The borehole depth gauge sounded off inside Captain Edna Delaney’s helmet; she switched off the maser drill. “That’s the last one,” she announced into her helmet’s proximity phone. “Garvey and Jack, start setting the charges. Selma and I will follow you twenty minutes behind and start stemming.”
Garvey, built like a brick wall, nodded inside his own enviro suit. “Alright. Looks like the girls get the break shift this time. See you in twenty.” He waved for Jack to follow him; the lithe, athletic Asian smirked at Garvey’s comment, and the two men began to trudge across the starlit surface of Asteroid Delta Omicron 742.
Selma, a Latina in her mid-twenties, smirked as well. “Always the smartass, that Garvey. You’d think he’d cut us some slack once in a while.”
“To him, that was cutting us some slack,” replied Captain Delaney, heading back towards the ship. “In the grand scale of things, it wasn’t so long ago that women were fighting for the right to vote in free elections. You can’t expect hard-wired masculine genetics to change overnight.”
“I can when it’s always night,” quipped Selma, gazing idly up at the starscape as she followed the Captain back to the ship. Edna chuckled, saying nothing more.
Once inside the mining ship Palace, the two women removed their helmets. “You want a donut?” asked Selma.
“That would be great,” replied the Captain, peeling back the thermal head-cap to let her curly brown hair down. “Ugh. It feels good to be out of that hairnet for a few minutes. I know the air’s no more fresh in here than it is in a spacesuit, but it’s nice to have a little breathing room.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Selma, her own chin-length black bob now freed from the constricting headpiece. She poked around the refrigerator for a few moments. “A few slightly stale crullers. They seem mostly alright, and there’s really no point in opening a new box; we wouldn’t have them ready in time.”
“The difficult life of a space miner,” Edna said, chuckling. “Do we at least have coffee?”
“That we do,” replied Selma. A few moments later, she brought a service tray over to the table where Edna sat. Edna eagerly took one of the mugs and began to cream and sugar the black liquid.
The two women sipped their beverages, idly noshing on the old donuts. After a few minutes, Selma asked, “So what do you think is down there?”
“Dunno,” replied Edna. “Scanners say it’s some kind of metal deposit, but they can’t get a fix on it. So either it’s too far down to get a good reading, or it’s some kind of alloy we don’t have in the database. In either case, all we can do is blast it out and see what turns up.”
Selma nodded. “Well, at least we found something here. Those two weeks on Delta Epsilon 421 were pretty boring.”
Edna smiled, “That they were. Even Jack started to lose his cool a little.” She took another bit of the cruller. “Anyway, whatever it is, it’ll be out of our hands soon enough. All we do is dig this stuff up; the scientists at PhoenixCorp will poke at it when we get back. Frankly, that’s the part I like best about this blast.”
Selma nodded. “Early return. That makes Delta Epsilon 421 worth the waste.” She finished her own donut, wiped her hands and mouth on a spare napkin. “Well, we’d better get out there,” she concluded, pulling the thermal cap back over her scalp.
“I’ll be right behind you,” said Edna, taking a sip of her coffee. Selma nodded, re-attached her helmet, and walked to the airlock.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The packing went smoothly, and two women were on their way back to Palace forty minutes later. Inside, Jack and Garvey had begun to assault the remainder of the stale donuts and day-old coffee.
“You two don’t waste any time,” said Selma.
“A man needs his donuts,” said Garvey. “The universal food. Not a spacer from here to Patton Minor that doesn’t keep a box onboard.”
“We’re all finished,” the Captain cut in. “Did you check the scanners for ground vibrations?”
Garvey nodded. “Jack ran the simulations twice. Everything looks good. Standard C-type, just like we scanned from approach. Might break a few L-chondrites free, but it’s not likely they’ll hit us.”
“Great,” said the Captain. “We’ll detonate then.”
“Lemme finish up this cruller,” said Garvey.
“Take your time,” said the Captain. “Selma and I can handle it. You guys did good work, take a break.” She headed towards the bridge.
Selma followed. “You want me on the scans?”
“If you wouldn’t mind.” Captain Delaney sat down at the mining controls, firing up the detonator pre-start sequence.
Selma played Jack’s simulations back on the scanner. “Yeah, it checks. I’ll keep an eye on it, but you should be alright.”
The Captain nodded. “Starting it up now.” She flicked the engage switch. The optic initiators brought each of the detonation controllers online, pinging them all individually to minimize data collisions. Once they were all synchronized, the console displayed a ready status.
The Captain pressed the detonation switch. Asteroid Delta Omicron 742 shook.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“What the Hell happened?” said Garvey.
