Read an excerpt from my new science fiction novel Alien Infestation and pick up your copy today.
Abel was done with his watch shift and more than anything else just wanted to go down to his bunk, gulp down a shot or two of ship whiskey, maybe three or four, and get some sleep. He had not been sleeping well lately. Hell, he had not been sleeping well since the prison barge Acheron connected up with the deep space convoy.
Abel wanted to go back to his bunk, but Roy insisted on one more hand of cards.
Abel looked at the pile of unshuffled cards on the table. He sighed.
He pulled the cuffs on his orange coveralls to hide his bony wrists. He was cold again. He was always cold. He has grown a full beard and let his hair reach down to his shoulders hoping that the extra hair might provide some warm but still he always was cold.
Abel and Roy sat together in the sagging chairs in the control room of the prison barge. Behind them arced three walls of control panels and monitors. The monitors that Abel had been staring at for the past twelve hours. His eyes itched. He yawned.
The monitors and controls allowed them to adjust the environment of the Acheron, to control the power to the prison blocks, and individually manage the stasis in pods in which the prisoners were spending their journeys. As a safety measure, the pods themselves could only be opened manually one by one to prevent a sudden release of all the prisoners. But that was never a concern. Who would release the prisoners out here in the middle of space, and where would they all go?
Abel suppressed another yawn with his fist.
It wasn’t like he was new to be being a watchman on a prison barge. He had done three trips to Telemachus-4 over the last ten years. But maybe he was just tired of it after all this time. Maybe he was not sleeping because he was realizing that his life was slowly slipping away in this giant metal prison transport.
While the prisoners slept in their stasis cells, soon to be awakened to a life of hard labor and a quick death if they were lucky, he was stuck watching monitors, adjusting controls, and having the remaining years of a life not well lived dripping away as the Acheron chugged through endless space.
“Come on,” Roy begged. “The last several nights you retired early. A man can only take so many shifts without any human company.” Roy ran yellowed fingernails across the stubble on his cheek. When he was done with that, he scratched his belly that swelled under his stained yellow t-shirt.
“Alright, alright, already,” said Abel. He would need to say something to Roy about his sloth. Plus he smelled sour. He needed to shower more, even if it was only the two of them. “I’ll play one more round.” He shuffled the cards with loose hands. “You turn the heat down?”
“Of course, I did.” Roy shook his head. He slipped his arms out of his coveralls and tied the arms around his waist, hidden beneath the bulge of his belly. “The old ship is a hot steaming mess. After we drop this load of prisoners off, we turn it into a hothouse, grow tomatoes and peppers. Maybe rent it out as a tropical paradise.”
Abel wrapped his arms around his shoulders. The freshly pressed creases that he worked so hard to see in the sleeves had dropped, the dull ridges a reminder of the work he had put into prepping before his shift. All for nothing.
“You really are cold,” said Roy. “We are supposed to keep the temperature below 70 degrees, and the damned thing keeps sneaking up above that. Maybe if you eat more like me, you won’t be so cold. How much weight have you lost over the past month?”
“Just not hungry.” Abel shuffled the cards between his hands. The corners were getting frayed. He wondered whether Roy had bent the edges to read the cards. He wouldn’t put it past him. “Same old bug paste month after month, year after year. I don’t understand how you can eat so much of that.”
“Lots of different flavor packets. Always some way to make it interesting. Now deal those cards, will you? I want to win back all the credits you took from me last night.” Roy rubbed his hands together.
“You ever wonder what life would have been like if you had not taken this job?” asked Abel. He carefully dealt out the cards, one for Roy, one for him, and then scooped and fanned his hand.
Roy chewed his lower lip and his eyes moved slow and steady from left to right as he stared at his cards. He had the habit of never organizing his cards. He said that if he did it would give away his hand. That was his so-called secret to winning cards. But Abel always came out ahead. Roy had a tell. When he had a good hand, he could not hide the curling of the side of his mouth, a smile that wanted to break through his beard.
“What? Let me think.” His lips dropped into a frown, twitching, and his gaze continuously worked his hand as if the more he looked at it, the better it might get some how. He looked up suddenly. “Actually I know what my life would have been like and for now let’s just say spending my time on this ship is better than the other option.”
Abel wondered what Roy was trying to escape. Maybe one day he would get the courage to ask him but he had learned from his prior watchmen partners that sometimes it was better not to know, especially when what they were trying to get away from should have put them in the hold with the other prisoners. Roy seemed different. Nicer. Abel hoped that whatever he had done had not been that heinous.
A sudden alarm sound made Abel jump in his seat. A display on the control panel flashed red. He put one hand on his chest to feel the rapid beating of his heart.
“Oh, what now? Just when I had a good hand,” said Roy throwing down his cards. He shoved off and glided the chair back to the control panel where he slammed a fist down on a big yellow button. The alarm sound ended but the display continued to flash red. “That’s not good. Something else is going on. Let me run a check.”
Abel wondered what it was this time. Three weeks ago, the alarms had blared, and Roy eventually had found some strange fungus eating through the wires that controlled the humidity. He had cleaned it out and replaced the wires but the atmosphere was never right again. Humid, tropical, but somehow freezing to Abel all the same as if the thick walls of the Acheron could not prevent the deadly cold of deep space from soaking through the hull.
Abel got out of his chair and watched over Roy’s shoulder as he ran analytics on his screen and then began scrolling through various dim and grainy video feeds from throughout the Acheron. The prison blocks with their tiers of pods in which prisoners slept in stasis. The engine room with the steaming pipes and glistening puddles. The dull outer hall. The connector tube that ran to the Poros.
