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From Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Issue #3
Online Fiction Index

Loss Leader
By Simon Haynes

 

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Erin Campsie ran her hand over her brow, pushing aside several strands of dark brown hair. She forced her gritty eyes to focus on the lens as her lips did their best to twist into a grin. "You'll have to speak up," she said loudly. "I can't hear you."

The roar of the ship's thrusters almost drowned the hiss of static. There was a faint click and a cultured, male voice emanated from the grille. "I'll repeat it. Don't worry, we'll be editing this before it goes out."

"Can you smooth out the bags under my eyes?"

The man's laugh sounded tinny through the speaker. "For you, anything." The voice changed slightly, became more formal. "Erin, has the last month or so been hard on your team, given the delays?"

Erin nodded, her face serious. "It's been pretty stressful. They only bedded down the last of the colonists a week ago."

"Because half of them changed their mind at the last minute, right?"

Erin frowned. "I'm not aware of that."

"I've been watching them slinking out of the ferries. Doesn't it worry you, the fact that almost five hundred people refused to go through with this?"

"You're mistaken. If anyone backed out there would be hundreds more ready to take their place."

There was a low chuckle from the speaker. "Don't be so sure." The interviewer changed tack. "Is it true there was a last-minute problem with the cryo-tanks?"

"No," said Erin flatly.

"There have been rumours. Reid Corp stock fell eight percent yesterday, and..."

Erin pushed herself out of her chair and leant close to the camera. "Interview terminated," she said firmly, cancelling the connection. For six years, she"d been shielded from the media, only to be thrown to the wolves now that she was leaving. Arseholes.

She turned round as a door opened behind her.

"Everything is ok?" Anton Piret studied her through half-closed eyes, his face a worried mask.

Erin forced a smile. "Everything is fine, Anton." She rested her behind on the narrow desk. "I had to give an interview."

"Ah, the media attention. They make you famous, you know."

Erin shrugged. "Makes no difference, where we're going. I'm pissed at the Reid people, though, letting slime like that through now that we're out of their hands."

Anton looked at her thoughtfully. "What was this about the colonists?"

"Not you, too! It's nothing. He was trying to provoke a reaction." She looked up at the plain white ceiling panels, seemed to stare right through them. "How long until we dock with the colony ship?"

Anton's face cleared. "Ten minutes, no more." He lowered one eyebrow. "I am in charge of the union."

Erin laughed. "You're not going to keep that act up for the next hundred years, I hope."

Anton grinned. "Mais oui! It is a ploy to - 'ow you say - pull ze chicks?" His face fell. "But I shall not be needing this skill, I think."

There was a crackle of static from the speaker. "Is Anton with you?" demanded a male voice.

"Sure is," said Erin.

"Anton, if you don't zip your arse up here right now they'll be picking body parts out of orbit for the next twenty years. Our body parts."

"On my way, monsieur Roth," called Anton. "Ze duty, she calls," he said, with another exaggerated leer. Then he turned and vanished through the door. His footsteps echoed on the bare metal deck-plates in the corridor, and as they faded away Erin pushed herself upright, took a last look around the cramped cabin, and followed.

#

The four crew members stared at the heavy airlock as it inched open on hidden runners. There was a gust of warm air, like the wind preceding a subway train. Erin blinked as a long-forgotten memory came to her. She was standing on a platform, holding her mother's hand, laughing as scraps of paper ran away from the oncoming train. She sniffed, half expecting the smell of tar, damp concrete, electricity, and was startled when she recognised new carpet and fresh paint.

"Smells like an office," said Greg Roth. He ran his fingers through his thinning blond hair and blew out his cheeks. "Anyone want to make a speech?"

"Don't be ridiculous," muttered the fourth member of the team, a tall man with an unruly mop of black hair and a sour expression permantly etched on his narrow, lined face.

There was a long silence as they stared through the narrow airlock into the brightly-lit, carpeted hallway on the other side.

Roth glanced at Erin. "Ladies first?"

"Get stuffed," she said. Then she stepped into the airlock before any of the others could move. "Privilege of rank," she called over her shoulder.