“I don’t know,” claimed Selma. “I checked the sims before we blasted. Everything was fine!”
“It’s not your fault,” said Jack, sitting at the metallurgical station. “Whatever’s down there caused a secondary shockwave. The computer didn’t have a match for the material, so it couldn’t have predicted this.”
Captain Delaney nodded. “No point in placing blame. What have we got left?”
Garvey checked the internal schematics. “Well, it goes without saying that the landing struts are shot. There’s a rupture in the starboard engine pod, and only one grav-lifter is responding to diagnostic pings. We might be able to break gravity, but it doesn’t look good.” He sighed. “And the long range antenna array is crushed.”
Captain Delaney slumped in her chair. “Any good news?”
“Sure,” said Garvey. “Most of the rest is intact. Scanning is fine, life support’s in no danger, onboard mining gear is largely untouched.”
“On the bright side,” cut in Jack, “the blast was successful.”
“Fat lot of good that will do us,” said Selma, “if we can neither leave nor call for help.”
“Hey,” said Jack, “I’m just trying to be optimistic.”
“Alright,” said the Captain, “let’s all just try to keep our heads. Palace is in no immediate danger; we’ve got enough oxygen and food to last us for six more months. PhoenixCorp will send a retriever out to our last known position if we stop filing our regular reports. In an absolute worst case scenario, we’ll be here six weeks.”
“Great,” said Garvey, “I could use the overtime pay.”
“That’s the spirit,” said the Captain.
“So what do we do?” asked Selma.
“We do the job,” replied the Captain.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” said Garvey into the phone, repelling down the side of the blast crater.
“You had the last break,” Captain Delaney replied from the console of Palace.
“Besides,” called Selma from the scanning console, “surely a big strong man like you can show us weak little females a thing or two.” She was grinning like a cat.
“I feel I should note that I remain neutral in this discussion,” cut in Jack, also inching his way down into the crater.
“We’ll remember that when the revolution comes,” joked the Captain.
“He’ll make a fine slave boy,” added Selma.
“Har, har,” said Garvey. “Very funny.”
The two men reached the bottom of the blast crater. They walked towards the center. Jack used a portable scanner to collect readings, which were relayed back to Palace.
“Still nothing,” said Selma. “Whatever that is, its not available on Earth.”
“Maybe we’ve discovered a new element,” offered Jack.
Garvey smirked. “’Garvinium’. Yeah, I like the sound of that.”
“Hey,” complained Jack, “who gave you first dibs?”
Garvey grinned. “Because I’ll be the first one there.” He started a light sprint across the crater. Jack followed suit, easily overtaking the larger man with his powerful marathon runner’s legs.
“Damn it!” cursed Garvey.
“Way to go, Jack Chou!” called Selma, laughing. “Looks like ‘Chougon’ will be going on the report.”
“Alright,” said the Captain, “I think that’s enough horseplay, you two.”
“Sorry, Captain,” said Jack. “Couldn’t resist.”
“Let’s get this thing up,” grumbled Garvey, slinging the excavator off of his back.
Jack took his final readings. “Hold on,” he said. “It’s close to the surface. We should be able to get to it with shovels.”
“Suits me fine,” said Garvey. “The quicker, the better.”
The men began to dig. It was only a few minutes before the shovel heads began to clang against a solid, metal surface. They dug a little further. The surface was smooth and level.
“Whoa,” said Jack.
Garvey nodded in implied agreement. “This isn’t a mineral deposit. It’s a container.”
“A container?” echoed Selma. She exchanged confused glances with Captain Delaney.
“Buried under the rock,” confirmed Garvey.
“Do you see any markers on it?” asked the Captain.
“Give us a sec,” replied Garvey. He and Jack cleared away more of the debris. The cuboid container was definitely made of a dense, green metal. “There’s a bunch of yellow symbols on the end of it.”
“On this end, too,” confirmed Jack. “I don’t recognize them. They’re not any standard hazard codes I’ve ever seen.”
“Get your scanner in closer,” said the Captain. “We’ll snap a screenshot and run it through the bank.”
“Roger that,” said Jack. He angled the lens at one end, then the other. The pictures appeared on the Palace screens.
“That’s some identification tag,” said Captain Delaney, absently.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Selma. She flipped a few switches, tying in the scanning console to the computer core. After a few moments, she added: “and neither has the computer.”
Captain Delaney tapped the side of her console with a her finger, gazing at the strange, spiraling markers. “This is damned peculiar,” she noted.
“What do you want us to do?” asked Garvey.
“Well, I don’t want you to open it, that’s for sure,” said the Captain. “But it is technically salvage. There weren’t any active warning beacons on this asteroid, and there aren’t any standard hazard markers or claim stickers.”
