"Am I asleep or awake?" Render said.
A voice--female--responded. "Awake, of course."
"I can't tell sometimes. I think I'm plugged in."
The soothing tones of a random harmony generator hummed in the background. Behind that, vibrating through the walls themselves, Render felt the guttural groan of the engines.
"We're in space. What is our destination?"
"Why do you always ask that? You're on the frigate Self Imposed, en route to Mars."
"Am I the captain?"
"Not this time."
He felt her adjust his straps, tug on them to ensure they were tight and secure. Render didn't open his eyes. There was no need.
"Captain, the crew are worried," Antona said. "You've been plugged in for too long."
Render opened his eyes, although he couldn't remember closing them. The
"We've got no wasps left, and the engines are almost burnt," Render said in response to his first officer's admonition. "I don't really have any choice about being plugged in."
"You can't hold them off by yourself, not forever. And your brain...the system was never meant for such extended use."
"I am the Captain. This ship is my responsibility. I will do what I must."
Render initialised the plug, felt it click into place behind his ear. The digital reality of the ship and its sensor space flooded his mind. The bridge and his first officer faded.
"Am I asleep or awake?"
"Awake, of course," the female voice replied. The voice was close--Render felt the presence of another person standing beside him.
"Antona, is that you?"
There was no answer, but who else could it be?
"I can't tell. I feel like I'm plugged in."
If it had been Antona, she would have leapt into a report on the status of the crew. Or she would inform him what he had been doing while plugged in. The disjunction between the virtual reality of the ship's
Render opened his eyes but did not recognise the room. It wasn't Antona
"Captain Render, focus on my voice."
Render opened his eyes and confronted a dim room. He smelt sweat and burnt plastic--the room had limited ventilation. Particles of metal and oil hung suspended in the air. If he had a magnet to wave around the room, Render thought the air would stick to it.
Edges became clear. A man stood in the corner. A soft blue glow surrounded him. The glow gave the man an angelic appearance, a false aura of calm and goodness.
"Who are you?"
"I am Methodeus. We have captured your ship, Captain Render."
Render knew the name. "Pirate."
Methodeus made a face like he had tasted something sour. "Liberationist."
"I have buried them in the void. You have yourself to blame for that." Methodeus stood up and moved over to where Render lay. The glow around him faded--Render saw that it was only a wall-mounted light that the pirate had been standing before. "You put up quite a fight. There never are enough wasps when a pirate convoy attacks though, are there?"
"What do you want?"
"What I want, Captain, is knowledge. Why are you carrying only clothes and medicine, when your freighter had an arsenal of military grade wasps?"
Render sighed. Pirates always thought freighters were easy prey, and had
Methodeus leant over, his face close to Render's. Render smelt sweat, and also anger pulsating beneath Methodeus' skin. "But you must have known what it is. Why did you contact me and have us intercept otherwise?"
"It's a lot of money, but way too risky," Antona said.
She sucked down some Anxious and looked out the viewport, waiting for the drug to perform. Both the Moon and Earth were visible, engaged in their slow parting. Earth's gravity sank its invisible claw on the Moon, so that over millions of years the Moon's rotation would slow. In retaliation, the Moon drifted ever further away from the Earth.
"It's a retire mission," Render said. "We get to relax in low gravity for the rest of our lives."
A ship outside the orbital station glinted in the sun and then was lost in the surrounding darkness as it passed into Earth's shadow. Render turned his attention back to the bar. Since he had begun negotiations for this contract, he had become paranoid. Every time he looked around a different pair of eyes locked with his. Every gaze proposed hidden meaning.
"You've never accepted anything funded by the Government Corporation before. You said you never would. We're just as likely to be sent to their Martian prison colony as we are of getting paid. They can change the law at any time. How can anyone deal with them?"
"We need this one. The crew will quit if there isn't any money soon." He
"What would you do for the money?" the Gov-Corp man asked.
"I don't understand the question," Render said. "We freight cargo."
"In this case the cargo would be particularly delicate. Some memory alterations have to be made before and after the mission. For all your crew." The words 'including you' echoed unspoken.
The Government man invoked his negotiating voice, the tone that was
"Am I asleep or awake?"
"You were plugged in, Captain. You are aboard the Kraken."
The desolation of the bridge shimmered into view. The air carried a haze--smoke leaked in from a breach somewhere. Wires and computer cabinets hung askew or draped chairs that crewmembers should have filled.
