Severance (Excerpt)16 min read
Chapter 1: A Distinct Odor
Laura Stein rolled onto her side, taking care to not crush the bag of urine strapped to her thigh. Through the vanes of the air damper, she could see the upper side of a suspended ceiling facing her. An art studio lay that, assuming the occupancy database was accurate, which it occasionally was. She waited a few seconds, listening for any sign that art was currently happening, and after hearing nothing, pried open one of the damper vanes, creating a gap wide enough to drop through. Feet , she passed through the damper and set herself down on the suspended ceiling, confident the frame would support her weight. She repositioned the damper vane in place, then rolled to her side and opened a tile in the ceiling, peering into the space below. Empty.
She lowered herself out of the ceiling and dropped to the floor. Standing on a chair, she repositioned the tile above her, then made her way to the closet at the back of the studio. From the webbing strapped around her waist, she withdrew a tool to remove an embedded floor panel, exposing a dark cavity. She descended feet first into the hole, again mindful of the flexible package of urine, then awkwardly positioned herself face up and dragged the access panel into place above her. In darkness again, she tapped a luminescent patch on her shoulder, shedding a dim light in front of her. Rolling over onto her stomach, she began dragging her way down the crawlspace, scraping her hands, chin, and every other part of her body as she went.
Designed for maintenance robots, utility crawlspaces could theoretically accommodate human-sized travelers—the theory essentially being: “but they really have to want to be there.” The number of scrapes, abrasions and calluses on Stein’s hands and knees attested to the number of times she’d really wanted to be in such places. Typically for work-related reasons, but she wasn’t working tonight. Stein was one of the enviable few Argosians whose profession—ship’s maintenance—overlapped significantly with her hobby—light burglary.
Reaching a junction, she checked the identification tag on the wall. L3-UC-3401. The odds of her being in the wrong place were slim, but the next section would be a dead end, and she didn’t want to back in and out of more side passages than she had to. She patted the satchel of urine strapped to her hip for the tenth time since entering the crawlspace, reassured that it was still dry to the touch.
She shimmied a few meters down the side passage, counting the number of panel seams above her as she went. When she reached the sixth seam, she stopped. Reaching behind her, she fished a cutter from her tool webbing, then began to roll over. She stopped abruptly, perilously close to wetting herself, shivered, then rolled over the other way, maneuvering her body until she was lying on her back. Exhaling, she tapped the terminal on her other hip and spoke softly, “How we doing?”
“Still clear,” Bruce replied. “I told you, this guy’s definitely befouling someone’s party right now. Take as long as you want.”
“Well, just keep watching. I’ve got a shy bladder,” Stein whispered.
“Just relax and it will come. Imagine you’re in a really crowded room and everyone’s watching—that’s what I do when I need to go.”
“Or maybe imagine my mom. That sometimes works for me too.”
She grinned and adjusted the controls of the cutter. “Okay, here we go,” she whispered. Positioning the tool, she drilled a tiny hole in the panel above her. Applying light pressure to the cutter, she listened to the torch as it cut through the sandwiched materials into the room above. A change in pitch announced the end of the cut, at which point she turned off the tool and tucked it back in her webbing. Her hand returned with a micro-lube gun. Positioning it in the hole she’d just made, she began threading the sturdy tube up until she was confident it had breached the threshold of the floor above. Pausing, she rolled her shoulders, releasing the tension that had crept into her neck. After a deep breath, she reached down to her right hip and delicately detached the sack of urine from the webbing. Carefully, she twisted off the cap of the sack and slid the lube gun’s feed tube into it. She exhaled. Slowly, she depressed the trigger of the lube gun.
The contents of the satchel traveled up the tube at high velocity, ejecting over a small patch of floor in the room above. The donor of the urine was not Stein herself, but a gentleman by the name of Gerald Lehman, a Marker. Lehman had not known he was donating the urine at the time, and indeed would have been impressively paranoid if he had. A small device attached to the trap underneath his toilet had been collecting his urine for days, a trap implanted during a similar subterranean raid a week earlier. But however upset Mr. Lehman might be after discovering the theft of his urine, it would pale beside how he’d feel if he knew its ultimate destination: the living room of Sebastian Krol, leader of the Markers, and his nominal boss.
Throughout the course of human history, peeing on your boss’s living room floor has always been regarded as a pretty bad move, but in an organization like the Markers, it was particularly ill-advised. The Markers were a club/society/street-gang—one of many on the Argos—that distinguished themselves from their peers by pissing on things and off people. Markers, when queried about this behavior, would usually expound on the importance of keeping in tune with humanity’s ancient mammalian roots, or recite a prepared speech about the tyranny of indoor plumbing. Everyone else, when queried about this behavior, would suggest that they just liked being dicks. Markers were a particular annoyance for those whose work involved crawling around in poorly drained and ventilated areas, people such as Laura Stein and Bruce Redenbach.
Stein and Bruce’s scheme involved placing an ambitious junior’s Mark within the leader’s home, which they hoped would incite an internecine conflict within the Marker organization and possibly some mild bloodshed. “And if it does lead to some murders,” Bruce had noted, “then so be it. Horrible smelling murders that security doesn’t try very hard to solve.”
