in the Nanotech
In sympathy with his hand, the beam of light from his lantern trembled in the nanotech-thick air. It was always cold in the Assembler Hold, and Engineer (Observant) Darnell Zsigo blamed the temperature for his shakes. Or perhaps it was his cumbersome environsuit, or the heaviness of the air. Each breath was hard work; he gasped to strain the metallic-tasting stuff through his filtermask and stumbled towards the central Assembler.
Wiping his visor, he placed the lantern on the floor (it settled into twenty millimetres of dust - typical of the Nano-Hold, where Nanochines came to die, awaiting recycling, or to shed one shell and grow another to better perform a desired function) and grasped the handle of the freezer. He grunted, tugged - and the lid came clear.
He paused to catch his breath, then plunged his gloved hand into the Assembler's guts. Slowly, he pulled out his hand, palm upwards, fingers clawed, and found only sand.
"Impact in thirty seconds."
Linda squeezed David's hand even tighter. She was crying openly now. The tears were streaming down her face. He thought, hard, about something to say.
"They'll be okay," he whispered. "They'll be okay."
But she didn't respond.
He glanced over his shoulder. Alisa, like Linda and himself, was strapped into her emergency seat, her expression unreadable. Aaron, however, was no-where to be seen.
The ship began to roar as it struck the atmosphere of the planetoid.
"Impact in twenty seconds."
David Quaife, Expedition Leader, closed his eyes and prayed.
Madsen Quaife, Leader (Extant), shook his head and frowned. On top of the disappearance of his wife Emony, this was too much.
"Yes." Darnell swallowed. "Sand. In the Nanotech."
"Shit. What does this mean?" He rose and walked to the Maker Terminal. "Cola."
The machine buzzed briefly; a glass appeared in its alcove.
Madsen held it to the light. It was almost clear, but with a murky brown sediment, slowly settling.
"Oh, fuck," he said, staring at it with an expression of horror. Then he growled and cast it to the floor. Predictably, it shattered, its contents spraying. "We're fucked. We're absolutely fucked."
"But, hold on," Darnell was frowning. There must be something they could do. "Let's ask Aegis..."
Madsen span, teeth bared.
"How," he said, gripping Darnell's shoulders hard, "how, do we ask Aegis, when Aegis has disappeared? You were looking for him, remember?"
The younger man cowered in Madsen's grip. Only three days ago, Madsen had been making the same search, but for Emony.
"Madsen, I...I..." Darnell stared at the pieces of glass on the floor, eyes wide.
Madsen sighed. "I'm sorry, bro. Shit! It's the desert - it must be. It's got into the Station. After ten years... Damn!" He slammed his hand down on the table, making Darnell jump. "Without Aegis..."
"It's not being cleaned up."
Madsen followed Darnell's line-of-sight to the shattered glass. The pieces lay there, ignorantly gleaming in the artificial light.
"Do not be alarmed."
The voice was gentle, soothing, but still Madsen was startled. Since the impact, he'd been running at maximum adrenaline, alternating between unnatural calm and frenzied panic. They were only kids, right? All their parents were dead. All the grown-ups, snuffed out on this unnamed planetoid - save Sawyer, of course, but he, the old man, left in deep sleep, the wound in his head worryingly big, way too big for kids to think about. Hell! Madsen was only eighteen years old! It wasn't right!
"Who are you?" he whispered, trying not to wake Mantz and Ayre, and at the same time wondering if he had imagined the voice. He had been quietly staring into the darkness for long minutes, believing he could make out a figure forming out of nothing but shadows near the wall.
"You may call me - Aegis," it said.
Madsen blinked, swallowed. "Are you from outside?"
The speaker - a male, by its tone - shifted again. There was something wrong with the way he moved.
"No. I am from within. You are Madsen Quaife."
"It was not a question. I am fully aware of the USF Sanguine Expectations' Datahold and thus of all your identities, having been generated in this time of crisis to be the humanoid representative of the secondary backup emergency AI. I am, in effect, the spokesperson for the Nanochines which even now hold you safe against the less-than-bearable climate outside."