"Hull contains multiple fractures, but we won't explode any time soon," Antona said, her voice matter-of-fact. "There are three functional wasps. Fuel is at eighteen percent, but all the gatherers have been
Render's vision blurred. The ship's computer system threw him back into the tactical perspective that allowed him to see in three dimensions simultaneously.
The amount of red, indicating damaged systems, made him nauseous. At least, it would have if he had any concept of his physical body while plugged in. The Kraken was going down, the damage too great. The
Render wondered if some miracle might happen, that somehow they would be
Render wouldn't give up while there were still more wasps. He gave the order to prepare the last three for launch.
"Am I asleep or awake?"
"Awake, of course. Open your eyes."
He did. The brightness of reality made his body spasm.
"Captain Render. It's nice to see you again."
When his eyes focussed, Render saw the Gov-Corp man, dressed in the same
"Where am I?"
Render lay in a stark room. It had the bleak feel of a prison cell. The polished walls diffused the light from the single static in the ceiling. It gave the illusion that the light came from everywhere at once. Through a small window in one wall, Render could see a red evening sky, a sky far too red for Earth.
The Government man followed Render's gaze. "Yes, you're on Mars. I need
The Gov-Corp man leaned close. His white-toothed smile was much more disturbing than his negotiating voice. His breath smelt of rotting flowers. "How did you manage to steal our cargo?"
The ship rocked from the impact of an enemy wasp. The explosion of the
"They're aggressive, aren't they?" Render said.
The pirates had appeared to scans as nothing more than traders, and had
Antona turned from her post. "Captain, we can't outrun them and they are extremely well armed."
Render could plug in again, control the ship himself. It would be better, in the short term, but eventually the overuse of his brain would leave him a paralysed, paranoid wreck. He half suspected that burnt out
Render sighed. He would deal with the consequences another day. "I'll
He felt the plug snap into place behind his ear, but before succumbing to the digital environment, he knew there was a reason why he should have been more worried.
"Am I asleep or awake?"
"Awake, of course," she said.
"Antona? Have I been plugged in long?"
"No Captain. You haven't been plugged in for some time."
Render opened his eyes. The woman beside him was not at all like the thick shouldered sand-haired Antona. This woman was skeletal, a waif with oily hair and skin of chalk. Too long aboard ship, Render thought. She seemed somehow familiar.
"Where am I?"
"You are aboard the Self Imposed, Captain Render. The same as last time
Vibrating through the metal slab on which he lay, a random harmony generator hummed an innocent tune, trying to coax him back into sleep. Render resisted the temptation to slide once again into oblivion, although he knew he hadn't the strength to remain conscious for long.
"I'm cold. Where are my clothes?"
"It's cold where you're going, Captain. Get used to it."
Render felt a gentle touch on his shoulder and stiffened. Antona stood over him, concern wrapped across her forehead in concentric circles.
"You were plugged in, Captain. Too long. I was afraid you weren't going
Antona helped him sit up. Render recognised the familiar surroundings of the Kraken. The bridge was intact, as clean as he had ever seen it. Which wasn't that clean. There was no damage--and after a moment of confusion, he wondered why he had expected there would be.
"Antona, I thought I'd lost you. Where are the pirates?"
"Pirates, Captain?" Antona's face twisted a little further with worry.
"There were...pirates...never mind. I must have been plugged in longer than I thought. What's our status?"
"All systems are functional. Cargo is secure."
That was a relief at least. Nothing was more important to the crew of a professional freighter than its cargo. But that thought led to another. "What is our cargo?"
"No one knows, Captain."
Antona looked perplexed. "Captain, you ordered the cargo area off limits."
Render noticed his chair was reclined into a fully horizontal position. He couldn't remember any time over the last few days that he'd been in any other position, on his back, staring at the ceiling, in between
Those states had the unfortunate tendency to become blurred.
"Perhaps you should rest," Antona suggested.
"No, I have to see."
The contents of the cargo were important, he knew it. He couldn't think why he had ordered the area off limits, but that order surely didn't apply to himself.
Render pulled open the straps that held him in place.
"Am I asleep or awake?"
"Awake, Captain Render, for now."
Render opened his eyes. The dull blue glow shattered his vision. Methodeus twisted into focus.
"Where am I?"
"You are aboard my ship, Captain. I have retrieved your...cargo. It is secure in my hold."
"What is my cargo?"
Thin lips curled around the pirate's teeth, but he ignored the question.
