Authors: Ella Mack
2004 by Ella Mack
All characters and events in this book are purely fictional. Any similarities between the characters and any person living or dead are purely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the
United States of America by Third Millennium Publishing, located on the INTERNET at
Third Millennium Publishing
1931 East Libra Drive
, AZ 85283
Table of Contents
A deep piercing ache outlined every bone in her skeleton. Both rest and movement were impossible. She was frozen in painful pantomime of what she had once been. Her breath came in shallow pants. Sharp chest pains punished every inhalation. It was too painful to breathe deeply and her body was too starved for oxygen to breathe slowly. She felt like a drowning rat, desperately gasping for bubbles of air as she bobbed deeper beneath the waves. Her throbbing heart was in agony, screaming at her that it was failing, dying, pulling her with it in a slide towards a dark, terrifying…where?
The doors loomed dark and massive before her. They would be calling her in soon. She sat miserably in one of several cushioned chairs along the side of the hallway, by turns motionless or searching painfully for a more comfortable position. The decor was plush and imposing, as befit a place where life and death decisions were made. There had been a time in her youth when she would have been overwhelmed, a time in her career when she would have been belligerent. Now, she simply didn’t care. Knowing that death was imminent gave one a blessed immunity to fear. She had sinned. She had broken laws. She had made some very wrong decisions in her life. Punishment was at hand.
Regret? Of what use was regret? There could be no worse than the punishment she had already suffered. Loves lost? Sure. Lots of them. Friendships gone? For a long time. A sense of accomplishment? Always hollow, now destroyed. Could she have avoided all of this? Yes. That was the hell of it. Of course she could have. But she had not.
Her life was over. She would not get another chance. Her near dead mind tried to forget her desperately struggling body and drifted reluctantly to the only thing it had left.
It was not a good day. It was a bad day, a very bad day. Peace of mind was not an option.
Where the heck was she? Cramped cold blue corridors, dead metallic air, bursts of irritating laughter and conversation wafting down occasional air vents...what kind of place was this? She was clearly insane in coming here. This had seemed the perfect place in which to hide from civilization. Yet the bits and pieces of civilization that inevitably pursued her always turned out to be the most annoying.
A spinster. She was a pathetic aging spinster still pining for that one perfect love, and getting older and uglier by the microsecond. She had peaked ten years ago, in her twenties. Bouncy. Pretty. Shy. Angry. Reclusive. Angry. Very angry.
She was still reclusive. All the other things had faded away, even the anger.
She could almost control her rage now, after years of practice. She could accept the malfeasance of fate almost calmly.
But not the malfeasance of exercise. Where was that blasted apartment? The bulky carrier she towed felt like a punishment meted to ancient slaves. She really ought to get a new one. Where the heck…oh, was this it?
The little map shining into her right eye gave her no more instructions. She had finally arrived at her new home. With a gasp of relief, she stumbled into the door.
Right into it.
“Owww! &*%!” Her nose felt like it was bleeding. Furiously, she kicked the door. It was solid steel. Now her toe hurt too. This door was attacking her! She grabbed her machine gun, opening up a hail of explosive bullets. The metal wilted under the assault, a cavernous hole widening as the edges melted. The stark halls echoed with the sound of hissing, ricocheting metal.
Yeah, right. No one would ever allow her to have a gun. She’d be arrested if she mentioned even thinking about a gun. She stood holding her nose like an idiot, wondering why there wasn’t any blood. What the @#$ was wrong with the door?
It had a handle. A handle? A door with a handle? Why invent high tech if you weren’t going to use it?
She tried the handle hesitantly. She had never used a manual door before. She wasn’t sure exactly how they worked.
It didn’t budge.
She frowned in consternation. Maybe it required voice ID? A rather antiquated idea, but this tub did look a bit rusty. This could be its nine hundredth research project for all she knew. Handles and voice ID may have been state of the art back then.
“Open up, door!” she commanded, feeling a bit silly.
“Door!” she commanded again. “Why don’t you open up?”
“Awaiting room assignment,” it answered.
She breathed a sigh of relief. A sign of operating machinery, at least. But room assignment? “Who’s assigned to this room?” she asked sharply. Surely she had the number right. She focused on the number glowing faintly in her right eye. 12415.