Beyond the airlock, the hallway curved away to the left and right. Erin frowned as she tried to remember the layout from the mockup on Earth. It seemed so long ago! She stood aside as the others came through the airlock behind her, and as they looked around she was reminded of a group of tourists rubbernecking in a cathedral. "Anyone remember the way to the control room?"

Anton and Roth pointed in opposite directions.

"Great start, guys," laughed Erin.

They all looked up as a neutral, female voice came through concealed speakers. "Welcome aboard the Glory. I am happy to report there is a pathfinder installed aboard this vessel, and if you would care to follow the blue light I shall lead you to your destination." A strip of blue appeared along the base of the wall, with pulses that shot along the hallway and vanished around the corner.

"Thank goodness somebody knows the way," muttered Winters. He raised his voice above the background hum of the air processors. "How far is it?"

"Four hundred meters. Are you sure you want to come up? Your cryo-pods are ready and it would be more convenient for you to..."

"We'll come up," said Erin. She looked up at a nearby speaker, a slight frown on her face. "If that's all right with you, of course."

Anton laughed. "Sarcasm, it is wasted on a computer."

Erin said nothing as she set off along the hallway, following the bright blue fireflies. The other three followed in silence.

#

The flight deck was spacious, with a wide console across the forward end, a large screen and, incongruously, an aluminium table with four chairs.

"Where's the umbrella?" said Greg Roth, as he stared at the furniture.

Erin ignored him, and addressed the computer. "Give me a newsfeed," she said.

The screen flickered into life, showing an outside view of the ship against a backdrop of stars. A talking head appeared, inside an oval in the corner of the screen.

"This is it, ladies and gentlemen, your last sight of the Glory before it leaves. This is a historical moment without parallel, a moment which opens the book on the Human conquest of space!"

The commentator paused for breath as the rectangular grey slab vanished in a glare of white light.

"And there she goes, departing on a journey of a hundred years! Don't forget, folks, you can book your place right now. Just press the Order button on your remote. Please note, those under eighteen years will need permission from..."

"Turn it off," called Erin.

The viewscreen cleared.

"What the hell was that?" asked Roth. He looked around the control room. "We haven't gone anywhere."

"They prepared that earlier. Our launch window clashed with a major sports event so they mocked something up."

Roth shook his head. 'so much for excited, waving crowds." He looked up as a voice crackled over the speakers.

"Evening, Glory. Ground control here. The shuttle is clear, and you'll be leaving in sixty-five minutes. I'm shutting down your comms now. Good luck."

#

Greg Roth leant his elbows on the console and glanced across at Erin's profile, sharp against the banks of instrument lights and status screens. "Missing the place already?"

She shook her head, her eyes never leaving the wide screen fixed to the wall above the console. It was mostly dark, with patches of fuzzy light.

Roth tried again. "Nothing much to see until dawn."

Erin's mouth creased into a tiny smile. "we'll be long gone by then."

They both looked up as the door opened. Anton stalked in with a rustle of plastic and a string of muttered curses. He held up a clear cellophane bag and shook it at them. "This crap, it is everywhere. I find ends of carpet in the toilet, pieces of the wire in the kitchen and the plastic wrap all over. The bastard workers left the whole place like a...a...building place?"

"Site," said Roth. "Building site."

"Precisement. It is a sty for pigs they want us to fly, yes?"

Roth glanced at his watch. "There's still half an hour. Why don't we tidy up?"

Anton snorted. "What for? This ship, she will fly to the planet and then is all over. I prefer to sleep."

Erin glanced at him. "You don't want to watch the departure?"

Anton shook his head forcefully. "Me, I want to see the arrival." He stuck out a hand. "Bon chance, mes amis."

"Yeah, and good luck to you, too," said Roth as they shook.

Erin stepped forward, only to be caught in a bearhug. "Anton!"

The Frenchman released her and stepped back, his eyes bright. "Something to dream about, that! Au revoir!"

"That guy is something else," muttered Roth, as the door slid to.

"He's amusing," said Erin.

"In controlled doses. Does he know how to work the cryo pods?"

Erin raised one eyebrow. "Worried he might get overdone?"

"Wouldn't do to arrive one short. Care to give me a hand tidying up? I can never sleep if the place is a mess."