The speaker moved again, towards the teenager, and now Madsen could see, still half-hidden in shadow, its metal, mask-like face.
"Wow," he said.
Muttering his usual stream of non-words into writhing non-sentences, Sawyer Quaife crept, thief-like, to the Maker, a little, tight grin of anticipation revealing his aged but still strong teeth. He purposefully made no attempt to clean them (in fact, he hadn't paid much attention to hygiene at all in the ten years since he woke up after the crash - if his state could truly be defined as wakefulness), but even such blatant carelessness was a pointless gesture in the Nanochine-ridden sealed atmosphere of the Station-once-Ship Sanguine Expectations. Hell, the microscopic buggers cleaned 'em for ya! He tightly pursed his lips as if to deny them entry.
He grunted at the Maker, which responded with a querying bleep, so he grunted again, and again the Maker shrugged non-existent shoulders.
Sawyer wrung his hands and scowled dramatically at the uncooperative machine.
"Negh!" he said at it.
It buzzed, perplexed but nonplussed, in the way that only machines can be.
The old man swore an aside and turned back to the Maker, his hands palm outwards in a gesture of supplication.
"Mmm?" he asked.
Again, it buzzed.
"A fucking chicken sandwich, you fucking stupid machine!" he snarled, spittle flying.
The Maker, unruffled, complied with the request and Sawyer grabbed the food, mouthing obscenities.
Carefully, the seventy-seven year old - by almost fifty years the eldest aboard - took a seat and, with considerable relish, bit down on the soft white bread and meat.
The sandwich crunched, and Sawyer's eyes widened in surprise.
He spat out the mouthful of food contaminated with sand.
Eight pairs of eyes, ranging in age from five to sixty-seven years, looked upon him and the robot.
"We're...we're not going anywhere," Madsen said slowly, avoiding everyone's direct gaze. "The engines, as we thought, have been destroyed. There's nothing to repair, so the Nanochines can't do anything with it."
"Why can't they build new ones?" asked Tom Yeldham.
Madsen looked at gaunt-faced Tom, only three years his junior but also his nephew; Tom was the son of Alisa, Madsen's much older sister, who had been lost in the crash, along with her husband, Aaron, and Madsen and Alisa's Mother and Father, David and Linda; their Aunt, Suza (David's sister); and the Zsigos: Lehal and Cass. In short, all of the adults of the expedition had died on impact, save Sawyer, Madsen's Great Uncle, who although now awake, had been left with permanent brain damage, the Nanochines unable to repair his aging cells. When the Sanguine Expectations had malfunctioned, he'd been herded along with the children into the port cargo hold, where, safe in gaussian packing fields, they'd survived. Hard to believe that that had been only three weeks ago.
"They won't have blueprints for engines," said Darnell, the eldest Zsigo boy, and Tom turned to glare at the eleven year old, "they'd need plans, right Aegis?"
Darnell had readily taken to dealing with the android, who now turned its face towards the boy and dulled the lights in its eyes for the briefest of moments, a habit Madsen had come to equate with blinking.
"Correct, Darnell Zsigo," it said, then turned back to address them all. "However, rest assured that we are in absolute safety. Despite the intense severity of this planetoid's climate, we are perfectly sheltered within the USF Sanguine Expectations. Even now, the emergency AI is turning what remains of this vessel into a station, where we can await rescue from a passing vessel. A distress signal is already being broadcast."
"But how long will we have to wait?" Emony, Darnell's elder sister and the oldest of the Zsigo children, asked the question not of the droid, but of Madsen.
He looked hard back at her. She was only twelve.
"Not long," he said softly, then, louder: "Soon, everyone. We'll be rescued soon."
Young Ayre, eight years old, started to cry. Sawyer, her Grandfather, turned to look at her impassively as her elder brother Mantz put his arm around her shoulders.