Roy stopped on one feed. It was grainier than the others, so full of static that Abel could not make out what it was. It looked like a haze covered the video. He squinted at the green text beneath the feed. STORE ROOM D.
“Is that where they put all that stuff from the research vessel?” asked Abel. He reached past Roy and fiddled with the swipe controls. The image stabilized for a moment. A shadow moved across the screen, a dark smear. Then static again.
“Just one room I guess. No real problem,” said Roy.
Abel remembered the soldiers moving the tarp-covered carts through the halls of the Acheron. Abel had protested but, as part of the convoy, the Acheron was under the authority of Admiral Kronos and if he wanted whatever it was taken from the research vessel stored on the prison barge, there was nothing that Abel or Roy could do about it. So Abel had stood aside and let them move the carts into the Store Room D, one of the heavy containment rooms. He probably would have thought nothing of it, but then one of the tarps had slipped off a cart.
Dark slimy balls with yellow crowns.
The sight of them had sent chills up Abel’s spine and the smell had almost made him retch. The captain in charge assured him it was all fine and that if they had any problems just to message them and they would send down a team to deal with it.
“That’s it,” said Abel. “Everything looks fine. I’m going to hit the hay.”
Abel was almost back at his bunk room when Roy rung him up.
Abel had to strain to hear his voice behind the alarm sounding in the background. “Something more than just static. I’ve got alarms going off in the ventilation system.”
“In the air ways?”
“You take a look?”
Abel stared down the hall at his bunk door. He was tired, and so close to crawling back into his bed. The twelve-hour shifts were too much and the hour or two shared between him and Roy during shifts were never enough. This work was far lonelier than he ever had expected. This would be it. The last tour. Then back to Terra or better yet maybe one of the Outer Colonies. His credits would last longer there. He wondered how long he could get away without working.
“Yeah, yeah. Where do you need me to go?”
Roy’s voice muffled for a moment. “The whole vent system is lit up but I’m getting a heat map from Store Room D.”
“You gotta be kidding me, right? You want me to go look in there?”
More static. “I’m getting an elevated alert. Something’s messing with the atmospherics for the stasis pods.”
“What do you mean messing with them?”
Roy paused so long that Abel thought that the line had suddenly died. “They’re powering down. No!”
Abel imagined the air supply cutting off to the prisoners. His stomach balled. “All of them?”
“All of them! Get in there and see if you can figure this out. I’m going to message the Poros. If we need to open up the pods manually, we’re going to need help.”
“No way they’re going to let us open those pods, Roy. We can’t be releasing a thousand convicted criminals. And we have to do it one by one. We’d never be able to get that many open before they drown in the stasis fluid. Not with the air supply cutting off.”
“Abel, find out what’s going on there. Shoot! Tier 3 on NW Block has just shut down. Damn it!”
Abel ran. He had no real sympathy for the criminals. They were convicted of crimes heinous enough to get sent to what was essentially a death camp on Telemachus-4. They deserved to die. But not drowning. A memory flashed of his childhood, a first swimming lesson, him reaching for the edge of the pool and missing repeatedly with his hand, then the water swallowing the sky, water in his lungs. In the last moment of darkness, a hand, long-fingered, gold-ringed, broke the surface and grasped his, and pulled him from death. He needed to get the power back online in the stasis pods. He couldn’t let them drown.
Abel was out of breath when he reached the door to Store Room D. He called Roy. No response. No bars on his device. That did not make any sense.
He tried the wall intercom. Waves of static. Did he hear Roy’s voice in the waves? Did he say “Go in” or “I’m Coming”?
He wondered if he should turn back. Maybe further back up the hall he could connect with Roy. But then he remembered the prisoners inside the pods, floating in the stasis liquid. He imagined seeing them opening their eyes, wider, the heaving of their chests, the pounding against the glass, the deafening drumming of thousands of fists, of souls about to part.
He keyed in the code for the storeroom door. The door was heavy and cold. He pushed it forward slowly.
A sour stench flooded his nostrils and he bent over and spit out a stream of saliva. What had they brought on his ship? He covered his mouth and nose with the crook of his elbow. So dark. The power had gone out done here.
Was this what caused the pods to power down? In the dim light spilling in from the hallway, he could make out the shapes of the slimy balls with the yellow crowns.
The motion-detector light did not turn on. He felt along the wall until he found the switch. He toggled it a few times. Nothing.
He thumbed on his device and turned on the flashlight mode.
The tarps had been removed from the balls, and the tops looked like they had burst open. Ochre liquid seeped out.
God, was there something moving inside one of the balls?
Able realized what he was looking at. He stumbled backwards. Eggs! Those were eggs! Scores of them! He tracked his beam of light around the room. A black smear ran up the wall, into an air vent, the grate hanging from its hinges.
Something had hatched out of those eggs and found its way into the vent system. They must have crept into the cellblocks or down into the engine room. He tried to remember whether he had seen anything in the video feed.
His back prickled in cold fear. He turned to run. He needed to tell Roy. A marine team from the Poros. He had to get help.
Abel did not make it to the doorway before a shadow separated from the wall, and something hard and sharp plunged through his chest and lungs. He could not move pinned as if by a needle. The room darkened further, and suddenly he could not breathe, and he felt as he were sinking into heavy blackness, and no matter how high he thrust his hand, no one was there to pull him away from death. Not this time.
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