"A hundred years of insomnia. Too bad."

They looked at each other, suddenly serious. "Do you think we'll make it?" asked Roth.

Erin closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her slender face looked almost child-like in the soft glow of the instrument lights, and Roth had to stop himself reaching out to her.

"I don't know, Greg." Her eyes opened and she studied his face. "What if we never wake up? What if our minds leech away while we're in suspension?"

Roth shook his head. "Everything has been tested, pushed as far as possible. we've got the best of everything."

"What if none of the planets are suitable, and the ship just keeps going for hundreds of years until it falls apart?"

"Try not to think about the negatives."

"It's difficult, especially with a cryo-pod waiting for me below decks." Erin shivered and glanced up at the screen.

"The next time we come up here there'll be a fresh, new planet on that," said Roth heartily. "we'll be itching to get down on the surface to start the first colony."

"And everyone back home will have been dead for at least a hundred years," said Erin softly.

#

Ken Mortlock eased onto his back, wincing at the pains that knifed his guts with every movement. He lifted a shaking hand to his thinning, snow-white hair and patted at it ineffectually, barely noticing the strands that came away on his fingers. He brushed them off against the coverlet with an automatic, oft-repeated gesture and returned his gaze to the window.

It was early evening, and the yellow streetlight glistened off the raindrops rolling steadily down the glass in the tall bay windows. The dark panelled walls were thrown into relief every now and then as a flickering screen near the foot of the bed paged through rows and rows of figures.

Mortlock sighed and reached out to the bedside table, where a small remote sat in its cradle. He picked it up and flicked through the channels at random, pausing every now and then to gaze at a bombed-out building or the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.

"This isn't how it was supposed to be." The thought was little more than an automatic protest, worn into his brain years ago. He turned the set off and reached for a button inlaid into the timber bedpost.

Moments later the door opened, admitting a young lady in a starched blue uniform. She crossed to the bed, her round face flushed. "Yes, sir?"

Silence as he gazed at the blank screen.

"I'll fetch the bedpan, shall I sir?"

Mortlock raised himself on his elbows, ignoring the pain. "When I need a crap you'll be the first to know," he muttered, eyes slitted in his pale face.

The nurse's lips tightened. "Why did you call me?"

The old man lowered himself back onto his pillows and closed his eyes. "I think the end is near."

The nurse turned a snort into a cough. "Nonsense, you"ve still got years."

Mortlock opened one eye. "I bet you say that to all your patients."

There was a muted buzzing sound from a small pack clipped to the nurse's belt. She tilted it to bring the screen into view, then tutted. "What kind of person comes knocking at this time of day?"

"Who is it?"

"Some government agent. Urgent, apparently."

Mortlock sat up, pain forgotten. "What are you waiting for? Show him up."

The nurse left with a rustle of stiff clothing, leaving the door ajar. Mortlock strained his ears for clues to the visitor's identity or purpose. He listened in vain, and was settling back into the pillows when the door opened and a woman in a neat black suit entered. There were grey streaks in her dark hair, which was pulled back into a neat ponytail.

"I'm Liz Worth," she said, crossing the room towards the bed. She stopped and thrust out a slim hand.

Mortlock brushed loose hairs off the coverlet with his left hand as he shook with his right. "How can I help you, Ms Worth?"

"My department needs some advice." There was a flash of silver as the woman flipped open a black plastic wallet.

"Which department?"

The wallet disappeared and the woman smiled, revealing a set of perfect white teeth. "That would be telling, wouldn't it? I'm sure you understand."

"Don't get coy with me, madam. I was privy to more top-level secrets in my working years than you'll see in your entire life."

"I'm sure you were. Very well, I'm making this approach on behalf of the Reid Foundation. Perhaps you"ve heard of them?"

Mortlock closed his eyes, the veins like spider webs across the pale lids. "They emerged from the ashes of the Reid Corp, which went bust after the colony ships were cancelled." He opened his eyes, a frowned. "They're following up the cryogenic research, from what I can gather."

Worth nodded. "They're developing a more advanced technique. Not that there was anything wrong with your work, of course. Brilliant."

