The First Doom (Part 3)
by DaVaun Sanders
The Dubious’s bay doors didn’t budge as the hopper drew close. Kyria began to sweat as a console flickered on to show Zele’s scowl and Remiliat’s intense stare.
Kyria preempted them. “Everyone’s dead, except me and Paki,” she said. “Some sort of biological countermeasures. Paki’s still reeling from it, or he’d tell you himself.”
“A biological contaminant? That would mean—” Remiliat’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. “Replay the events exactly!”
“We’re not sick. The hopper sweeped our vitals clean. We’re wasting time. That ship is dangerous!”
“Yes, yes,” Zele said soothingly. “Give us a moment to think this through.”
The channel abruptly muted. Kyria wiped a hand over her scalp in frustration. Her eyes widened at sight of the glittering blue flecks on her palm. Hair follicles. Stained blue from Tar City, like indigo powder from a spent smart round. Am I sick? She licked her lips, glancing back at Zele. No way they had seen that on the monitor.
Paki gazed at her silently, working his mouth open and closed as if rediscovering his tongue. Kyria held a finger to his lips. After a moment he repeated the gesture. He doesn’t want them to know how messed up he is either, she thought bitterly. Hair falling out and a trauma mute…what a pair we make.
The monitor’s audio flicked back on. “Upflash your mission data,” Remiliat ordered.
“You’ll get it all when we’re aboard!” Kyria shot back.
Remiliat snarled in exasperation and turned to Zele. “If you would just allow me to—”
“Absolutely not,” he said firmly. “Kyria, this is not the time to be secretive. I’ve trusted you a great deal, and now you must reciprocate. I don’t take what’s happened to my people lightly. We’re from every corner of the Known, but we’re family.”
A knot formed in Kyria’s chest as she decided to believe him. “Listen to me. The siegenought is more than a ship—that maw in the center? It’s a fully functional jump gate. We both saw the simulation.” She swallowed and glanced at Paki. His orange gaze offered no guidance. “What’s worse…it can jump right on top of a damn planet. They were looking for ways to beat the gravity well threshold, and this ship does it. No system in the Known could defend against it.”
“Intriguing.” Zele rubbed his chin. Remiliat at least possessed enough sense to look ready to throw up.
Kyria watched the Averator closely as she chose her next words. “So what do you propose we do with it?”
“Permission to board, Averator.” Paki’s voice grated out, making Kyria jump. “We’re fully capable of returning to duty. Quarantine the wetdock if you desire additional safety precautions. We have much more to report.”
Zele and Remiliat exchanged a long look. “Arcadian,” he said quietly. “What do you advise regarding this ship?”
Kyria did not hesitate. “Destroy it.”
“I had sincerely hoped you thought along that course,” Zele said.
Kyria gawked at him, speechless. So he’s not a monster. And he’s relieved I’m not a monster.
Remiliat cleared her throat. “However, we cannot lift the quarantine upon the ship until we understand what happened to our crew. You understand.”
Paki inhaled sharply. “Sir, this course of action is a mistake. I do not believe—”
“Paki, you are ill-suited for such a task,” Zele interrupted, colder than Kyria had ever seen him. “Kyria Grazheen, you are hereby promoted to the rank of executive officer and second in command. This new mission takes all precedence over the Stack.”
“Sir?” A lump rose in Kyria’s throat. The hopper’s console flashed green. She affirmed her helix signature, once again signing her life away over a Doom. “The Dubious could never even carry enough ordinance to dent the siegenought. It needs to be destroyed from within.”
“Very well, Arcadian. We’ll await your instruction on how we can be of assistance.”
“I’m sorry I was offensive with you earlier,” Remiliat added abruptly. Her attention shifted to Paki, and her demeanor returned to the frost Kyria knew so well. “Crewman, assist your superior however she requires. Understood?”
Paki’s eyes flashed. “Yes, sir.”
Remiliat and Zele exchanged a long look before the monitor winked out. Never visit a grave twice, her father had told her as a child. Every muscle in Kyria’s back tensed as she turned the hopper back around. “No hard feelings, all right?”
