By D.K. Latta
HIRO PAUSED AS THE DOORWAY spiralled open; then he stepped heavily into the cockpit, magnetic boots clanging against the floor plates. The dense flight shields that encased the shuttle’s front screen when in full flight had retracted, allowing the pilot and crew to directly view space around them as they reduced speed and deployed the nav-engines.
Standing behind the pilot’s chair, Hiro looked through the overhead transparent dome at the star-dappled blackness. But the stars dimmed compared to the gleaming hulks poised motionlessly in the eternal night. He made out at least a dozen vessels representing various cultures and eras. The oldest, he knew from his briefing notes, had left its drydock almost three hundred years before.
It had left its home planet over three centuries ago ... and never made its destination.
A shiver ran through him that he pretended was just caused by a tightness in his flight suit. But the truth was he hated places like this. Morbid paeans to failed dreams, and to the inevitable triumph of death—the Conqueror Worm, as an Earth writer had phrased it centuries ago.
Not that there were worms in space. Which was why they were here, he realized wryly—and why places like this existed.
Graveyards as tourist traps.
He held his hand before his face, scanning the data scrolling upon his palm-plate. “So we’re looking for ...” He hesitated, realizing he had no hope in hell of pronouncing the vessel’s name. He preferred to think of it by its translation as the Ever Glory. “Well, you’ve got the co-ordinates. Let’s go find her.”
The pilot nodded and the shuttle banked slightly, dipping under the hulk of a huge Jovian long liner—a relic from the Earth colony’s brief flirtation with independence a Century before. A shadow fell over the cockpit, drawing attention to how dark the huge vessel was. No running lights, no beacons. Not even a sparkle from a porthole. The inhabitants of the various vessels were long past needing light, or warmth, or atmospheres.
“There,” said the pilot.
Hiro nodded to himself as the other vessels seemed almost to bow aside melodramatically as the shuttle ploughed forward, revealing the newest addition to this armada of death. While the youngest of the other vessels wasn’t less than a hundred years old, the Ever Glory was of recent vintage. That made it a prize to those who measured such things.
It was an odd term, he felt, but owed its origin to Earth. Centuries before, deep-sea divers liked to “explore” wrecked vessels that had found their way to the bottom of bodies of water. Apparently some communities would even deliberately sink vessels to provide such underwater playgrounds as tourist attractions. And when humans moved into space, they carried that particular pastime with them. And not just humans—other species indulged as well. But there was no economically feasible way to make tourist traps out of vessels adrift in the endless dark and cold of deep space, so salvagers would find orphan derelicts and drag them together into clumps—graveyards—usually within spitting distance of a major world, or at least a common space route. And tourists could enjoy the thrill of exploring these vessels as if the first ones there. In space, where there was no decomposition, any bodies in the vessels were almost perfectly preserved—a little worse for wear from decompression, radiation, and deep cold, but still, eerily maintained. That was why such graveyards were largely composed of ancient vessels—long enough ago that there were no loving kin to claim the bodies, or to object to them becoming someone else’s entertainment.
But the Ever Glory was an illegal smuggler vessel inhabited by unregistered refugees from a world with only tenuous treaties with the Pan-Galactic Confederation. No one had claimed ownership of the vessel and no one was coming forward to identify the bodies. It boasted the double appeal—to Space-Divers—of being a hundred years more recent than most vessels in such graveyards, and with bodies representing a little seen species and culture.
Yeah, lucky, thought Hiro grimly as he turned and moved out of the cockpit. Lucky for Anton Parkinson, the salvager who laid claim to it. These graveyards were essentially collectives. The more vessels accumulated, the bigger the tourist draw, but each vessel charged its own boarding fee. Having the Ever Glory would boost the revenue for all the ships here; there was no doubt Parkinson would reap the biggest profits.
Parkinson was strapped into one of the rows of the passenger bay, forward of the private cabins. The shuttle was equipped to carry fifty, though currently flying at considerably less than capacity. He was a tall, hard-faced Earth man with a sour grimace that seemed tattooed there—Hiro hadn’t seen him without it. Given the profits Parkinson was apt to be earning, Hiro wasn’t sure why—but some people seemed born angry. Of course, independent salvagers like Parkinson tended to get red-faced when dealing with bureaucracy. As far as Parkinson was concerned, this trip—and Hiro’s very existence—was an affront to free enterprise.