"So what do we do 'til then?" asked Ashton, Darnell and Emony's younger brother, only six and the second youngest, next to his remaining brother, five-year-old Callen.
"Yeah," Callen kicked at a table-leg, his little face screwed up into a babyish scowl. "I'm fucking bored."
"Callen!" Emony snapped.
Madsen watched them with a growing sense of anxiety. Too young. They were way too young to wait for long...
The virturative goggles landed on the table-top. They were malformed, as if someone with an appetite for nano-formed plastics had taken a few random bites out of them. Madsen picked them up and tilted sand out. He dropped them and sat back in his chair, rubbing his chin. His stubble was out of control; evidently the hygiene nanochines felt they had better things to do than maintain the Leader (Extant)'s close shave. Absurdly, he wondered to himself what the average length of time it took a twenty-eight year old to grow a beard was.
"Well?" Ashton asked, angry.
Madsen looked up at him.
"Well what?" he asked flatly.
"Fucking hell, Madsen," fifteen-year-old Callen jumped off the cabinet he'd been sat on swinging his legs, and lent on the table, grinning disarmingly at Madsen. "Ashton and I are the V.R. Brothers, man! And how can the V.R. Brothers make do, without V.R., huh? Eh?"
Ashton just cocked an eyebrow.
Madsen toyed with the sand-riddled goggles, his mouth a tight line.
"Ashton. Callen." He moved forwards, his fingers steepled. "Consider this: it is barely a week since Mantz killed himself through guilt; Aegis, practically our only link to the Station's systems, has disappeared; as has my wife and your sister Emony; Alisa, this 'community's' only hope thus far for renewal, is deeply unwell and we have no way of caring for her other than falling on our fucking knees and praying to a God who doesn't fucking care that a nanotech system evidently penetrated by the desert surrounding us on this shit-hole of a jumped-up fucking asteroid after ten fucking years can save her; right? Consider all that, and then wonder why, and then wonder why, when the fucking V.R. Brothers complain that their 'ractive kit doesn't work, that I just don't - give - a - shit."
Callen, his grin faded, slowly pulled away from the glowering Madsen, placing his hand on his older brother's shoulder.
"C'mon, bro," he said, leading Ashton towards the door, "there must be some old goggs lying around somewhere."
Madsen felt his pulse slowing from its raging speed, felt his anger fade. He threw his face into his hands and wept.
Madsen rolled away from Emony, covered in sweat and full of post-orgasm euphoria. It was not their first time, by any stretch of the imagination - that had been a year ago, when they were married, and she was sixteen, he twenty-two. Only a year...
"Jesus, babe, that was fantastic," he said, brushing her taut, coffee-coloured belly.
She murmured agreement and nestled into his shoulder. They stayed like that for a moment.
"You okay?" he asked.
"What?" Emony raised herself onto her elbow. "What?"
"I'm just - I mean - are you okay?" Madsen stared into her eyes. "You're not upset?"
Emony smiled, bittersweet.
"Am I upset that my baby-making kit is all screwed up? And that the Station's med-systems can't do anything about it? Sure I am." She swung her legs off the bed, reached down to her gown and started to dress as she continued. "But even though we've been here four years now, we still all know that it's not going to be forever, and when we get back to, well, civilization, some doctors there will fix me up." She lent over to kiss him softly on the lips. "And then we'll make babies."
She slipped on her shoes.
"Besides, maybe a baby is the last thing we need right now on the station."
"Why?" he asked as she rose and went to the shuttered windows, pressed a button.
"Well, we need to be fighting fit, you know? Ready for anything." She turned and smiled at him, asking rhetorically: "It is still an emergency here, isn't it?"
The shutters scrolled smoothly and slowly into the top of the window frame, revealing the darkness of the sand-torn nothingness beyond. Emony turned to stare hard out into the swirling emptiness, and Madsen watched her reflection in the dark glass. She seemed to shiver.
"You ever wonder what's out there?" she asked quietly.
Madsen fell back on the bed.