Paki’s face remained still as he stared at the Desecratia’s shadow. “A mistake on my part, soon rectified.”
Something about his voice forestalled Kyria’s reply. Think, Grazheen. Zele and Paki shared a genuine protégé relationship from what little she had seen. Why all but disown him now? And Remiliat, practically acting like she had served with the Forty-Sixth! I’m sorry I was so offensive with you.
Everything fell into place. The bizarre behavior, the refusal to let them board. Paki. Zele wanted to split her away from Paki. To keep him from me, or me from him?
Kyria chose a softdock well distant from the first one they had entered. Once again the hopper locked into place. “We go together this time,” she said to Paki, checking her Pacifier. “Watch each other’s backs.”
The airlock hissed open. He strode out without replying. Kyria hurried after with a scowl.
“Listen, a field promotion doesn’t mean you’re out of the family, I’ve just got more experience…”
Her words drifted off as they exited the softdock. The siegenought’s warning klaxon had ceased, but Kyria’s warden tech alerts were all screaming at her. “The ship’s powering itself up.”
“Yes.” Paki’s voice floated back to her down the hall. “Counter insurgency cycle, and jump gate sequencing.”
Kyria aimed her Pacifier and squeezed. She didn’t need to know how Paki knew that; only that he shouldn’t. An electric flash pulsed around Paki as the smart rounds took him in the ribs. He slumped forward, but didn’t drop.
“Oh, fek.” Kyria swallowed as he turned around. Glowing orange wires dangled out of the exit wound under his right pectoral muscle. Fluorescent blue coolant leaked down his ruined incursion suit. “You’re an All-damned android?”
“I am not the construct Paki 8HN-1C.”
Kyria’s remaining rounds opened blue plumes in his chest, but Paki didn’t even break stride as he rushed forward to grasp her neck.
“I am as far above him as he is above you.”
Kyria’s jaw creaked as her sight faded, but no words came.
“This ship is death,” Paki said. Coolant dribbled from his lips, staining his precise goatee a dark blue. “I will escape to the sector of origination. You will help me find the Known.”
“No…” Kyria said, struggling vainly in his grip. Her entire body shook, but not in terror over the cold intent in Paki’s orange eyes. She was not afraid to die. Only to sleep.
Kyria’s dream ran free through her mind, a psychotic old friend that had finally popped the last seam of a dementia coat. She drifted in and out of consciousness, struggling to wake up. A faint awareness of Paki clung to her, dragging her limp body by the ankle deeper into the Desecratia.
Whatever you do…don’t die alone, rookie. Not while people are depending on you. Not like this. I forbid it.
The sear of the Lance cutting through Mercible’s leg jerked Kyria back to face the dream. They howled together as the captain’s femur gave way with a loud crack that echoed through the wrecked dropship. The remaining flesh sliced away easily, still impaled on the dropship’s innards.
Mercible lost herself in a gibbering moan. She clenched her teeth, and it was time for the second leg. The dead woman’s sobs deepened, pouring into an all-consuming loss that consumed her and Kyria both.
“There, that wasn’t so bad. Gonna miss that blood. Gonna need it. We’re Arcadian. We don’t leave family behind.” The captain tapped adjustments into her wrist-nav, calibrating the exo-armor to account for the lost weight. “Think they’ll give me a medallion back on Arcadia, rookie? For walking without legs?”
The dead woman’s mutterings poured through Kyria’s dream. Her breath grew ragged as she teased out her armor’s new mass ratios, glancing from time to time at her severed legs. “Still with me, milkrat?” she whispered. “If I can do this, you can do anything. We held off on the stims until now for a good reason. On your feet.”
Mercible plunged the cold needle of a medical stimulant into her neck. A cry tore from her throat as she surged to her feet. The exoskeleton trembled for a moment, syncing to her new equilibrium. The captain took a step forward, closer to where the dawn of a Junn sun shone through the shattered cockpit. “Time to get back in the fight, rookie.”
Kyria lay face down on a cold metal floor. Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and a scream bubbled in her throat. Perk stood before her, horror and pain etched within his double irises. Nothing of his lower jaw remained, and a dry rasp poured out of his exposed gullet. Kyria scrambled back, retreating into one of the research bays.
