow his silence is more threatening than a tirade.
The two-note of the intercom and an efficient voice: “We are now in geo-synchronous orbit above the Karst asteroid, Strategist. We have a two-minute window.”
Stranng’s sneer infects his whole face. “This ship is needed elsewhere, and we’re late. I’ll come back when we get the call from the Company—and not before. You’re to meet with Director Anton Frederix, the stiff who runs the Zeta-Karst Laboratories. He’ll brief you on the situation.”
“Are they coming to pick me up?”
“Not as such. You’re gonna have to find your own way there. You’re about to take a little spacewalk. It’s not far… just head for the nearest rock. That shouldn’t be too hard for someone of your talent.” He thrusts a facemask into my hands and stands back.
“Find my own way? I don’t get it…”
“You’ve got six hours to solve this to the Company’s satisfaction. Personally, I hope to never see you again.
And with that, the inner hatch opens and I’m pushed into the airlock, the door clanging shut behind me.
“What about my air!” I shout. “I’ve got no air!”
Stranng’s face relaxes. He stares at me through the thick glass of the observation window, his eyes glittering as he hits the release button with a punch of his hand.
I have time enough to take a deep breath and attach my facemask before the outer hatch slides aside and I’m ejected into space.