The satchel empty, Stein withdrew the tube and stowed everything in her webbing. As gracefully as possible, she scuttled her way back down the corridor. “All done,” she whispered.
“Bet that feels better,” Bruce said. “Coast is still clear. Do you smell? I bet you smell.”
Stein ignored him, concentrating on her awkward backpedaling retreat. Five minutes later she was back in the closet, sealing the access panel shut. Standing, she peeled off her coveralls covered in the dirt and grime of the crawlspace, and stuffed them into an expandable bag she extracted from her webbing. Now somewhat presentable looking, she exited the closet back into the art studio. Her hand fluttered to the terminal to call Bruce and check if it was safe to leave by the front door, before she stopped.
A strange buzzing noise was emanating from somewhere, and she turned, looking for the source. A half-dozen canvases lay in a stack by a set of shelves. Beside them, a pair of easels toiled, holding up a wall. The shelves themselves contained art supplies, a selection of horrible clay pots, and a thin layer of dust. She frowned. She wasn’t surprised to find the studio abandoned—there were a lot of similarly disused rooms scattered across the ship. But she hadn’t thought this was one of them. When they were planning out her route for the evening’s excursion, the occupancy database—admittedly not always reliable—said this room was still in use, owned by an M. Melson.
The strange noise was still there, growing louder. Out of a sense of professional curiosity she continued searching the room, thinking it might be a short circuit arcing behind a wall panel. She stooped to peer behind a bookshelf in the corner, nudging it slightly.
Bright blue light obliterated everything. She jumped back, falling on her ass, scrambling backwards like a crab, one hand clamped over her eyes. A piercing noise filled the air around her. Stein opened her eyes a fraction. The blue light was still there, still blinding. Blinking, she could see the negative afterimage, a bright slash of orange imprinted on her retinas. Strange black images danced in her vision. Keeping her eyes shut, she clamped her hands over them, squeezing. The images floating on the bright sea of orange coalesced into distinct shapes. They almost looked like letters.
The letters started to fade. Stein opened her eyes, to again be blinded by the blue light. Again, the weird, misshapen letters appeared, VLAD, dancing in a sea of orange. She rolled over, facing away from the light, trying to blink away the image. Finally, after a half minute, the blue light disappeared. Silence.
“You having trouble getting your smelly ass out of there?” Bruce asked over the terminal.
Stein ignored him, blinking in the corner. After a few frantic seconds, her vision began to return, a circle of clarity spreading outwards in a sea of black. A minute passed without any further noises or horrible ocular attacks, and she stood up, wobbling. Deciding that that room was no longer a place she wanted to be, she made her way to the front door of the studio and whispered into her terminal, “Okay, I’m ready to go.”
“Hang on, someone’s just…okay. You’re clear.”
Stein exited the front door of the art studio, letting the door lock behind her, and began walking away. A half block later, Bruce appeared at her side, matching pace with her. When they’d gotten another couple blocks away, Bruce made a point of sniffing her.
“You smell like a bar toilet.”
Stein blinked, recent blinding events having overshadowed her earlier work. “Thanks.” Feeling sluggish, she parried with, “Hey, maybe next time you get to handle the urine while I stand around hurling insults and disparaging your mother.”
“Oh, you couldn’t possibly disparage her. Such a poor reputation, that girl,” he said. “All those sailors,” he added after a moment’s thought. She chuckled, forcing it slightly, then pretended not to notice his eyes narrow. They continued for another block, the silence between them growing in import. Eventually, he asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she said. She blinked again, still seeing traces of VLAD. “Saw something weird is all.”
“Dunno. All the way weird. Will tell you later.”
Bruce looked at her curiously, but she held her ground, knowing he wouldn’t dig too much. “Okay,” he said, relenting. “Want to do something then?” He cocked his hand up to his mouth and tilted it backwards, inhaling an imaginary beer.
“Smelling like this?” Stein said, smiling genuinely this time. She checked the time on her terminal. “Was supposed to meet Sergei in the bow for the countdown. But I’m not really feeling it.”
“You’ll be in trouble.”
“Ehh. I’m always a little in trouble. This will be no worse than the background levels of trouble.”
Bruce snorted. They reached an intersection. “See you tomorrow then, piss-girl?”
With a nod, Bruce turned and headed off towards the rest of his evening. Stein silently thanked him for not badgering her more. For a burglar, the big man had an excellent sense of when not to pry.
She turned the opposite direction and began walking home, passing a crew working on one of the ladders mounted to the ceiling. Up and down the length of the ladder, scorch marks dotted rungs that had recently been repaired or replaced. She stopped at America Street; her eyes followed the ladder north towards the bow. She’d brushed Sergei off the last time he’d tried making plans with her. And the time before that, actually. The static pressure of guilt was building up to the point where it could no longer safely be ignored. She smelled her hands. “Clean enough,” she declared. She set out towards the front of the ship.