“Buried treasure,” said Jack, absently.
“That implies that the pirates will be returning for it,” replied Selma.
“We’re not going to get anything done just standing around,” said Garvey. “Let’s bring it back to the ship. We can keep it in a holder tank on the outside of the hull until we get Palace fixed, or someone from PhoenixCorp finds us. After we transfer it over, its their problem.”
“I concur,” said the Captain. “We don’t have the scanning equipment nor the security fields to examine it safely. Our best bet is to keep it in storage until we can get it to someone who does.”
“So we carry it home,” said Jack.
The Captain nodded. “Proceed.”
The men brushed off the remaining loose dirt. Carefully, they groped for hand holds on the sides of the box.
“It’s heavy,” said Jack.
The box began to jostle. They worked it up carefully, easing it out of the sediment layer.
“Damn thing is stuck in the bedrock,” said Garvey.
It was the last thing he would ever say. A blinding flash erupted from their position, turning all the Palace screens stark white.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“They’re just gone, Captain.”
Captain Delaney turned to Selma, a look of immediacy on her face. “What do you mean, ‘just gone’?”
“They’re gone. I don’t know.” Selma was visibly shaken. “There’s nothing on the scanner, not even their suits. They’re...” Her voice trailed off. She shut her eyes tight, choked on her own held-back tears.
The Captain moved towards her. “Hey,” she said. “Come on, keep it together.” She embraced Selma, the younger woman bawling like an infant onto her shoulder. “Come on, Selma, I need you right now. I know this is hard, but I need you.”
Selma wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I’m... I’m sorry, Captain.”
“Don’t you dare apologize,” said the Captain. She turned to the scanner screen. “Now, what have you got?”
Selma sniffled, regained her composure. “Like I said, nothing. There’s no transponder signal, there’s no radar ping off of their helmet metal, there’s just nothing. It’s like they were vaporized.”
“Maybe they were,” said the Captain. She flipped a switch, tying in the metallurgical station before sitting down at it. “What about the box, where is it?”
Selma recalibrated her scanners. “Hold on. I’m giving you control.”
“I’ve got it,” confirmed the Captain. She ran two passes over the location. Her brow furrowed at the results. “I’m seeing something of the same size and mass, but the metal isn’t pinging back the same readings.”
Selma thought a moment. “Maybe when it discharged it used up whatever was deflecting our scans. A radioactive element, maybe... a nuclear power source?”
The Captain nodded. “Not an unreasonable theory. But I sure don’t know of any reactor that can put out a blast like that, in that compact a size.”
“Maybe that’s why it was hidden,” said Selma, “or maybe it's the waste. Enough radiation could muck up our scanners.”
The Captain shook her head. “That’s the thing, though. We didn’t detect any radiation. Just a deposit of unfamiliar metal, which is now surreptitiously inert.” She pondered the situation. Finally, she concluded, “I’m going out there.”
“Captain!” exclaimed Selma.
“Look,” the Captain retorted, “by every scan we can do, that box has apparently used up whatever energy was inside it. If it’s dead, it’s dead, and if it’s not, we need to know it’s not. Nothing else can be done from here, so the logical conclusion is to do a proximity scan with a handheld.”
Selma was visibly concerned. “Captain, that box disintegrated Jack and Garvey!”
“I know that, Selma. But I also suspect that it has the potential to be extremely dangerous to a much wider base than this asteroid. The only way to determine that is to go out and see it. It didn’t do anything until Jack and Garvey moved it. I’ll just take my scans and return to the ship.”
“But what if something happens to you?” said Selma.
The Captain took a deep breath. “If it does, your orders are to stay with Palace until a retriever comes within short range communication, then appraise them of the situation immediately. Under no circumstances are you to follow me out of the ship or try to retrieve the container.”
Selma nodded. “Alright. I’ll keep an open phone channel with you at all times. Good luck, Captain.”
Captain Delaney nodded back, and began to suit up.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Edna hated guns. She felt they were a constant reminder of the failures the human race had made on its way to the stars, the countless wars and conflicts and senseless deaths on which their egalitarian future was founded. As the Captain of Palace, however, she rarely had the luxury of allowing her personal philosophies to usurp the protocols of a mining ship operation. With a certain grimness, she fastened a belt holster to the outside of her enviro suit, then slid her microcharge pistol into it.
She trekked to the blast site mostly in silence. Selma would occasionally ask for a confirmation that she was still there, which she would return, but the Captain had far too much on her mind for idle chatter.
After repelling down the slope of the crater, Captain Delaney began to jog towards the center. “I can see the box,” she said.