"Nothing wrong with it?" said Mortlock bitterly, stabbing his finger at the screen. "Perhaps you should tell them. Those idiots are calling the colonists the "lost souls". They're comparing me with some of the worst monsters of the twentieth century."

"It's a misunderstanding, nothing more. The point is, the Reid people need access to your final test results."

Mortlock closed his eyes. "You're wasting your time. I'll have nothing to do with it."

"But why?"

The old man glanced at the window as a sudden squall pelted the glass with fresh raindrops. "It's so long ago. Let me die in peace."

"And yet you watch that, desperate for any mention of your name," said Worth, tilting her head towards the screen. "I can turn this around for you, make you into a hero."

"How?" The single word hung in the air.

"Reid Corporation is advancing cryogenics beyond anything you imagined. We want to set up a..."

"We? I thought you worked for a government agency?"

"I'm a liaison," said Worth smoothly. "We're setting up a deep sleep facility where terminally ill patients can be put in suspended animation until a cure is found for their disease. We're specifically targeting those amongst us with the most to lose."

Mortlock frowned. "Who would that be?"

"Children, of course."

"No!" The word exploded from Mortlock's lips. "Never! That would be..."

"Murder?" interjected Worth, a gleam in her eyes.

Mortlock lowered his gaze to the smooth bedspread. His shoulders slowly slumped. "I'm not as sharp as I used to be. I suppose you came here to dig up more dirt," he said in a broken voice.

"So there were problems with the cryo pods?" Worth's voice was low, charged with emotion.

Mortlock nodded jerkily. "It was after the third colony ship. We woke some of our long-term test subjects."

"Humans?"

"Of course not. Rats."

"And?"

"They"d forgotten the mazes. Couldn't operate the levers for food, fought ferociously when they were put together."

"So what happened?"

"No more colony ships," said Mortlock flatly.

"I meant, what happened to the research?"

"Terminated. We leaked news of a new star drive that would obviate the need for long-term sleep. Once that got around, you couldn't have filled a colony ship at gunpoint."

Worth was silent.

"You know, I dream about those colonists every night," said Mortlock. "I think about them, every one of the three thousand, and I wonder whether they dream, too." He glanced at the woman standing at the foot of his bed. "You're not really from a government agency, are you?"

She shook her head. "My parents went on the second ship. I just wanted to know the truth."

Mortlock brushed the back of his hand across his forehead. "I can't offer you any hope, I'm afraid. We'll never hear from any of them."

He was still staring into space when the door closed softly behind her. The nurse bustled in five minutes later, carrying a silver bedpan. She placed it on the foot of the bed then glanced at the screen. "Would we like to watch something while we do our movement?"

Mortlock grunted and pointed the remote. The screen flickered, then cleared to show a large expanse of cracked concrete, the weeds almost as tall as the reporter who walked slowly amongst them. She straightened and stared into the camera, her greying hair catching the light from the setting sun.

"This was the last glimpse of Earth for three thousand people," she said solemnly. "Just what did happen all those years ago?" Her ponytail shook as she turned to stare up at the overcast sky. "Next week I'll give you the truth."

The remote slipped from Mortlock's fingers as his head fell back onto the pillow. The last thing he heard was the nurse's sharply indrawn breath.

#

Erin blinked several times to clear the gummy residue from her eyes. Harsh light stabbed into her brain as she forced her eyes open, the first she had seen for... how long? She shivered suddenly, cold despite the warm air flowing through the cryo-tank. The curved perspex lid was an inch or two from the tip of her nose, and as her eyes focused she made out a distorted caricature of a human face reflecting back off the clear plastic. She blinked and turned her head, her throat tickling as the cleansers removed the last traces of fluid from her lungs. Something stabbed her right arm, jolting her with an electric shock. The breath hissed in through her teeth, and only then did she realise it was the first she had taken since waking. Her chest felt painfully tight, like perished rubber.

Gradually the stabbing pain eased, and her breathing settled down to a slow, steady rhythm.

The lid on the tank popped open with a hiss, swing out of the way on twin hydraulic rams, then locked into place with a metallic click. Something pressed for attention in the back of Erin's mind as she stared into the darkness.

Then it came to her: she had no idea where she was.