"Payment? For what? What was in the hold?" Render noticed he lay sprawled on a plush red leather couch. If Methodeus had been better dressed he might have been a psychiatrist conducting a routine
Methodeus continued, the tone of his voice suggesting amused eagerness. "Yes, according to this deliciously encrypted file, a Government Corporation encryption no less, you are listed as part of the cargo
"Will you do it for the money?"
"I still don't know why you would hire out a private freighter. Gov-Corp has its own ships."
No other customers remained in the bar at four in the morning, nominal space station time. Few other places were even open. Render had asked for the meeting to be here, where he thought he would be comfortable. The meeting had turned out to be anything but comfortable.
The Gov-Corp man sneered at Render's use of the shortened name for his company. "Economic rationalism. It works out cheaper for the Government Corporation to hire a private freighter and remove any unwanted memories afterwards. Memory is cheap. Maintaining a freighter fleet is not.
Render looked at the amount of money again. It was more than he could
For a moment, the gestalt tones of a harmony generator vibrating through
The Gov-Corp man detected the pause and, sensing victory, went in for the kill. "I take it you agree to the memory alterations?"
Render could smell the trap, honey laced with poison. But he couldn't turn it down. "If the transfer of money is placed into an assured account, I agree."
"Am I asleep or awake?"
"Captain, thank God. You're not plugged in, you're awake."
Render felt firm hands beneath his head and shoulders. "Antona. Where are we? What happened?"
"In the cargo hold. You started screaming about pirates, about Gov-Corp. You went crazy. You wanted to plug back in, saying we were under attack."
Went crazy, she said. Have I been plugging in too often?
Render had heard of the captains and pilots who the system had twisted into insanity. The brains of some others had simply given out. All rumour of course.
Antona helped him to his feet, and Render saw that they were indeed in the cargo hold of the Kraken. He had little room to move through. Stasis tubes, each one the right size to contain a human being, filled the hold
"What are all these people doing in here?
"You told me our friendly Government Corporation does that with the
Methodeus sucked back on a cigar and blew out the smoke, a cloud of white doves. A rare indulgence aboard ship in airless space, and Render suspected Methodeus did it to confirm his absolute control of the situation.
"They ship them to Mars? Why would I be helping Gov-Corp do this?"
"I don't think you are, Captain. Firstly, your memory has been altered so that you didn't know what was in the cargo hold, and secondly you contacted me before that alteration. I thought I would be liberating a
"But the battle...why did you attack?"
"A derelict ship blown apart by wasps adds a little bit of legitimacy to your story of a pirate attack, don't you think? Although given you were so outnumbered and outgunned you did a remarkable job defending yourself."
"I always plug in and target wasps myself." Render wanted to feel some pride in the compliment, but he was still talking to the man who had hijacked his ship and killed his crew. "We must get back to Earth.
"Captain Render, there is a slight problem with our situation. What you said you would be freighting and what you are actually freighting appear to be two different things.
"But I've seen them. There are stasis tubes piled high in the hold."
"Captain. Don't play with me. You hold is full of clothes and medicine."
"I don't understand."
"You've led me on a very expensive but fruitless chase. You betrayed me. Why do you think I killed your crew? I will take your cargo to help recoup my costs, but I am not a happy man."
"So, what happens to me?"
"Simple. We wipe your memory of this encounter and put you back on the
Render pressed back into the couch. He closed his eyes, but that soft blue glow continued to fill his vision.
"Antona, I know. I know what our cargo is."
"Captain, we don't have time for that. We are about to be boarded. Your last three wasps hit nothing."
Render couldn't remember targeting the wasps, although he rarely missed
"They take those driven insane or crippled by their systems and dump them on Mars. Government Corporation can't afford to leave them around as evidence that their technology is hazardous, so they send them to their prison colony. Antona?"
"Antona? Am I awake?"
"No Captain. You're plugged in."
Render opened his eyes. The interior of the Self Imposed confronted him. He screamed and the nurse came running to sedate him, as she always did.
"I know, I know now. I know what I did. I know why I'm here."
"That's good, Captain. Just relax now."
"I thought Gov-Corp had me freighting people. I only wanted to help them
She smiled to placate him. At the same time the smile said she cared nothing for what Render thought.
In the background, a polyrhythmic generator hummed over the speakers, a soothing tune for those damned to the chill of the Martian wastes. It created a melody to soothe his electronically ravaged mind.
Render thought he could hear words behind the tune, a gentle whisper. "You plugged in too often. Your brain has been softened. Now you are a convict, until you graduate to a coffin."
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