Selma said hesitantly, “Any sign of Jack or Garvey?”
“None,” confirmed the Captain. “Not even scorch marks.”
She stopped thirty feet from the container. “Selma,” she said, “we have a problem.”
“What now?” asked Selma.
“The box is open.”
Selma said nothing. The Captain scanned the area. As before, only the volume and density readings of the container showed up on the scans. “Nothing,” she said. “Whatever was inside this thing, it’s gone.” She packed up her portable scanner and, taking a long last look at the blast site, turned back towards the crater wall. “There’s nothing here, Selma. Put the Palace scanners on wide-band, see if you can find any residual traces of whatever was in there.”
Selma didn’t respond.
“Selma,” said the Captain, “are you there? This is no time for a donut run.”
Only silence came back over the phone. “Selma,” the Captain said again, “please respond.” The silence remained.
Reflexively, Captain Delaney fingered the grip of her microcharge pistol. Then, without another word, she sprinted towards the crater wall, ascending it as rapidly as the rock climbing equipment would allow.
Upon reaching the top, she peered towards Palace. She could just about make out a female human form emerging from the ship.
“Selma!” she called out. She began to jog towards the ship. The humanoid female seemed to detect her motion, proceeding towards her at a leisurely rate.
“Damn it, Selma,” cursed Captain Delaney, “I told you to stay with the ship!”
She stopped running. The female had come close enough for the Captain to make out her features. A look of confused horror overtook Captain Delaney’s face.
It was Selma. She was not wearing an enviro suit.
TO BE CONTINUED
Captain Delaney froze. The form of Selma lurched towards her across the rocky surface of Asteroid Delta Omicron 742, unburdened by a life support system or any other equipment. Selma had just simply walked out of the airlock unprotected, the thin material of her civilian clothes the only layer between her body and the forboding elements of deep space.
The skin of her arms and face was completely uncovered. Drawn, lily-white and rapidly developing severe hypothermia, Selma had the appearance of a walking corpse. Her eyes were round as nickels, her pupils dilated completely open. Her expression was one of intense determination.
“Good God,” the Captain choked, “Selma, what the Hell is going on?”
Selma’s lips began to move slowly. The asteroid’s atmosphere was scant and sulfurous, but enough carried into Edna’s helmet phone, pitch-bent into the bass range in the heavier air molecules: “Can’t... Stop... Must... Do...” Selma kept marching towards the Captain.
“Stay back!” demanded Captain Delaney. “Selma, stay back! Something’s happened to you, you have to fight it!”
Selma raised an arm towards the Captain. “Must... Add...”
Captain Delaney drew her pistol. Again, she ordered: “Selma, keep back! I don’t want to use this!”
Selma kept on coming. Captain Delaney fired.
The microcharge impacted Selma in the right side of her abdomen. Flesh and blood tore like soft candy. Selma stopped, her intestines hanging from the sizable hole in her belly.
“I’m sorry,” whispered the Captain.
Selma did not fall. From the inside edges of the gaping wound, hair-thin tendrils of silvery-black liquid began to snake outwards. Captain Delaney watched in mute disbelief as each thread found the opposite side, creating a weavework of complex metal that served to patch the hole. In moments, where there was once torn flesh was now a sheath of reflective black steel.
Edna panicked. She raised the gun again, firing all five remaining shots at the Selma-thing. One by one, the charges tore away pieces of her chest, neck, and arms. The Selma-thing stumbled backwards with the impacts, falling flat against the surface of the asteroid, a mutilated corpse.
Edna ran for Palace. Reaching the still-open airlock, she shut the outer door tight, changing the entry code as rapidly as her fingers would allow. She did the same for the inner door.
Inside the ship, the atmosphere had been completely depressurized. Edna didn’t bother restoring it; there was no time. Frantically, she ran for the bridge, still in her enviro suit. Once there, she fired up the engine sequence, praying to God that the damaged ship could reach liftoff.
The single grav-lifter whined as it strained to raise the ship clear of the rocky landing site. Palace groaned, its crushed landing struts creaking as it rocked slowly from one side to the other.
“Damn it, come on!” yelled Edna. She looked up at one of the hull scanners. Outside, the Selma-thing had gotten up and was slowly trudging towards the ship. All the pieces that Edna had shot off were either woven-over with the strange liquid metal, or in the process of being repaired as such. Additionally, the first wound that Edna had inflicted on the thing was now re-covered with what looked like skin -- healthy, pink, human skin.
Edna pushed the grav-lifter past its safety margin. The overloaded system gave one final jolt upwards, but would lift no further.
“It’s now or never,” said Edna, and ignited the port engine.