“All damned, Perk,” Kyria said softly. “I’m sorry you’re awake in there.”
Paki’s voice echoed above her. The android turned from a monitor at one of the upper research bays and simply stepped off the catwalk into thin air. He plummeted ten meters to land upon the floor with a clang and spray of blue coolant.
More shapes emerged from the Desecratia’s shadows. People in various states of decay with threadbare clothing and skin dry as fallen leaves, putrid irlons with missing tentacles…and the dead survey team of the Dubious.
Julet’s haunted eyes regarded her from a face covered with swollen dark blisters. Ellin and the others watched her too, all dripping and decaying; their incursion suits the only thing holding their organs and bone together in some bizarre mockery of life.
“What…are you?” Kyria hissed, recoiling as Paki traced his fingers along her bare scalp. He rubbed his fingertips together thoughtfully.
“Unanticipated chemical variance prevented integration,” Paki said. “Memory archives indicate—”
“—variance originated from Known location, Neolon City, Targotha.” Julet stared at Kyria in horror as his lips moved without his consent. “Study and threat management given priority status upon—”
“—successful integration.” Ellin finished. She stepped forward, dark blood thick and viscous within the gills still secured around her neck. Whatever controlled Paki, controlled the rest of them, too. “Preparation for next integration—”
Kyria edged further into the bay. She didn’t need to hear any more.
Paki frowned after her. “Do not resist, Kyria Grazheen. Your form is needed to leave this place. Expansion is imminent.”
Expansion? The siegenought rumbled again, and Kyria understood. By the All…the ship is in a jump countdown!
Her crew members flanked her, jerking and lurching into a semi-circle around her. Their rotting voices assailed her with cold reason. “I must be free of this place, Kyria Grazheen,” Julet croaked, dried blood cracking around his lips. “Before expansion. Endless void. I must return—”
“—to the Known.” Ellin finished.
Perk reached for her arm with a dry hiss.
“I’ll be All damned if that happens!”
Kyria chambered her leg and drove her heel at Perk’s sternum. His ribcage caved in around her foot with a snap of emaciated bone. Congealed organs slopped to the floor as she pulled her boot free, slick with dark blood to the knee. Perk didn’t even drop. Silver flecks streamed out of the ragged wound in his chest, swirling through the air toward her.
Picobots, Kyria realized in horror.
“Do not damage your portal, Kyria Grazheen.” The voices of Paki, Ellin and Julet came to her as one. “I have need of it, to carry all of me.”
“Not that I can stop you.” Kyria lunged for the closest thing at hand. Her fingers closed around the experimental hull armor, a plunger filled with murky liquid metal. “But I’m damn sure not staying here to be another blood puppet!”
Paki darted forward with a sickening burst of speed. “You will damage yourself beyond functionality if—”
Kyria’s hand closed on a plunger, full of metallic, blue-green goop—nice and toxic. She stabbed it into her gut. The picobot cloud drew back instantly. Kyria coughed and smiled weakly at Paki. “You’ll never get off this heap. I hope it jumps into a star!”
Kyria jerked as pain radiated from her stomach. A thousand pinpricks of raw current clawed along her spine, pondered over her organs and ignited every pore of her skin. She doubled over with a shriek as the viscous metal leached into her body, scouring her nerve by nerve.
Kyria writhed in pain, vaguely aware of rough hands grabbing the collar of her incursion suit. The android’s disgusted voice came to her after a moment. “Your portal is still of use, Kyria Grazheen.”
“No,” Kyria whispered. A high-pitched hum sounded in her ears. Her body hurt, but the stuff did not feel like dying—she knew that from Mercible. She had only managed to scramble her sync ware.
The sound of the Desecratia’s jump countdown thundered out around her, in a language she had never heard before. Above all the noise, the dead woman’s words drifted back to her. Not like this.
Paki set Kyria down on a flat work surface and held her firmly in place as the three meat suits clustered around her. Perk, Ellin and Julet opened their jaws, disgorging a rush of picobots. Pity and relief shone in their eyes as they collapsed one by one. The air grew thick with silver specks, a roiling cloud hovering over Kyria’s face. “By the All…”
Not like this. I forbid it.