"There's nothing out there. Aegis retrieved the sensor logs from just before the impact. This planetoid is nothing but one big, fuck-off sandstorm."
"What about the dark side? Weren't those logs incomplete? It wasn't exactly a survey, was it?"
"No, it wasn't, but we've got about eighty-four, eighty-five per cent of this dusty rock scanned and there's fuck-all on any of it. And getting to the remaining fifteen per cent would be some kind of seriously futile waste of resources."
Emony turned back to the black desert.
"Just the same," she sighed.
"You should say something," Darnell's voice seemed very loud over Madsen's helmet speaker. The screeching, howling desert was almost completely eliminated by the environsuit.
Madsen stared sadly at the small mound, already its shape being slowly erased by the shifting sands. It had taken the three of them only a little over twenty minutes to bury the casket containing Alisa's body.
Madsen coughed and looked across to Tom, who nodded, so he took a moment to collect his thoughts.
"She was our new hope. I named her Alisa after the sister that I - and the Mother that Tom - lost in the impact, to bring alive again the spirit of the USF Sanguine Expectations, to reinforce the, the, the message, the, uh, code of hope that was Caledonia IV, the colony that was to be our new home, the new home for the Quaifes and the Zsigos and the Yeldhams.
"But the hope was taken away, taken away by a big piece of unnamed rock covered in nothing but sand."
Madsen breathed hard, looking at nothing, seeing the image of the baby's face, smiling. He heard either Tom or Darnell sniff.
"Something has gone wrong, here. After ten years of sitting it out - ten years of waiting - the desert has finally got us. It killed Ayre. It killed Mantz. It's taken Emony and Aegis, and now it's killed our little baby." He was crying now, tears streaming down his cheeks, tickling his jawline. He shook his head, angry, and tried to collect his thoughts. "We only put it off, death. We only postpone it. Fuck, we can put it off as long as we fucking like, but we'll all get around to it eventually."
He turned to the other two.
"Come on. Let's go inside."
They had cleared the airlock, and were hanging up their suits, when there was a loud sound like the keening of some thunderous alien beast, and the interior wall fifteen feet away from them collapsed in a shower of dust and sand. All three of them jumped instinctively away, but then it became apparent that the incident was isolated, and cautiously they advanced, Tom and Darnell exchanging amazed looks, Madsen grim-faced.
The collapsed wall had bordered Sawyer's quarters. It occurred to Madsen, then, that ten years ago, when they had crashed, this whole area had been only desert. It had been claimed by the nanotech as it had carved a station out of the sand; now, it seemed, the desert was fighting back, and winning.
As the dust settled, they could make out the form of Sawyer Quaife, sat leaning against the wall (reminding Madsen of when he had first seen Aegis). The old man had been increasingly unwell in the last week, and a small part of Madsen felt something like relief.
"Oh no," said Tom, "oh no. Not Sawyer, too, oh no."
Darnell took a step closer to the old man. Now they saw that he was sat on the head, his trousers around his ankles.
"Oh no," said Tom.
"Wassat?" Sawyer jerked awake, yellow eyes glaring at Darnell. "What? What?"
"He's alive!" shouted Tom, "Madsen, he's alive!"
"Where the fuck is my fucking wall? What have you three children done with my fucking wall, you little bastards! I'm trying to shit, here, you fuckers!"
Darnell turned, a wide smile on his lips.
Despite himself, Madsen giggled.
The three of them laughed. Sawyer cursed and yelled, and the three of them laughed, 'til tears ran down their faces again.
He pursed his lips and groaned inwardly as Ayre bent to pick up some 'ractive carts. She was wearing tight, cream-coloured leggings that left little of the fifteen-year-old's charms to the imagination. Madsen noted that she had no visible panty-line, and caught himself wondering if she was wearing knickers at all.
"Jesus fucking christ," he muttered under his breath, putting his hand over his eyes, then parting them to peer through the gap at her. As she walked over to Mantz, her brother, Madsen lowered his hand and his face became expressionless. He watched them smiling at each other, watched their light touches: her on his arm, he on her waist, on the curve of the hip.