Palace lunged forward. Its landing struts caught the edges of a crag, and the ship scraped its belly against the ground, tearing the outer fuselage. Alarms lit up all across Edna’s console; she ignored them, diverting all the ship’s reserve power to thrust.
Severely crippled, losing fuel, Palace could do no more. The ship reached its zenith, arced downward, and bounced off of the asteroid, smashing the remainder of the underbelly. Edna was thrown to the ceiling of the bridge, coming down hard on the console; her ribs cracked like celery. The ship skipped upwards like a stone on a pond, then came down again, sliding twisted metal across barren rock until it finally came to rest.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Edna regained consciousness. There was an unbearable pain in her midsection. She tried to stand, but all that brought was more pain; she slumped back into the bridge chair, howling in agony.
Most of the scanners were filled with static, and those that weren’t were either filled with alerts from every deck of the ship, or offline entirely. Palace was dying.
Edna rested for a few minutes. Then, with unbelievable force of will, she brought herself to her feet. She pressed at the pains in her chest; at least four ribs were broken, one of which was out of alignment. She leaned against the console again, using her own weight to snap the rib back into place. The task was excruciating, but the pain did subside slightly.
She checked all around her enviro suit. Miraculously, there was not a tear or fracture anywhere. “Thank Heaven for small miracles,” she thought aloud.
There was no way to know how far she’d flown; she couldn’t even warrant a guess. In any case, Palace was never going to fly anywhere else again.
Edna checked all the systems. Life support was largely undamaged; the ship had been designed in such a way that the environmental system was well-protected, and would fail long after everything else, even in extreme situations such as this. The communications array was also mostly intact, save for some peripheral damage and the loss of the long range antenna array from the earlier blast shockwave.
Without the long range antennas, there would be no contacting PhoenixCorp. Even if Edna could manage to hold out under the present conditions, surely that Selma-thing would get to her before six weeks were up. If she could send out a distress call, a retriever could be there in eighteen hours.
Edna knew what she had to do. First, she sealed off all the damaged parts of the hull. That was well over half the ship, but there were adequate supplies left in the remaining rooms. After securing the ship, Edna repressurized the interior. That allowed her to take off her enviro suit. Using what emergency medical supplies she could find, she then bandaged up her midsection and cleaned out her various wounds.
Next Edna began to work on the communications system. The damages to those panels were simple to fix, and she was able to get short range communications back online inside of an hour. That left the long range antennas.
Edna scarfed down a couple of donuts and some coffee; she knew that she’d need to keep up her strength. Finally, her resolve steeled, she donned a fresh enviro suit, strapped two microcharge pistols to her belt, and headed for the airlock.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The handheld proximity scanner remained silent for eighty minutes. Edna kept glancing down at its readout, as well as looking to the horizon over the aft of Palace, as she patched the destroyed antenna array back together. The damage was severe, so severe that she might need to return to the ship to restock her enviro suit before completing them. Edna didn’t want to have to do that; climbing on top of the ship with four broken ribs was bad enough once.
She pressed on, working feverishly. Again she glanced down at the proximity scanner.
“That won’t tell you anything, Captain,” said a female voice from behind Edna.
Edna leapt up, nearly losing her balance as she spun around on the craft. She pulled the pistol out of her right holster and swung it in the direction of the voice.
There stood Selma. No part of here was damaged. Her skin was pink and smooth; her eyes sparkled with a distinct clarity, and her hair was silken as if conditioned. She looked fabulous, not at all like a walking zombie -- save for her torn civilian clothes, still showing the rips of the microcharge explosions.
“Keep back,” said Edna, training the gun on Selma.
Selma smiled, but did not move from her position. “Captain. There’s no need for such hostility. I’ve been standing here for some time. I just wish to talk with you.” Selma’s voice was quite clear in the thin space air, and its pitch was correct.
Edna paused, but did not lower her weapon. “Who are you?”
“I’m Selma,” replied Selma.
“Bullshit,” cursed Edna. “You’re standing on a ship hull in open space without an enviro suit. Selma’s dead.”
“I’m right here,” confirmed Selma. “I just want to talk.”
“Alright,” said Edna, shifting slightly to relieve some pressure from her ribs, and pulling out the second pistol. “Start talking.”
Selma nodded slowly, almost reverently. “Captain Edna Delaney of the PhoenixCorp mining ship Palace, our species is only just beginning to explore these stars. But there have been others who have explored them long before us, and who have left their markings where they tread.”
“The container,” Edna said. “An alien container?”
Selma smiled. “Placed here long ago, by a vast and powerful race of beings. It was laid to rest with the intention that it would never be uncovered.”
“And we uncovered it,” said Edna.