Kyria clamped her jaws tight, but Paki pried them apart as the cloud descended for her face. She spit and gagged, clawed at his grip. The bots poured down her throat, skittering down her nasal cavities, spilling into her lungs; her tear ducts. Her heels drummed the table.
The high-pitched hum in Kyria’s ears suddenly ceased. A new voice pierced her fading consciousness. CASE SYSTEM ACTIVE. SUBVERSIVE MEASURES DETECTED. EXECUTE COUNTERMEASURES?
She stared defiantly up at Paki. The voice did not come from him, she knew it in her gut. She felt it there.
Not like this.
The thought did not come from Mercible. Kyria recognize it as her own. Her throat barely grated out the word.
Whatever entity controlled the android frowned. “You—”
A shudder flared through her skin like nettles dipped in sunlight. Paki stepped back as Kyria shone blue. Her skin, her teeth, her bones—every part of her surged with raw current. She rose with a scream of agony.
It’s just flesh, the dead woman comforted Kyria. It can be replaced. All a question of pain tolerance.
Picobots spewed from her mouth as she hacked and spluttered, finding breath as electricity coursed through her body. Black smoke streamed from her incursion suit.
CHARGING. The disembodied voice ripped through her consciousness again. A gout of picobots fell from her mouth in glittering streams as Kyria staggered to her feet. They did not rise back into the air.
Paki stared at her in shock. “You have…lessened me,” he hissed.
The android’s fist flashed out, faster than Kyria could react. She saw her own blood spray on Paki’s face before sprawling across the floor. She knew without looking that he’d done more damage than her own kick had to what was left of Perk. She attempted to breathe, and felt air suck through the wound in her chest.
COMPRESSION IMMINENT, REPAIR PROTOCOLS READY. EXECUTE? Kyria worked her jaw but no words came out. How could she, with her ribs folded in on themselves? LIFE SYSTEMS BELOW THRESHOLD LEVELS. OVERRIDE INITIATED.
Her chest rippled as jagged fragments snapped into place. Cartilage molded itself around the healing bone, securing it. Skin knitted before her eyes.
Paki lunged forward.
THREAT RESPONSE INITIATED.
Kyria’s fingers glowed a brilliant blue. She grabbed instinctively for the android’s torso before his hands closed on her throat.
Paki’s lips peeled open in a wordless howl. Waves of picobots fled from his nose, ears and mouth. The blue of his coolant intermixed with their silvery sheen. The android toppled in a limp heap.
Kyria held a hand to her mouth, but the bots just hovered in the air around her. Another warning alarm boomed through the siegenought. The jump countdown. Kyria made to run, but Paki’s outstretched hand stopped her.
“Paki?” Kyria said cautiously. “It’s out of you now? The plague?”
“Not a plague. An artificial sentience. Like nothing in the Known. It’s evolved independently…consuming older generations of itself for centuries. It is vast.” He coughed. Coolant dribbled down his lips. The orange of the android’s eyes had dimmed considerably. “You must return to the Dubious. The evolution sequence will complete in moments.”
Kyria tightened her fists. Her knuckles glowed blue, translucent. “I can destroy it. We can steer it into—”
“No!” Paki looked at her urgently. “Destroy the Desecratia and you lose any link to finding the other Dooms. Reckoning. Penance. They must all be destroyed. You know this.”
“I do, All forsake me,” Kyria muttered. “I can still get you out of here. Zele can repair you, right?”
The android shook his head. “Too much risk. Help me before it overcomes me again.” Paki reached up calmly to peel skin away from his temple. Brown bits and pieces flitted to the ground in damp flakes. The cloud of picobots pulsed around them, surging dangerously. Kyria grimaced as she finally revealed the coal-colored metal of his skull. He tapped a panel above his ear and removed a small diamond memory node. His orange eyes flickered as he handed it to Kyria.
“Give the Averator this data.” Paki winced as picobots slipped into the holes in his chest. “Your new abilities…are stored within it as well. CASE Armor: Critical Anatomy Subatomic Enhancement. I imagine it is quite painful.”