She tried to sit up, struggling for several seconds before she thought to look down at herself. She was naked, and a solid-looking strap crossed her chest, tight enough to restrict her breathing. Another bound her legs.

Her mind began to work on the problem. She couldn't move her arms, trapped as they were under the wide band of metal. She opened her mouth and croaked a single word.

"Help."

There was a beep, and a voice spoke next to her ear. "Please specify nature of help required."

"I can't get up," said Erin, the words forced out of her dry throat one by one. She heard a click, and the bands swung open. "Who are you?" she asked, as she twisted her head to get a look at the source of the voice.

"Have you suffered memory loss? Your vital signs are normal but I detect changes in your ECG."

Erin sat up, and immediately the tank whirled around her like a demented carnival ride. She closed her eyes and swallowed. "Does it have to do that?"

"I don't understand."

"The tank. Does it have to spin like that?"

There was a long silence before the computer spoke again. "The pod is not in motion, Erin. Perhaps the effects of cryo sleep have not worn off yet."

"Cryo sleep?"

"Surely you remember?" There was a faint undertone in the computer's otherwise level voice. "You are aboard the colony ship Glory, with one thousand colonists and three crew members."

"Glory?" Erin looked up at the even rows of perforations in the ceiling panels. "Why is it so quiet?"

"We left the solar system thirty years ago. After initial acceleration the engines were shut down. Tell me, do you remember planet Earth?"

Erin frowned. "Dark with patches of light. They didn't want me there."

"I have prepared a mix of stimulants to help you. May I administer them?"

"I guess." There was a quick flash of movement, and Erin stared stupidly at her upper arm, where a drop of blood welled from a pinprick. "Ouch," she said.

"I apologise for the discomfort."

Erin took a deep breath as fire and ice chased each other through her body. Her eyes snapped open, and she looked around cryo-bay six with a series of sharp glances that missed nothing. "Where are the others? Why did you wake me?"

"They are still asleep," said the computer. "I was forced to revive you because of a minor fault in your pod. It will be necessary for you to use to a spare." There was a pause. "Has your memory recovered?"

Erin stood up. "Almost. Just tell me where I left my damned clothes."

#

Greg Roth ran his fingers through his hair and blew out his cheeks. "Memory loss?"

Erin nodded. "We may be able to stave off the effects by coming out of cryo at regular intervals." She hesitated. "That goes for the colonists, too."

Roth stared at her, face ashen. "You want to cycle a thousand people? The four of us?" He did a quick mental calculation. "Erin, it's seventy years to the first planet. If we have to wake a thousand people twice we're going to age ten years each!"

Erin spread her hands. "The alternative doesn't bear thinking about."

"But what if the first planet isn't suitable," said Roth, his voice rising. "It's ninety years to the next. And fifty to the one after." He leant forward, eyes wide. "We could die of old age out here."

"We'll teach some of the colonists to operate the pods. Everyone can have a four-month stint."

"And what if some of them go nuts, start frigging around with the controls up here? No thanks. Anyway, how can you be sure this memory loss is cumulative?"

"I can't be sure. The only thing we can do is wake everybody at fixed intervals until we get to..."

The computer broke in. "I hope you don't consider this an intrusion," it began.

Erin looked up. "Go ahead."

"There are insufficient supplies for such a plan. A minute quantity of liquid is lost each time you revive the occupant of a cryo-tank. The compounding effect of such a loss..."

Erin frowned. "This is a closed system."

"There is always some leakage," said the computer. "Hence the storage tanks."

Roth stared across the table. "What the hell are we going to do?"

Erin stood up and crossed to the console. She played with a keyboard for a few moments, calling up several displays in quick succession. "The computer's right. We'll never make it."

Roth groaned. "Oh brilliant."

"There is one planet within reach."

Roth looked up, a faint hope in his eyes. "Where?"

Erin tapped a command on the keyboard and a file picture appeared on the main screen. It was a green and blue planet, and it took Roth a moment or two to realise what he was looking at. Then he began to laugh.

"I'll go and wake the others," said Erin. "They'll have to be in on this."

"What about the colonists? Won't they object?"

Erin shrugged. "What choice do we have?"

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© Simon Haynes 2001

 

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