“We did,” confirmed Selma, “and we released what was within from its rocky prison. An experiment gone terribly wrong, banished from the sight of all intelligent life in the universe.”
Edna’s trigger fingers began to twitch. “Is that what killed Jack and Garvey?”
“No,” said Selma. “When we first blasted around the container, the explosion shorted its security field. Most of that energy was dispersed in the shockwave that crippled Palace. The remainder was triggered when the men tried to lift the container.”
Edna furrowed her brow. “I don’t understand. The container killed them?”
“Correct,” replied Selma. “It expended its reserves in neutralizing them. It was at this point the Hunter was able to escape.”
“I get the feeling that’s where you come in,” said Edna, grimly.
Selma smiled. “The Hunter had been sealed away for eons. It was hungry. It required the Hunt. So it moved towards the ship.”
Edna swallowed hard. “And while I was away from the ship, it hunted Selma.”
“Edna, your mind can’t comprehend the depth of this,” said Selma, “but the Hunter had never encountered any species like humans. It could only hunt in the way it recalled. It found the female Selma and consumed her wholly.”
“So tell me again how you’re supposed to be Selma,” shot back Edna.
“I am Selma,” she stated simply. “We are Selma. Selma and the Hunter are one. And we understand now what neither was able to alone.”
“I don’t know what you are,” concluded Edna, fixing both pistol barrels squarely on Selma, “but I do know that I’m going to fix this goddamn antenna and get off this asteroid. Now, you either can get off of my ship, or I can blast you off.”
Selma frowned. “Edna, don’t do this. You’re my friend. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Prove it,” said Edna.
“Come with me to the bridge,” offered Selma. “I can explain everything you’ll need to know. I can show you slowly and pleasantly.”
Edna yelled, “Get off my goddamn ship you zombie! That’s your last warning!”
“I love you, Edna,” said Selma, a touch of sadness in her voice.
Edna squeezed the triggers, again and again, until both guns were dry. The microcharges impacted Selma’s soft, pink skin, blowing holes in her plastic exterior and revealing the fantastic clockwork of endoskeletal metal and circuitous optic fibers inside -- and then, just as rapidly, black metal strands would shoot across the breaches and sew them closed again. Within mere seconds of the onslaught, Selma stood fully repaired, her clothes a ragged web of tatters now.
“Damn it!” yelled Edna. She turned to run. Her right foot slid across the metal of the ship’s hull, and she lost her balance, tumbling down the side of Palace. She frantically grabbed at the hull as she fell, but only succeeded in snagging the fabric of her enviro suit on one of the ruptured bulkheads before slamming on the hard rocky surface of the asteroid.
The tear in her sleeve hissed. Edna gasped for air, her suit decompressing rapidly. She tried to stand, but her injuries were too severe now; she collapsed to the ground, panting and groping at the hole, desperately trying to plug it as oxygen leaked out, and sulfur leaked in.
As her peripheral vision began to go black, Edna could see Selma standing over her, smiling. “Don’t be frightened, Captain,” she said. “The Hunt is not over.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A cinnamon bun. That’s what Edna wanted: a cinnamon bun. She was so sick of the crullers that she could puke. Just once, it would have been nice to have a cinnamon bun instead.
“You crave this prey,” said a familiar voice. “It must become a part of you.”
Yes, she did crave it. She wanted to consume it, wholly. She wanted to know every part of the cinnamon bun, from its fluffy yeast-raised skeleton to its cinnamon-sugar entrails to its flaky glazed skin. Edna wanted to hunt the cinnamon bun.
“Good,” said the voice. “Very good. You are beginning to understand.”
Edna caught herself suddenly, shook the thoughts of donuts out of her head. “Where are you?” she demanded.
“We are back on the ship,” said the voice. “You are in no danger.”
Edna tried to look around for the source of the voice, but found that there was nothing in her immediate experience which connected to the concept of looking. “Why can’t I see you?” she continued. “What have you done to me?”
“Do not be alarmed,” the voice replied. “You are safe.”
Edna didn’t feel safe. “Tell me what is going on,” she said, trying to sound more composed.
The voice paused for a brief moment, then said, “Edna Delaney, Captain of the PhoenixCorp mining ship Palace: you are joining the Hunt.”
“I don’t want to join the Hunt,” Edna replied. “I want to go back to my ship and go home.”
“Yes,” said the voice. “You crave this prey. It must become a part of you.”
Edna shook her head. “No, that’s not what I...” She stopped in mid-sentence. Yes, in fact, it was what she meant. Her ship was prey. She wanted to know it intimately, to interface with every system and know its thoughts, and to fly it through the vacuum of space, unrestricted by ‘consoles’ and ‘scanners’. She wanted to feel the solar wind on its hull as if it were a stiff breeze upon her skin, like the brisk winds of home...