"Hard to believe they're Sawyer's grand-children, isn't it?" said Emony, setting down a glass before Madsen.
"Well, they are just so goddamn good-looking, the pair of them, aren't they? And let's face it; Sawyer was at least tapped with the ugly stick, wasn't he?"
Madsen was staring at Ayre and Mantz, brother and sister, brow knotted.
"Eh?" he turned to look at his wife.
She frowned back at him. "Are you okay?"
He got up out of his chair, half-tripping over his own feet.
"I - I need to go speak to, uh, Aegis," he said, scurrying out.
Emony shrugged and picked up her drink.
Madsen found Aegis in the Sick Room; a nonsense term for an otherwise unused place where the android usually 'rested'.
"So what is it that bothers you about their closeness?" the robot asked after Madsen, evidently embarrassed, had explained. "They are brother and sister, after all."
Madsen shook his head. "No. You don't understand; you're meant to read between the lines, for fuck's sake. They're - they're - oh fuck! Look, Aegis: I think they're fucking each other."
Aegis' eye-lights dimmed momentarily.
Madsen nodded, an odd expression on his face. "Now the robot understands. Now he gets it." He rose and started pacing, turning to punctuate his words with stabbing gestures towards Aegis. "See, that's bad enough, right? I mean, what if she gets pregnant, hm? And that's not all. The whole fucking station is going sex-crazy. There's enough fucking hormones in this place to, to, open a hormone shop. Or something.
"Christ, Aegis, you know, dealing with the kinds of shit this place throws at you, you know, being Leader - can be hard, you know? You know. But - but this! Hell! I'm twenty-five now, but I ain't ready for this! I mean - for example: I caught Callen and Ashton hitting each other outside the 'ractive suite yesterday. Turns out, they're fighting over porn. Okay? And the specifics of the program? Well, user-definable features, okay, and guess whose 'features' they've 'user-defined'? Mm? Mm. Ayre's. They've got access to a hundred thousand virtual actresses from Lara Croft through Rei Toei through CyberSylvia by way of Lala Chabonk, and they've chosen Ayre."
"I see," said the android, "and when the two younger Zsigos discover that the two younger Quaifes are engaged in a sexual relationship, you believe that brotherly tension - a common cause of teenage tiffs but hardly a crisis - will develop into something more...potentially dangerous."
"You have such a way with words, Aegis." Madsen sat down. "Thing is, I can imagine that even if Ayre and Mantz quit and she took up with someone else, it would only cause as much grief. Whoever she sleeps with, it's gonna piss at least two others off."
Madsen sighed. "So she sleeps with no-one. They'll have to make do with 'ractives."
"You would ban Ayre from having sex?"
Madsen glared at the robot. "She can use 'ractives too."
Aegis blinked. "I have a suggestion. It occurs to me that, after seven years aboard the station, we could all use a little new blood."
"What? I don't follow."
"Ayre is fertile. Indeed, the only reason she and Mantz's couplings have not produced a pregnancy is due to the intervention of the Nanochines."
Madsen briefly stared, slack-jawed, then started to nod.
"So you knew all along they were...they were..." Madsen gestured frantically. "And you let me - you - hey, you let them..."
"It is not for me to pass moral judgement on my charges."
"But you can intervene in them getting pregnant!"
"Madsen, it is for you, as Leader (Extant), to decide whether the colony grows in size or not."
"Yes! Yes, yes it is..." Madsen clasped his hands and stared at the floor, running his tongue over his teeth. "So how..."
"I would suggest that Ayre is impregnated with a random sample from those males eligible."
"Artificially. Yeah. Okay. Who would be eligible?"
"Yourself. Tom. Darnell. Ashton. Callen."
"I'll have to think about this. I'll have to talk to Mantz and Ayre, regardless. It's not healthy."
"As Leader (Extant), you must set the moral tone."
Madsen ran his hand through his hair. "I know."