“No one,” door number 12415 answered.
“Are you sure?” she blurted. No, wait a minute, the door wouldn’t answer that question. Machines were always sure. Even when manifestly wrong, they were always sure.
“I have been assigned to this apartment,” she stated confidently. “Please review room assignments to verify.”
“I have received no room assignment,” the door again answered blandly.
Her temper snapped. “Well, to which room have I been assigned then?” she roared. The carrier behind her shifted as Igor bristled at her voice. Damn, what a setback for her psyche. She hadn’t been this angry in weeks.
“Who are you?” the door asked.
The question caught her open
-mouthed. Anger dissolved into panic. The door didn’t have her ID record? She existed, didn’t she? Then she had to be listed in Cencom unless the entire security of the research station had been... but that didn’t happen except in bad videos... or... was the door hooked to Cencom? “Ask Cencom for your room assignment,” she commanded.
“Ask who?” the door responded.
Imelda shut her eyes, returning rage swelling her throat. The airspace briefly glowed bluer with her commentary. Few things irritated her more than an errant machine that didn’t care if she were mad at it.
“Central computer! Ask the station’s central computer! Now! Immediately! Room assignment for Imelda 957! Effective today!” She hated machines. She hated machine programmers even more. Right now, she utterly detested the manufacturer of a certain door, who had forgotten to load it properly.
The door opened.
Triumphant at last, she entered cautiously, irrationally suspicious. A blaze of outrageously disgusting green greeted her eyes. Color
-coordinated green, at that. A dull green couch squatted against one side of a narrow, green-walled living room. The other side was occupied by a green wall terminal overpowering a small dark green desk and chair. The decorators had outdone themselves.
Groaning, she scanned the walls for the room’s color modulator. Not seeing one, she grimaced. It was probably subtly incorporated into the wall terminal, purely for the sake of inconvenience.
The carrier she towed shifted again and a low irritated rumble came from it.
“Calm down, Igor, we’re home,” she reassured him. “You can come out now.” She opened the cage door. A huge gray tomcat blinked sulkily from his stance cowering against the back of the cage. He made no attempt to come out.
“I thought you liked green,” she told him. “Green grass, green trees, green lizards, green is your color, Igor. Maybe this room was designed for you.” She looked around reflectively, the putrid hues almost physically painful. “It was obviously not designed for me. It would appear that Biotech wants me to retreat to my work, not lie about and relax.”
Igor hadn’t moved. By the look in his eyes, if he
had possessed a tail it would now be slashing furiously.
“Suit yourself,” she to
ld him. Igor hated his carrier but he hated strange places even more. He would come out eventually, when he was hungry enough.
The room was tiny, mostly couch and desk. An equally tiny kitchenette could be reached by threading the narrow space between. There, a delivery bin could be seen blinking impatiently.
Leaving Igor, she went to check the bin, curious. She hadn’t ordered any food. Opening it, she snorted in disgust, her love for her new employer suffering yet another setback. “Talk about a cheap operation, Igor. No food bin on this hunk of metal. Just one generic bin with color coded modules.”
The module waiting inside this bin was coded ‘personal.’ The handle resisted her first attempt to open it. Eyes glinting, she read the message that printed out. It wanted verification of her ID. Her throat choking, she managed to whisper, “Why don’t you ask the station’s central computer, Cencom, for my ID?”
After only a brief pause, the module opened to reveal her luggage.
She drew a deep breath. “Igor, we’re in deep trouble. No one told the computers here to talk to each other. Biotech is supposed to be a slick organization, but this is positively sloppy. It makes no sense at all. I thought I had left the University behind. They get extra subsidies there for inefficiency.”
Igor, characteristically, didn’t answer.
She stared at the lean contents of the module contemplatively. Her mailbag took up most of the space. She supposed that she really ought to sit down and read her mail someday. If nothing else, she would save on shipping charges. Of course, most of the stuff was so old that there was no longer any point in reading it. Spacing it made more sense. She wondered why she didn’t.
Shouldering the bag with a determined grunt, she found a small closet in the living room and tossed the bag inside.
The other bag in the module held little more than Igor’s feeding bowl and leash. Having a limited cranial cavity, Igor required the presence of familiar items for security.
For her, however, standard issue was good enough.