Kyria allowed herself a smile as Paki lurched to his feet with a grimace. “Pain I can deal with. What about—”
“I’m no longer in full control of my systems.” Paki’s words poured out in a rush. His fists clenched and unclenched. “I’ve hidden Known data, but I don’t know how long my safeguards will last. You must run now, Arcadian. I cannot stop another regression. You may be the only one who can physically withstand this…vastness within me. Run before I end you.”
“All bless you, Paki,” Kyria whispered.
She took off in a dead sprint for the hopper. The swarm of picobots darkened the air around her, but didn’t veer too close. The echo of Paki’s footfalls soon pursued her, faster than Kyria could ever hope to run.
CHEMICAL METABOLISM CONVERSION, EXECUTE?
“Fek,” Kyria muttered. The CASE armor had yet to let her down. “Do it!”
She lurched forward as fire braided her muscles. Her legs churned, eating up meters of deck as the Desecratia’s cold halls blurred past her. A last sharp corner turning to the hopper came too quick. She careened off the wall with a grunt, crying out as her arm shattered.
She punched in the door override and rushed into the airlock. Kyria’s heart thudded in her chest, the hopper door opened with agonizing slowness. “Come on, come on!”
Finally she passed through, only to gape in amazement. Zele and Remiliat stared back at her uncertainly, in the flesh, their faces lit by Kyria’s blue glow. The airlock cycled shut behind her. Remiliat licked her lips and slowly trained a Pacifier on Kyria’s chest.
“Your skin,” she breathed. “What in—”
“It’s me, move it!” Kyria shouted. “He’s right—”
A thud on the airlock made them all jump. The reinforced porthole revealed Paki’s ruined face. Kyria shouldered past Zele and took the hopper’s controls. “It’s not him. He’s been co-opted by some kind of AI. We’re leaving.”
“This cannot be,” Zele whispered.
“It must be.” Kyria tossed Zele the android’s memory node. “For the Known.”
Zele caught it, face crumpling in recognition. Outside the hopper, Paki’s lips moved soundlessly. Rem flicked a switch. The android’s words flooded their audio ports. “I’ve partitioned my higher conceptions, but the vastness will soon overrun it, Averator. Kyria performed admirably, you were wise to select her.”
Zele staggered to the airlock, his hands trembling on the glass.
“Shut yourself down,” he whispered hoarsely. “We can scrub you once…”
Kyria and Rem touched eyes. Kyria slowly shook her head. No. Rem did not interfere as Kyria pulled the hopper away from the Desecratia.
Zele spun back to them. “Stop! What are you doing?”
“I’m taking command,” Kyria said softly. “This is still my mission.”
Zele pounded on the airlock in frustration. “Paki, do as I say!”
The android shook his head with an effort. “Goodbye, Averator. Watch over each other. I will try to reason with it.”
“Paki, no! I just need time to calculate.”
“Find the other siegenoughts…before I do.”
Zele recoiled as the remaining expression drained out of Paki’s torn face. The android studied them a moment, orange eyes flashing. He gathered himself and kicked off the hopper’s hull. Zele cried out as Paki floated back through cold space, toward the Desecratia.
Kyria slumped with a sigh. “I tried to bring him back, Averator. I’m sorry.”
Zele opened his mouth to speak, but the HUD’s sudden flashing stopped him short. Remiliat peered at her console. “It’s jumping.”
Kyria wheeled the hopper around. She had to see this for herself. The hollow in the Desecratia’s center crackled with energy. A light-engulfing orb sprang to being in the hollow, expanding to swallow the ship in a void so dark it hurt Kyria’s eyes. The stars grew visible once more, but the siegenought was gone.
Gravity waves shook the hopper, strong enough for Kyria to grip her seat. Shuster’s worried voice crackled over the Dubious link. “Are you guys all right?”
Zele stared bleakly into the darkness of the Unknown, listless. Remiliat eyed him worriedly.
“We’re all right, Shuster.” Kyria swallowed, staring at her skin with a sense of wonder and fear. The blue tinge had faded away to reveal her deep brown. Am I really?
“Grazer! You made it!”