Tom Yeldham's dreams were full of loose teeth and big tufts of hair falling from his head. He dreamed of priests and black veils, and when he saw Sawyer in a coffin, he was jerked awake by the shock of it.
"Lights," he said, but nothing happened. "Shit." He reached over to the bedside table, hit the lamp switch and half-closed his eyes as they adjusted to the sudden pool of yellow light.
He was wet with sweat, and his breathing was laboured. Burying Alisa was still bright in his mind, and he couldn't stop thinking about finding her little corpse in her crib, grey, cold. His hand shook as he wiped wet eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
A noise from the far side of the room surprised him; a subtle susurration that reminded him of the desert, raising the hairs on the back of his neck.
Sand was flowing quickly from under the wall and as it started to rise up and take form, Tom's cry of terror lodged in his throat and he felt his bladder go weak. The misshapen column of tiny grains twisted and curled up into the air to a height of three foot, leaned towards the terrified man and audibly groaned his name.
"Aegis?" Tom's voice shook.
The android's features became briefly visible in the sand, faded suddenly then returned more solid then before. Steadily, it assumed an approximation of Aegis' torso, arms and head.
"Little time," the facsimile whispered gratingly. "Enough to say: the child was yours."
Tom's jaw trembled violently. He felt something inside him twist in upon itself, and he moaned.
Already Aegis' form was collapsing back into nothing as the sand retreated into the wall.
"Not the desert," Tom thought he heard it say, "not the desert..."
And it was gone.
Echoing the grief within his heart, Tom curled into a ball and sobbed.
"Look, Emony, I know you're not happy with this, but seriously, I don't mind! I want to have a baby, and Madsen is right - how do I choose who the father would be? This is the only fair way." Ayre smiled up at her, leaning her head slightly to one side.
Emony was confused, torn between finding the whole 'random father' business morally unacceptable and trying to respect peoples' rights to make their own decisions. "Ayre, are you sure you're happy with this? You're so young!"
"Emony, please!" Ayre squeezed Emony's shoulder. "I know I want this. And we need to move this colony on. We need a baby here."
"Yes, it would be nice," Emony began to wonder if her own infertility was affecting how she felt about this.
Aegis walked in and, pressing a pedal, raised Ayre's couch into a sitting position.
"When do we start?" Ayre asked the droid.
"We have already finished. You are pregnant."
"What?" Emony jaw dropped. "That's it? What kind of, impersonal, robotic, heap of metal, sonuvva -"
"Emony," Ayre said firmly, then more gently. "Emony, please. Help me with this, now. I need you on my side." She smiled at her again. "After all, I am pregnant."
"Oh Ayre, I'm sorry. Of course I'm on your side." She returned the smile, then glared at Aegis. The droid's impenetrable gaze looked back at her, and Emony again felt the shiver of distaste crawl down her spine. She sucked at the roof of her mouth. "So how is Mantz's training going?"
Aegis blinked. "Very well. He will soon be able to fulfil his newly designation role of Doctor (Accordant)."
"As I understand, all he needs to do is follow your instructions."
Aegis inclined his head. "Thus, (Accordant)."
Ayre giggled. "I can't believe my own brother is going to be my midwife!"
By the time Madsen reached the corridor leading to the virturative suite, Tom and Darnell were already clawing at the wall of sand and crying Ashton and Callen's names. Seeing the ceiling above the two of them tremble, he came to a halt at the corridor's mouth.
"For fuck's sake!" he yelled, "get the fuck out of there!"
Darnell jerked round to look at him. Both he and Tom were covered in dust, dark trails leading from their watering eyes.
"We gotta get them out!" Darnell shouted. "They'll be suffocating in there!"
"Quick, help me!" Tom was half-kneeling at the sand, both arms buried in it. "I've got someone's hand!"
"Fuck!" Madsen went to run to them, saw the ceiling bulge, changed his mind. "No! Leave them! Darnell! Tom! Please!"