She approached the wall terminal hesitantly, unsure of what to expect. She plugged the small PC she carried into the sign-in port. A large ‘welcome’ greeted her. At least the wall terminal was properly hooked up to Cencom, she noted wryly.
She supposed that she ought to report the computer malfunction to Biotech. Stupid idea, really. She would be reporting a malfunction to the very computer that had malfunctioned, a nice little blind loop going nowhere. She searched for a complaint box. There wasn’t one. There was a mailbox to send service requests to but she didn’t need any servicing now. The computers seemed to be working fine now. Maintenance log? What was that doing on her menu? She shrugged. Maybe private companies wanted their employees to know what had been serviced lately. Lacking a better idea, she posted a note to the log reporting the malfunction. She felt reasonably confident that it would never be read, but at least she had told somebody.
A box popped up asking for a corrective action. Why would it be asking her for a corrective action? Puzzled, she typed in what she had done. A box then asked whether similar conditions could still require correction. “Of course!” she said aloud in irritation. The box disappeared and the screen returned to
its default menu. Strange.
She scanned the menu again. No room color modulator listed. Weird. “Where’s the color modulator,” she asked out loud.
It was as though she had asked for a Broadway show. The screen alit with wild colors and exotic scenery and launched into a holographic commercial for monotone wall paint and color-fast fabrics, the latest craze of the leading-edge homeowner. Imelda cancelled the show hurriedly. So, they were too cheap to supply color modulators and had tried to create a fad instead. She cringed. She was condemned to green. What other surprises lay in store? She hit the mute button and navigated to a project status report grimly. She wanted written words only, no more noise pollution.
The full roster of research personnel was now aboard the station. Her ship had completed unloading and had undocked to head towards outer orbit where it would refuel for departure. She grimaced. Too late now for a change in heart. She was marooned here for at least six weeks until the next ship arrived. Civilization was impossible light years away.
The research station was cramped, the roster telling her that it had been packed to capacity in an obvious attempt to save money. This was the type of setup used by behaviorists such as herself to nicely exhibit the effects of overcrowding. Corporate management might sponsor such studies, but they sure as the devil wouldn’t listen to them if they impacted budget.
Where were the wide-open spaces she’d come here to find? Space was easier to find in an urban sprawl on planet than in an overstuffed research station like this. Privacy? Pahh. Fat chance. All she really had wanted was to be left alone to do her work. She really ought to research her plans better. Impulsive career moves were abysmally stupid. Never follow y
our heart, she reminded herself; it has no brain.
The personnel roster still glowed on the screen. Her eyes slid carelessly down it as she wallowed in depression. Mostly unknowns were here. People with her years of experience did not opt for staff positions in tin space bubbles. Who was going to be supervising her, she wondered?
Already sunken deep into dismal, her heart suddenly plummeted to bottom, crashing in outrage.
! How in paraspace had the dysfunctional followed her here? He had been her Chief of Biology at the University! What moron had hired him? Caldwell was a jerk!
Thoroughly disgusted, she pulled out the small chair that accompanied the desk and plopped down on it, only to hop up quickly when Igor yelped.
“So you finally came out, huh? Look, you can have the couch, but I get the chair, okay? I am supposed to work for a living, and I need to sit here in order to work. Deal?”
Igor, his feelings already rather crushed, did not look particularly cooperative. But he jumped down after his usual scowl of disapproval and slunk away towards the bedroom.
Sitting down again, she stared at the screen blindly, her thoughts racing. Caldwell! How had this happened? Could she get out of her contract? It was just unbelievable that the idiot would have left a cushy job at the University to take a position where he would be expected to work.
In one corner of the screen a chat room opened and many of her coworkers greeted each other, some already friends from the flight over, others logging introductions linked to their resumes. She ignored it. She hadn’t made any friends.
A beeping noise penetrated her fog, alerting her to a general announcement. She punched the receive button absently. Her eyes scanned through the verbiage that purported to make her feel warm and a part of it all until she found the real announcement.
Mandatory attendance in person?
No way was she going! Let them fire her! They had to give her six weeks board and keep no matter what!
Who was speaking? The Vice President of Research? Damn. He could have her career ended permanently. Shooing Igor away from the door, she left for the conference.