“More or less.” Kyria flexed her arm experimentally. The bones were no longer broken. Her bruised knuckles from a few weeks ago no longer hurt. A cold fear snaked through her stomach. She couldn’t feel anything. “Stand by.”
Kyria cleared her throat. “Your orders, Averator?”
“The Stack still awaits us, I suppose,” Zele said quietly. “Nothing great is ever obtained without loss. Or so I’ve been told.”
“Agreed,” Remiliat said over her shoulder.
Zele pulled uncertainly at his mustache before finally meeting Kyria’s eyes. “I…was hoping you’d stay with us, Arcadian. Help me recover my android in one piece.”
Kyria’s answer was immediate. “Only if it means I get to fly that Doom into the nearest star.” She spat in her palm and extended it.
The Averator’s eyebrows rose, but he grasped her hand. “We’re in agreement. Of course your armor will be complete before we return to the Known.”
I’m gonna make you famous, the dead woman promised.
Kyria looked down at her arms again. “I’m not sure if I need it anymore.”
“We’ll find out soon enough.” Zele took the seat next to Remiliat and synced Paki’s memory node. “Let’s see how we’ll defeat this vastness together.”
Together. Kyria liked the sound of that.
by Mur Lafferty
And that’s it. We’re done. Thank you DeVaun for sending us this amazing story.
The problems of long space travel are some of the most interesting in literature simply because it presents problems unlike any other. Namely, a group–government, corporation, whoever–sends a ship into deep space for whatever reason. But when the ship returns, the entire reason they went could be old news. Warring countries could be allies. Their own country could be occupied. Or worse. It always made me wonder what that does to people’s motivations or patriotism.
Another thing that deep space travel changes is the relationship to anyone left behind. It’s hard to keep a relationship of any kind going when it’s possibly decades until you return, and you can’t even communicate during that time. I was wondering through this story if your ship becomes a found family just by necessity, and I was gratified that it was turning that way with the last bit.
Personally I’d like a less terrifying and bloody mission to prove myself to a crew, but my ability to beat someone in Overwatch is probably not as entertaining an accomplishment as Kyria’s actions in this story.
In a broader view, I want to point out how deftly DeVaun uses the novella. This is not an easy story to tell. So many end up as short stories that the author couldn’t cut, or novels that the author couldn’t flesh out. In this one, we learn a variety of things going on in the worlds at large, mainly the political temperature between factions, scary stories told by certain world’s, and the program that decided implantation of great leaders’ memories — including violence, extreme pain, and death—into certain soldiers was a good idea. But we got the result of those details and how they affect the life of one person among many. To all writers who want to master this length of story, study this novella. You’ll get a lot out of it.
To the American folks, I want to say Happy Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful that I made it through another year of this. I’m waving vaguely at the terribleness of everything right now, just imagine it. None of us is unscathed. I’m not a futurist so I’m no good at predicting how the past few years will shape the years to come. I don’t know how you’re doing right now. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m doing right now. I’m just grateful that the Escape Pod team are here to bring stories to you.
As I look for quotes to end episodes, I’m more and more entertained by the weird stuff that crops up. Like, searching for “found family”, I got ableist quotes: “We’re all crazy, HaHa”; saccharine stuff that doesn’t apply to anyone’s family that I know; and, “Save a thief from the gallows, and he will cut your throat”… which just was not applicable!
So, I’ll leave you this from Atticus: “Sometimes, friends are the only escape we have from ourselves.”
See you next week… be well, and have fun!
About the Author
DaVaun Sanders resides in Phoenix, Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, PodCastle, Broken Eye Books, Dancing Star Press, and the New York Times bestselling Black Boy Joy anthology. He currently serves as Executive Editor for the World Fantasy Award winning, British Fantasy Award winning and 3x Hugo Nominated FIYAH. His most recent editorial project includes Breathe FIYAH, a flash fiction anthology collaboration with Tor.com. He hopes to continue expanding his body of work in children’s fiction, for his own twins and kids everywhere who deserve to enjoy inclusive stories. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @davaunsanders.
About the Narrator
Laurice White is an actress, poet and mom currently residing in Michigan.