"Madsen, fucking get in here and help us!" They'd managed to pull the hand and most of the arm free of the sand. Whoever the limb belonged to wasn't reacting. Darnell turned back to Madsen, eyes begging him for help.
As their gaze locked, the ceiling gave way. Madsen leapt back to avoid the wave of sand rushing towards him, and turned to run to find Sawyer, the station shaking violently around him.
They were laughing, excited by the prospect of sharing the responsibility of fatherhood, or at least caught up in the excitement of it, when Mantz appeared at the door from the delivery room, and the laughter died.
"What the fuck?" Madsen asked softly.
Mantz was shaking, his handsome features twisted into an expression half of confusion, half of terror. He held his hands out in front of his chest, fingers upwards. They were gloved and covered in a slick coat of dark, almost black blood, the same stuff spattered down his front and over his shoes. He started to make a high-pitched whining sound.
Madsen leapt up, pushing him out of the way, and practically fell to a halt in the delivery room.
Aegis was rapidly administering to a baby, a baby too still, too quiet. Ayre lay inert on her back with her legs wide apart. Too still, too quiet.
Madsen turned back to Mantz.
"What have you done?" he asked.
Madsen thrust the environsuit at Sawyer and started to climb into his own.
"Come on, old man, we're getting out of here," he snapped.
"Where we goin'?" Sawyer asked, expression blank.
"Sawyer, the fucking station is collapsing. Get in your fucking suit."
Sawyer snorted humorously, waved dismissively. "Bollocks!"
"Sawyer!" Madsen grabbed him. "There's only us two left! Everyone else is dead, or gone! The station is fucking collapsing! Get in your suit!"
But the old man only snorted again, contemptuously this time, and yanked Madsen's hand from his shoulder. He shook his head wearily and sat down. All around them, the sound of the Station collapsing was growing louder.
"No, come on, Sawyer, we can do this, right? You can put your suit on, and we can go outside, okay?" Madsen was on the verge of becoming frantic.
"What? Come on! Your fucking suit, Sawyer, come on!"
"Then what do we do? Wander round the desert until we die on our feet?"
Madsen stared at him.
Sawyer's wrinkled face broke into a grin.
"Fuck. So you wanna die here?" Madsen spat. "Buried alive? Crushed? What? How?"
The old man started to laugh wryly. Again he shook his head. "Ah, that useless fucker. Killed us all. Still, that's the way the cookie crumbles, eh?"
"What are you on about?" Madsen continued to climb into his own suit. If the old man wanted to die here, that was his choice.
"Aaron. What a useless fuckwit. Compulsive fucking gambler, drinker too, though he hid that a little better. Ooh, but your sister loved him more than life itself and would have forgiven the little shit anything." Sawyer frowned, thinking. "I wonder if she'd forgive him this?"
"Aaron Yeldham? What - forgive him what?" Madsen was almost completely suited. He picked up his helmet.
"Your father, David, gave Aaron the credit to arrange installation of the nanotech assembler on board the Sanguine Expectations, but the fucker went out and got pissed and lost the whole lot in a card game. Fifty-kay - poof! - gone! Just like that!"
"So how did we...where did the...no!" Madsen dropped the helmet and grabbed Sawyer by the collar. The old man choked and writhed. "What is this? Have you - have you been waiting to tell someone this? What? Are you picking your fucking moment, here, or what?"
But Sawyer was gasping for air. Madsen growled and threw him to the ground. Shaking with fury, he reached down and picked up his helmet again.
"Tell me," he said. "What happened?"
Sawyer was pawing weakly at his throat. He coughed, retching deeply.
Madsen crouched down, held his shoulders, looked right into his eyes.
"Tell me." He looked from Sawyer's left eye to his right and back, as if testing him, as if seeking something that might be found there, in the old man's watery gaze.
"He came clean. The next day, when he'd sobered up, Aaron told us what he'd done." Sawyer half-sobbed.
"Oh no," said Madsen softly, "this is...too late Sawyer!"