“We’re almost there,” Hiro offered to the room. Parkinson merely grunted.
At the back of the cabin was a tall, dark figure, shoulders rising up around its head like mountain peaks. It said nothing, its eyes wrapped around its head—or was it “eye?” Hiro wasn’t sure whether the compound optical organ counted as a single or a plural. If Parkinson wasn’t happy that Hiro was here, the being at the back wasn’t happy any of them were. It was an official envoy from Catharix, the planet from which the dead refugees aboard the Ever Glory had been fleeing. As far as his government was concerned, the bodies should be returned to Catharix. But his world had no treaties with the Confederation to force that and was under a dozen different sanctions and restrictions due to its treatment of its own people.
It didn’t take much of a stretch to argue that it hardly seemed fair to return the refugees to the very government that had caused them to risk life and limb to escape—a risk they had lost. The Catharix government argued that having their dead people as a permanent part of a tourist attraction was disrespectful. But it didn’t take a cynic to realize the real issue was it served as a very public, very poignant illustration of the problems—the desperation—facing the inhabitants of Catharix, and the government didn’t like that.
Without treaties, all the Catharix government had received was permission to send an observer to accompany this shuttle.
There were only two other people in the main cabin. One was a junior minister from the nearest civilized world, along to assert a token local authority over the mission. Technically, Hiro was answerable to the Central Authority, not the local government. The fourth passenger was a small, scaled being who worked for a local news agency.
Hiro moved down the aisle, ignoring all beings equally. Beyond the passenger bay was a hall leading to the sleeping cabins. There he found his aide re-checking their equipment and securing carrying cases. “All ready here, Thath?” Hiro asked.
Thath was a barrel-shaped creature with four stubby legs and a multitude of forelimbs. The skin that wasn’t covered by her flight suit shifted and bristled, almost as though covered by feathers, leading some to mistakenly assume an avian ancestry to her people. But Hiro knew that her skin was merely covered with a mass of crawling parasites. The parasites had no interest in, or aptitude for, creatures not of Thath’s species and, indeed, would die within minutes if they fell off—her seat in the passenger section was dusted with a flaking of the things that looked almost like sloughed off dandruff. But knowing the parasites were harmless to humans didn’t keep him from trying to minimize physical contact. Living, the parasites were harmless to humans— but dead they had been known to cause minor rashes and skin irritation. She snapped fastenings on the final case and said, “Ready.”
“Damned waste of time,” growled a voice at his ear, and Hiro turned to see Parkinson. “You frigging government types are a bunch of parasites.” Hiro resisted the urge to smile, thinking of the creatures crawling over his aide. “Always finding new ways to bleed an honest man.”
Hiro was tempted to say he’d never met a salvager yet who qualified as an honest man, but held his tongue. “You stand to make a good income from tourism—paying for a safety check before you open her to the public seems a minor price.”
“I don’t object to a safety check—I object to paying you government leeches to do it. My men have already been over her.”
Hiro grimaced. “But it’s nice to have that confirmed by someone who doesn’t have an interest in it, don’t you think?” Cynically, Hiro always found that people who complained loudest about government bureaucracy— health standards, safety standards, what have you—interfering with their business were often the first to complain if those standards weren’t enforced to protect them from the unscrupulousness of others. “Certification that the derelict is safe for tourists will bring down your insurance premiums.” Hiro grinned humourlessly as Parkinson just stared at him blankly. Hiro had little doubt that Parkinson had probably skimped on the insurance anyway. After all, in a multi-system Confederation like theirs, it wouldn’t be hard for Parkinson to simply disappear into the celestial night rather than face up to any lawsuits.
Still, that wasn’t Hiro’s department. And with a good safety check, hopefully it would never come to that.
“Now if you’ll excuse us—we have to go stretch our legs.”
* * *
Hiro had never grown accustomed to free-floating. He preferred the solid feeling you get with magnetized boots holding you to the floor. As a result, he had never understood the appeal of Space-Diving.
These thoughts floated through his head as he, in turn, floated through the emptiness between shuttle and the Ever Glory.