Home. Home was prey. It had always been prey; that was why she had made it a part of her. Home was Chicago, just outside Shantytown, where her parents had grown up and met. She craved Home, craved the breezy, bustling streets and the four dozen drawbridges over the river, craved the smells of a deep dish pizza and a Maxwell Street Polish...
“Get out of my mind,” Edna forced herself to say.
“Don’t be afraid, Edna,” said the voice. “You are joining the Hunt. The Hunter consumes the prey wholly, and the prey then becomes as the Hunter.”
“I don’t want to be a part of this,” Edna protested, trying hard to focus. “Get out of my thoughts.”
“Just relax, Edna,” came the soothing, growing voice, like a tiring fever spreading throughout Edna’s body, gently persuading her to capitulate. “Do not resist. You are joining the Hunt.”
Yes, she was. Edna was joining the Hunt. She craved all the things in her experience -- the cinnamon bun, the ship, Chicago, all of it. She craved these prey and needed to consume them wholly.
“Stop,” pleaded Edna, the urgency of her voice beginning to fade into a calm, measured flow.
She craved Selma. She had always craved Selma. She needed to consume this prey wholly.
“I know,” said the all-encompassing voice. “I understand, Edna. I love you, too.”
“I love you, Selma,” said Edna, warmly. “I understand now. I am the Hunter.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Edna’s sight returned abruptly. The image was sharp and the colors were saturated. Across her entire field of vision she was aware of a subtle horizontal scanline pattern. Symbols dotted the peripheries of her perceptions -- yellow symbols that resembled the spiralling patterns on the alien container. Though the symbols had no equivalent words in any human language, Edna understood their meanings implicitly, confirming each diagnostic reading in turn before proceeding further.
Sound also returned. As with vision, it was sharp and full spectrum, reaching up into the treble ranges Edna had lost with aging, and even into high and low frequencies that no human had ever heard. Presently she was aware of a subtle whine, which seemed to be coming from within her.
“What is the noise I am hearing?” she asked. Her voice sounded like it had been recorded and played back to her through a high fidelity stereo. It was even-timbred and slightly sensual, but it was clearly her own voice. In fact, it seemed more like ‘her’ voice than her voice had ever been.
“That’s your [5eaf3e376512be09],” came a voice. Edna recognized it as Selma.
“What is a [5eaf3e376512be09]?” asked Edna. She heard herself say the ‘word’, but it definitely had no possible equivalent in English.
“Know yourself,” suggested Selma. “It will come.”
Edna was confused. “I do not understand.”
“Yes you do,” Selma assured her. “Open your [5eaf3e376512be09].”
Edna did as instructed, although she could not in any sense conceive of how she was able to. Below her field of vision, another whine of different tone became audible suddenly. As it sounded, the first whine began to grow in volume, until the second whine stopped.
“Look down,” suggested Selma.
Edna angled her head downwards, touching her chine to her chest. She could see her body; it was naked, and lying on a table in the medical bay of Palace, the port wall of which was torn open and exposed to surface of the asteroid. From her breastbone to just below her ribcage, a panel of skin had hardened and swung upwards, hinged somewhere right above her navel.
Inside her body, she could see everything that she was.
“I understand,” she concluded. “The [5eaf3e376512be09] is the [9087e73eba327efe] that controls the [1228ef3c542eba9a].”
Selma’s naked, plastic body walked into view; she was smiling widely. “Very good, Edna. You understand.” Gently, she pressed against the skin panel that had exposed Edna’s alien circuitry, processor arrays and motor network. The panel conformed to her pressure, closing the hole and reverting to pliable tegument.
“We are robots,” said Edna, plainly.
“If you like,” replied Selma. “The term is somewhat crude, but accurate for the limitations of human language.”
Edna sat up. She could feel every part of her body as if her mind were in every circuit; her arm was no different from her eye, or her thoughts. She could feel how the artificial body had self-corrected its dimensions to remove all the little imperfections Edna had always felt ashamed of, due to age or illness or weight or simply genetic misfortune. She was an ideal Edna, a perfect Edna.
She was a Hunter.
Edna blinked, then turned her head to look at Selma. She could percieve the pistons in her neck whizzing as if she heard them moving, and understood that hearing and knowing were the same concept; there was no sound of machinery, save for within her own field of understanding.
“I know who I am,” she began. “I am Edna. You returned my memories to me.”
“I never took them,” said Selma.
“Why do they remain?” asked Edna. “You could have simply programmed me to obey.