"Of course, your father was furious. But what could he do? It was too late to secure more credit - this expedition was costing everyone all they had already - so, so, so we had to make do. Turns out Aaron had a, a contact who had an assembler for sale, very cheap, no questions asked, only three-thousand credits! Three-kay! Now that we could still afford.
"So we bought it. It was faulty, of course. At that price, it had to be. Even a stolen plant wouldn't have been as cheap. It was infected, with a Neo-Luddite virus, left over from the Koreily Conflict. Nobody could say exactly how long it would take, but eventually, the assembler's central code would become corrupt and it would begin producing sand. Nothing but sand."
Madsen released him.
"So...the adults knew?" he asked. The sound of the station's imminent collapse had seemed to grow distant.
Sawyer barked a humourless laugh. "We knew we had a faulty safety device that - fingers crossed - we'd never need anyhow! We knew that even if it was activated, it must be at least six months before it corrupted, and by then - surely - we would be rescued!" The old man shook his head, grinning wildly. "Oh, but we never knew, oh no, we never knew...just how foolish and how arrogant a mistake to make it was to leave Earth without..." He pursed his aged lips. "Without the proper precautions..."
Madsen chewed his lip.
"Why wait 'til now to tell me, Sawyer?"
Sawyer laughed. "What the fuck difference would it have made? Why do you think I've been 'mad' all these years, huh? Crazy old Sawyer? A knock on the head? Fuck no! Fuck, no! I've just been thinking about how wrong we had been! As the years went by, it became more obvious, more clear, what would eventually happen. That eventually our mistake would kill not only us but our children too!"
Suddenly an expression of surprise came over Sawyer's face. He cried out, and put his hand up to his arm, near his shoulder.
"Oh!" He said, in pain, then grinned up at Madsen. "I do declare I'm going too! Heh! Dying now, eh? That would be crazy, mm? A fitting end, all revealed, no secrets left, and all dead but you! Eh Madsen? All dead but you."
The old man grimaced, hands now clawing at his chest, and Madsen stared at him with an expression of helplessness. Suddenly, he was aware again of the station, falling down around them. As Sawyer writhed pitifully, his heart attack claiming him, Madsen locked his helmet over his head and turned to find a way out into the desert.
Sitting alone in his study, Madsen sighed deeply and closed his eyes. Three days ago, he had found Mantz, crumpled in a heap of flesh, in the still-flowing shower, his wrists slashed, but no blood left, it all having been washed away. Pale. Quite dead. Evidently suicide, but no note. There was no need; he'd been a wraith, haunting the Station, since his inaction in surgery had killed his sister...his lover.
He'd killed himself the day after Aegis had disappeared. As if he'd been waiting until no-one was watching. Why hadn't the nanochines automatically healed his wounds, even as he made them? Why were the systems failing?
Emony, too. As if she'd waited for the android to go, before she...where had she gone? Madsen had his ideas. He had even had a replacement environsuit nano-crafted and artificially aged so no-one would notice that there was one missing. He prayed she would be alright. That she would return.
The door opened. Darnell Zsigo, Engineer (Observant), stood there, dressed in an environsuit but without the helmet, shocking Madsen for a moment. The younger man hesitated in the doorway before walking clumsily over.
"Any sign of Aegis?" Madsen asked, dreading the answer.
"Uh, no," Darnell shifted his weight from heel to heel. "But - I looked in the Assembler Hold, just to check it out, right? And in the freezers, I found sand."
Madsen Quaife, Leader (Extant), turned to see what was left of the Station, but the sand-storm obliterated all out of sight.
The sound of his own breathing was loud in his ears. He checked and re-checked the suit's internal supplies on the wrist readout, and found himself briefly panicked by the notion of sand rushing in from his oxygen tanks.
He shook off the fear, then looked wildly around, his bearings completely lost. There was only the sand-storm to be seen.
He breathed in deeply, picked a direction he thought was away from the Station, and started to walk.
© Mark Roberts 2000, 2002.
This story first appeared in Albedo One #21, May 2000.
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