He grabbed onto the handle beside the airlock of the Ever Glory, halting his forward momentum before he bounced against the hull. The door itself was already open, like a gaping mouth. He clicked on his brow light, stabbing a beam into the darkness. He turned stiffly in his suit and saw Thath drifting up behind him, her face hidden behind her helmet’s faceplate. And beyond her, also anonymous in his environment suit, was the Catharix envoy. Officially he was just there to confiscate anything that could be deemed official Catharix government property—not that there was likely to be any state secrets on a vessel full of refugees who doubtless had little more than the clothes on their backs.
Satisfied they were all together, Hiro pulled himself forward and drifted into the vessel.
His beam cut out patches of clarity from the dense darkness of the interior. There was a glimmer from the opposite wall and he drifted toward it, briefly firing his nav-jets. Reaching it he perceived a fissure through which starlight sparkled—doubtless the cause of the disaster. A micrometeor or other space particle breached the hull and, being a cut-rate smuggler’s vessel, it was without adequate safety features to patch the hole before the atmosphere bled out. It was a pointless way to die. In the light of his beam he made out a mustard-like crust around the fissure that he couldn’t quite identify. Some sort of caulking agent that had tried to seal the crack? Maybe a residue from the foreign body that caused the damage? He gestured Thath over. “Get a sample of this,” he said.
As she brought forth a swab from one of her carrying cases, Hiro kicked away and drifted further into the vessel’s interior. His light washed over rows and rows of figures, almost as if the bodies were being dragged forward on a conveyor belt. He had surveyed enough such scenes that it no longer horrified him. He just felt numb. As if the only way to cope was by not coping. By not letting it in.
They looked strangely peaceful, most strapped into their chairs. He had expected to find bodies scattered about the cabin, frozen in mid-air, reflecting the panic and chaos of their last minutes. Presumably the end had come quickly. At least that was a mercy. Some of the bodies were of the same size as the envoy. Some were smaller. Much smaller. He tried not to look at those too closely.
He turned clumsily and watched the envoy descend upon some of the dead passengers, rifling through their ratty clothes, scattering their meagre belongings. So much for the Catharix government’s interest in preserving the dignity of the dead. Hiro opened his mouth to object, then closed it. What did it matter? Let the envoy rifle what he wanted. Hell, the messier the cabin, the more exciting it would be for the Space-Divers, he thought bitterly.
Turning slowly, he let his beam fall squarely on one of the dead refugees. He moved in close to look—to really look—at the being. It was similar to the envoy, but not quite—a slight tapering to the head that the envoy didn’t have. Hiro wondered if he was seeing a racial characteristic—was that why the refugees had fled their world?
It was eerie how well-preserved they were. He might almost think they were sleeping—like Rip van Winkles of deep space.
Hiro frowned, moving closer. Normally with decompression he would expect to see track-mark bruises across the flesh or burst veins beneath the skin. But the complexion looked reasonably normal. He supposed there were a variety of reasons that might be. But the one that occurred to him he didn’t like. Not at all. He glanced at the envoy who was oblivious in his pursuit of nothing save a chance to prove his government’s authority, even over the dead who no longer cared. Hiro drifted closer to Thath who had moved on to a wall panel and was attaching leads to check for any residual energy that might build up over time and cause an explosion.
He adjusted the frequency on his communicator, to exclude the envoy. “What did you find about that substance?”
Thath glanced at the analyzer on her belt. “Can’t identify it till we’re back in the shuttle with the main equipment, but it registers as toxic—probably a cut-rate sealant. But I don’t think it’s anything dangerous to a Space-Diver or could penetrate an environment suit—no indication it’s corrosive. Why?”
Hiro glanced at the envoy now standing by the airlock, half illuminated by starlight, half a black shadow. The being seemed to be looking at them. Hiro checked his frequency gauge again, but was sure the envoy couldn’t be eavesdropping. “There’s something ... odd. Don’t say anything to the envoy, okay? Don’t act like we think there’s anything unusual. But everyone’s still in their seats, as if death came upon them suddenly—not what you’d expect with a hull rupture. And looking at the bodies—I’m wondering if they were already dead before decompression.”
Thath stopped attaching leads for a moment, as the import of his words sank in. She started to turn toward him, then mindful of his instructions, turned back to the panel as though nothing was out of the ordinary. “You think it was ... murder?”
“I think it was a massacre.”
