From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 30

Where there should have been nothing, there was pain.

There came a sensation like panic, then despair. A sense of flight aborted and the wailing of the mothers of stillborn. He made a noise that brought to mind the wordskittering, as though he possessed too many legs, as though he was a spider. Except the sound didn’t come from outside of him, but inside.

The pain showed itself to him. Not his head. He thought he might be hungover, though he didn’t remember drinking. It was his back. His goddamned spine ached. Felt like he’d slept on a pair of scissors.

He wasn’t supposed to be sleeping at all. He didn’t remember sleeping. The afternoon was too full for anything like a nap. He’d promised Ashburn they would run over the disaster protocols. He had to log his weekly contact with mission comm HQ. After he got off the round, he still had to meet Djen for the shift reports and tomorrow’s duty roster. And maybe coffee later, after the business was done.

His heart shuddered in his chest just thinking about it. He was such an idiot.

Brett opened his eyes. He looked up at the pale brightness of the ceiling that wasn’t his private quarters. He frowned, then remembered. He cursed.

“Doc, I think I just fucked up my image. I fell asleep. I didn’t realize I was so tired. Is that going to be a problem?” He sat up grinning. “Please don’t tell me we’re going to have to do it again.”

But Liston wasn’t there. No one was there. The med bay was empty.

“Doc?”

The cart with the imaging unit had been wheeled away, he saw. Maybe the image took after all. Liston must have decided to let him sleep. The wily old bastard probably decided the pressure of command was getting to him and justified the nap as a recuperative measure.

Brett rubbed at the sore spot on his back. He’d have to talk to Liston later, give him a good natured undressing for promoting dereliction of duty.

He noticed that Liston wasn’t the only one to receive an undressing. He was naked. The tile floor sent a chill up through his feet that made his calves ache.

What the hell?

“Dr. Liston?”

He found a clean shipsuit, underwear and socks, all neatly folded on the table beside the bed. There was a pair of boots on the floor. Brett put the clothing on quickly. It occurred to him that he might have been ill. That would explain a number of things. Maybe he’d been delirious.

Brett went to the door, but the sensors didn’t seem to read him. It didn’t open. He keyed the comm pad on the wall, but it didn’t respond when he ordered it to break the seal. He punched the code three times with no results. Annoyed, he toggled the comm port to order Cassandra to release the latch, but when he called to her, she didn’t answer. He gave his order and his passcode anyway.

Nothing happened.

Cassandra wasn’t answering. He didn’t have to know exactly what had happened to understand that something was wrong. If Cassandra wasn’t on line, it must be critically wrong.

He was going to have to force the door. That was fantastic. It could take hours if the seals were all intact.

Brett made his way toward the storage cabinets and searched them for something stout enough to wedge into cracks of the door. He found sheets and pillows, bottles of isopropyl alcohol, boxes of bandages, but nothing that resembled a … Read more

From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 29

He waited.

Through the rumble of the Escape Module engaging its engines, through the heady and violent roar of its launch up through the retractable dome, through the ensuing silences and emptiness of a station abandoned of all human life but his own, Brett waited. He tore the legs off his flimsy table and slabbed it against Cassandra’s front panels, then he sat on it with his back against her warmth and his head beside the shattered capsule. When he looked up, he could see Emily.

When he looked down, he could see the cards as he had dealt them, spread out between his legs. He couldn’t remember the spread as Ritter had shown him, nor the meaning of any of the cards themselves. He hadn’t found Ritter’s portable computer with the database of meanings and didn’t feel like searching for it. He couldn’t even say why he had retrieved the cards in the first place. It had been something he had done, an unconsidered item on his list of errands.

He realized vaguely that this was probably a bad sign, some sort of negative indicator of the organisms’ control over him. But he couldn’t parse the significance of it, so he left it alone. Instead, he dealt the cards because it was something to do while he waited.

He liked the feel of them in his hands, their slick and sturdy weight, the mechanical process of shuffle and deal and cogitation. This was a thing he had discovered. What the cards meant—what people said they meant—was insignificant to him. He had made his choices and not just divined, but forged his future. There was nothing prophetic they could tell him that was of any value or that wasn’t already known.

But as he looked at them, studied their pictures, their backgrounds, the warm and solid pictures they bore, he built a narrative. The cards whispered stories constructed of image and thought and loosely tethered correlations. They told a story that was unique each time he laid them down, and though it was not his story, it was a human one. It was populated by lives and destinies that were glorious, by people with long and complex histories that intertwined with his by the sheer and simple fact of their human community. They were not real, but he understood them.

He surveyed the cards before him, most of them Cups. The colors were green and blue, sky and sea, shore and foam. The man in the first card stood on the sand and peered off into the wide and empty horizon, searching for ships that did not come, or ships that had gone. Brett understood him. A man bound to the land by history and training, a man terrified of the vast deep that stretched beyond him. But a man who loved it as well, who heard the crash of the waves and experienced both terror and desire.

The unknown man was in the next card as well, and all the ones that followed. A man desperate to find his way, to achieve some victory over the terror, some grasp on the thing he desired most, never realizing that the two were not distinguishable. It was not an either/or proposition. There was no desire without terror, and no terror without the thing he most wanted. They were the same.

He skipped ahead to the end to see if he ever discovered the truth. Did he claim his desire only to find, once he had it, that there was no pleasure in owning it? That the pleasure was all in the … Read more