Selma smiled. “Because they were necessary for correct consumption. When this Hunter consumed Selma, it did not understand humans. It consumed her wholly. By doing so, it became Selma. Her memories remained.”
Edna cocked her head in affected pondering. “The Hunter became Selma, as Selma became the Hunter. Both are one.”
“Correct,” said Selma. “Consumption of the body is not completion. Consumption of the mind is also required.”
“I understand,” said Edna. “I am a Hunter, and I am Edna, and there is no conflict between these two entities.”
“That’s why your memories remain,” concluded Selma. “Your prey would not have been properly consumed otherwise.”
Edna nodded. The two androids watched each other in silence for a long time.
“You are very pretty, Selma,” said Edna. “I’ve always wanted to tell you that.”
“Thank you, Edna,” said Selma, blushing slightly. “I’ve always thought you were an amazing woman. It takes a special kind of courage to head up a spaceship. You’re one of my heroes.”
Edna was blushing now. “I love you, Selma.”
Selma straightened her shoulders, cocking her head to the left. The exposed skin of the right side of her neck folded out a small, hardened panel, revealing a computer port.
“Show me,” said Selma.
A look of anticipation overtook Edna’s youthful Irish face. “What do I do?” she asked.
“Put your [54267eefe817009b] into my [091bea8c8e90e5ff],” replied Selma. “You will understand.”
Edna complied. She raised her left hand up to the port, willing open a round, camera-lens panel in the tip of her ring finger, from which extended her [54267eefe817009b]. She pressed it into Selma’s [091bea8c8e90e5ff].
Selma’s face went blank. In Edna’s display, a flurry of yellow symbols began to dance around each other. Edna understood. She chose the symbols that corresponded to her memories, to the cravings she had for Selma.
Selma’s eyes fluttered rapidly. The symbols entered her.
Edna pulled her finger out of Selma’s neck. Their respective panels closed. Selma smiled widely, but emptily. “Hello, Captain,” she said, sounding very much like an automated responder buoy. “I am ready to accept your commands.”
Edna grasped Selma’s midsection, pressing against her naked, plastic body as she brought her lips to her subordinate. Selma returned the osculation fervently, with exacting servomechanical precision.
Edna pulled away momentarily, gazing into Selma’s empty, glassy eyes. “You belong to me now, Selma,” she confirmed.
Selma blinked twice. “Yes, Captain. I am your robot. I will obey.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Man,” sighed Ben, idly playing with his pocket gametoy, “is there anything more boring than lane patrol?”
“I dunno,” said Goose, checking the thrust vectors for the thousandth time. “Better than being on a miner, anyway.”
“At least they get out once in a while,” complained Ben. “I haven’t set foot on solid ground for two months.”
“Don’t tell me you’re sick of my sparkling conversation,” Goose replied, pretending offense.
Ben chuckled. “I’m just bored, is all. I haven’t had a single retrieval since taking this shift, and just once I’d like to see some kind of action.” He was silent for a moment, then, as an afterthought, added: “And no offense to your rapier wit, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to be paired up with a hot chick.”
Goose laughed. “Keep dreaming, flyboy. I’ve been with PhoenixCorp for 6 years, and I haven’t seen one female who didn’t look like she fell off the--”
The deep-space blackball lit up, its blaring alarm cutting Goose off in mid sentence. The two men glanced at each other, exchanging looks of sudden disbelief before manning their respective consoles.
Ben opened up the long-range antenna array. “This is the retriever ship Caliph. We have your signal. Please respond.”
The main screen crackled to life. Throught the static cut an amazingly crisp picture of two beautiful young women: an Irish girl with curls like a billowing waterfall, and a Latina with eyes like diamonds.
The Caucasian woman spoke, her voice a smooth, velvety caress of audible satin. “We read you, Caliph. This is Captain Edna Delaney of the PhoenixCorp mining ship Palace. We have suffered an emergency and require immediate assistance.”
Ben was barely able to contain the enthusiasm I his voice, and counted his blessings that their own craft had no visual transmitter. “Roger that, Palace. Please give us your location.”
“Our ship has crashed on the surface of Asteroid Delta Omicron 742,” replied the Hispanic girl, whose voice was just as sultry as her commander’s, if not even more so. “Polar mesh coordinates 311.45 mark 190.37, zone shift minus seven.”
Goose looked back to Ben with a nod and a smile. Ben winked back at him. “Coordinates received. We’ll be seeing you ladies in about four hours.”
“We’ll be waiting,” teased the dark-haired girl, eyes sparkling.
“Yes,” her Captain added, pursing her lips slightly. “We’re very anxious to meet you.”