* * *
In his cabin aboard the shuttle, Hiro scrolled through what little data he had on Catharix. His assignment had been to verify the safety of the Ever Glory for Spacer-Divers, a mission not requiring much knowledge of Catharix politics—or even the vessel’s assumed route from that system. But now things might have become more complicated. He had sent off a coded transmission to his office on the nearest world, which in turn would relay it to Central Command. But he had yet to hear back from anyone.
His concerns were twofold.
Firstly: what had happened to the refugees? A tragic accident was one thing—murder was something else. Of course there were questions of jurisdiction—whether there was something he, or anyone, could or should do about it. It was a derelict vessel of unknown registration peopled by refugees without ID. And if something had happened to the refugees while they were still within Catharix territory—assuming that could even be ascertained—then it wasn’t within the jurisdiction of the Pan-Galactic Confederation, anyway.
That prompted a more immediate concern. Because, legal questions aside, this was politically explosive—and could well explain why the Catharix had insisted an envoy be allowed to come along. If the derelict really held evidence of mass murder—how far would the Catharix go to keep that covered up?
As a kid he used to watch vids of space investigators getting into shoot outs with evil villains. That was all science fiction, of course. He and Thath were safety inspectors. Neither of them were armed.
He stared at the communicator light, willing it to flash an incoming message. It didn’t. He sighed. Thumbing the intercom, he said, “Thath, how’re those test results coming?”
There was no response from the speaker.
He frowned. “Thath? You there?” Hiro rose from his chair and, magnet boots clanking, hurried from his cabin. He moved down the short hall to his aide’s cabin and rapped on the door. There was no answer. Realizing he was just allowing his paranoia to blossom unnecessarily, he keyed the sequence into the side panel and stood back as the door spiralled open. He stepped over the sill.
Thath was sprawled on the floor.
He started toward her, instantly brought up short by a pungent ammonia odour. He knew that smell. It was emitted in death by her people—as much a giveaway as holding a mirror to a human’s mouth looking for condensation. She was dead.
Hiro stood in the middle of the cabin, almost frozen with shock. He looked wildly around for a moment, then instinctively hit the seal button and watched the door spiral closed. He approached her gingerly, noting white flecks dusting the floor around her head. Momentarily, he thought it was a clue—then realized it was the parasites natural to her body, having dropped off and died without a living host. He knelt, meaning to touch her. Then stopped, realizing he shouldn’t disturb anything.
He felt like he should say something, and muttered an inane, “poor thing.” But he knew it sounded lame.
Stiffly, he rose to his feet, his eyes falling on the computer on her small desk. A light was blinking, but as he leaned forward, he realized it was flashing the icon for “delete.” There wasn’t much doubt now. She had undoubtedly been murdered and the data she had been processing erased from her computer.
He sat back on her bunk, sucking in deep breaths of air. Then, firming his spine, he straightened and started rummaging through the various carrying cases piled in one corner.
* * *
Heavily, Hiro entered the main passenger cabin and surveyed the four figures milling about. The Catharix envoy, its encircling eye unreadable to a man like Hiro, sat removed from the others. Parkinson paced impatiently, clenching and unclenching his fists as though needing to vent energy through a pointless act. The junior minister from the local planetary body sat staring out a porthole. The scaly reporter was hunched over her computer, lost in her own prose.
Parkinson realized Hiro had entered and whirled about. “When are we going to get moving? You’ve done your examination—and I know very well everything is up to scratch. So when can I get my certificate or whatever and begin accepting tours?”
The Catharix envoy rose from its seat and Hiro stepped back a bit uncertainly. He hadn’t realized just how tall the Catharix seemed with its shoulders stabbing above its head the way they did. “My government repeats its assertion that the dead are Catharix nationals and must be returned to Catharix for disposal.”
“Now hold on,” said the junior minister, stepping forward, “I’m afraid this has all been gone over. At the moment, we cannot recognize Catharix’s rights or authority over these, um, people? Victims?” He looked at Hiro, as if hoping for some guidance as to the appropriate nomenclature. Then his eyes dropped to Hiro’s hands. “What’s that?”
Hiro hefted the object so the others could see it clearly. “It’s a pulse gun. It’s used to neutralize rogue energy charges on a vessel by use of a countercurrent. It was the closest thing I could find to a weapon.”
The junior minister blinked. “I’m sorry—a weapon?”
Hiro took a deep breath. “Thath is dead.”
“Good god,” he said. “How?”
“We won’t know until after an autopsy—but I’m guessing she was murdered.”
This last comment was greeted by an appropriately stunned silence. Finally the junior minister could only repeat himself. “Good god,” he said.
Parkinson growled: “Are you insane?” He rubbed his hands together like he was thinking of hitting someone and was restraining himself. “You damn bureaucrats are always trying some angle, some new way—”
“Please, Mr. Parkinson,” said the junior minister quietly. “But—I don’t understand?” He stared at Hiro.
“She—we—had discovered something. I think the refugees were murdered, deliberately. I’m guessing a poison gas was released into the air, then the vessel’s hull was penetrated to make it look like an accident. Except the poison left a residue as it rushed through the fissure when the atmosphere was voided.” Hiro turned toward the impassive envoy, levelling his pulse gun—then stopped. Something just occurred to him. How did the envoy know what they had discovered? Hiro had explicitly told Thath not to mention it. Or, at least, not to mention it to the envoy.
He hadn’t told her not to mention it to anyone else.
Slowly, he turned. “Something wrong with your hands, Parkinson?”
The big man stopped, willing them to grow still at his sides. “What?”
“I thought you were just fidgeting, but it’s more than that—isn’t it? They’re bothering you, aren’t they? They’re itching. I can see from here that they’re red.”
“I don’t understand?” said the junior minister.
“The parasites on Thath—some people have an allergic reaction to them. And whoever killed Thath would have had to touch her.”
Parkinson just stared at him for a moment, as though his comments weren’t even worth a rebuttal. Then his lips grew tight across his teeth and a muscle in his cheek twitched. He flung himself at Hiro before Hiro could even properly aim his pulse gun. Parkinson was a big man, dense as a meteorite as he rammed into Hiro. But he was not used to fighting in zero gravity. The force of the collision tore Hiro from the floor, rendering him essentially weightless—suddenly leaving Parkinson with no resistance to his tackle. His own momentum sent the salvager crashing heavily into the passenger seats. And being bolted down, they resisted. There was a dull crunch, and Parkinson groaned.
Stunned by the fury of the attack, Hiro spiralled in mid-air but had the presence of mind to grab a support bar with his free hand, halting his drift before he slammed into the bulkhead. Breathing painfully, he dropped his feet to the floor, feeling the boot magnets reattach themselves. Then he levelled the pulse gun at Parkinson as the man sprawled amid the seats. “Try that again,” Hiro said coldly, deliberately thumbing up the amp level so that Parkinson could hear the loud hum.
Parkinson just glared, then began scratching helplessly at his rash-reddened hands.
“Let me guess: you were the smuggler, the one helping the refugees escape Catharix. But then. What? Were you starting to feel old? The life of a smuggler wearing you down? So you got a better idea. No more running blockades or worrying about perimeter patrols. You knew an unregistered vessel peopled by dead refugees with no diplomatic status would be legitimate salvage—and a modern-era vessel would be a Space-Diver’s dream, a change from all these antiques. No more smuggling—just one vessel parked in a space graveyard and you’d have a nice little pension plan.” Parkinson remained silent. “And killing Thath? I guess with all us on board, you figured investigators would never be able to pin it on you specifically—not once you sent some buddies to clean up the evidence on the Ever Glory. No proof of the first crime would mean no motive for the second, eh?” He glared contemptuously at Parkinson who had sacrificed a ship full of people for money. Then he thought of the Catharix envoy, to whom they were just wayward pieces in a diplomatic game, potentially embarrassing to his government. And the junior minister who saw in them a tourism opportunity. Even the reporter to whom they were just a story to be filed, a chance at a by-line.
A vessel of dead men, women and children—and they were just objects to everyone here.
Hiro thumped the amp setting again, reducing the level of the charge. Then he squeezed the trigger. Parkinson spasmed, his eyes bulging from his head. The close cropped hairs on his head bristled outward. Then he pitched forward to float in mid-air, unconscious.
“Why’d you do that?” asked the junior minister.
Hiro lowered his gun. “Because I had to shoot someone.”
Oblivious to the subtext, the junior minister nodded. “I’d better get on the radio to the authorities.”
D.K. Latta is a Canadian writer who has had a few dozen science fiction stories published in “Strange Horizons,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “On Spec,” and in other markets. His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-OCT-2015 issue.