Stopping on the lower tier, Stein saw she had made a mistake. The observation lounge was packed, every bench and table occupied with families, couples, and friends. People had started stretching out on the floor itself, daring their shipmates to tread on them, perhaps unwisely given the number of alcoholic beverages being consumed. A steady series of minor catastrophes unfolded in every direction she could see.
Turning her back to the huge curving expanse of the lounge window, she looked back at the entry of the lounge. Still filling up. She scanned the crowd. There. Sergei in his uniform, waving her over. Stein started picking her way through the crowd, moving parallel to the great window. The stars slowly spun past as she walked.
The great window was built up in square panels, three meters a side. The inner surface, the one with thousands of handprints, was a thin, transparent plastic sheet, put there exclusively to collect thousands of handprints. Next lay the pressure panels, twin layers of a thick polymer, there to support the pressure of the ship’s atmosphere. Beyond that, the exterior shielding was a two-meter-thick chunk of some exotic polycarbonate. The curvature of the intervening pressure layers kept this shield out of focus, but a careful eye could detect its presence from the pockmarks it wore, marking the graves of objects small and fast.
In the next few seconds, Stein stepped on a woman’s hand, hopped away, apologized, nearly crushed a small child, hopped away, and stepped on the woman’s other hand. Several more apologies and hurried escapes later, she arrived at Sergei’s bench. He slid over to make room for her, casting a meaningful look at the man on the other side of him, whom he had probably been arguing with about the space he was saving for his errant lady-friend. Stein offered a weak smile to the man, earning a sneer for her troubles.
Sergei leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Hey. I didn’t know if you’d come.”
“I’d hate to miss absolutely nothing,” she said, somewhat cruelly.
“Sorry,” she said, squeezing his hand.
He smiled, always so frustratingly pleasant. “Seeing nothing happen seems to be a popular choice tonight.” Which was a rarity—people on the Argos were rarely interested in the same thing at the same time. Nor were they normally this sedate; even the alcohol-fueled collisions seemed somehow subdued.
Like she did every time she came to the bow lounge—like most of the people were already doing—Stein looked up to the single stationary star in the sky. Not quite stationary anymore, but it was hard to see it moving. Where every other star in their field of vision was in motion, a single star stood almost in the center of it all, rotating imperceptibly.
“Maybe they’re hoping that nothing won’t happen?” she offered.
“If nothing didn’t happen that would mean…” Sergei trailed off. “What would that mean?
Slowly, the individual conversations died off. “What’s that smell?” Sergei asked, looking at his feet. Stein simply stared out the window. She wondered if anyone would count down.
“I wonder if anyone’s going to count down?” Sergei said. The man on his other side shushed him. No one did count down, though almost everyone had their eye on their terminals as the seconds slowly ticked down. Three. Two. One. Midnight.
A consummate showman, nothing happened right on schedule. The stars continued to rotate slowly by, oblivious to the gathered crowd and the sound of hundreds of people all drawing breath at the exact same time. Collectively a hundred different conversations started again, punctuated by clinking glasses and laughter.
“I’m surprised. I thought people would be more excited,” Sergei said. “Though I guess it was just a practice run.”
Stein wasn’t surprised at all. “You don’t seem excited.”
Sergei licked his lips. “Doesn’t feel real I guess. What? Only seven months away. Don’t know how to feel about it.”
“Kind of scared?”
“Me?” His cheekbones rose, halfway through a smile before he reconsidered. “Not scared exactly.”
“If you say so.” She turned back towards the window, people-watching as the crowd started to thin out. Someone at the front of the lounge caught her eye, a man right up against the window, his hand on the glass. He had something on his head, some kind of homemade helmet. She tilted her head and squinted. It looked like a pair of glass bowls taped together to form a transparent sphere.
Beside her, she felt Sergei tense. Stein looked at her sometime-lover’s face, saw his eyes fix on something. She followed his gaze to see the helmeted man, who had produced a hatchet from somewhere. He screamed something, the words muffled by his helmet, and raised the hatchet above his head.
“Oh, shit,” Stein said. Beside her, Sergei sprang forward.
The hatchet came down, cracking the inner plastic surface of the window. The blade twisted and jammed itself into the plastic, and as the man struggled to free it, Sergei plowed into the side of him, smashing him into the window, shattering the plastic barrier. Chunks of plastic rained down on the pair.
Pandemonium, bodies upon bodies pushing for the exits, desperate to escape. Another security officer arrived, helping Sergei free the hatchet from the man’s grasp and subdue him as gently as they knew how. Stein got to her feet but otherwise stayed put, out of the crush of people pushing for the exits. She relaxed a bit, seeing Sergei and the other officer get the maniac under control. More security officers arrived to help subdue the man more thoroughly.
As they dragged the fellow away, Sergei left his colleagues and returned to Stein, his face flushed, a single scratch along his forehead. He smiled, and she hesitated a moment before hugging him, sensing it was the appropriate reaction. She couldn’t have been completely wrong; he hugged back. Chin resting on his shoulder, she watched the stars, suddenly clearer with the plastic safety barrier gone. Instinctively, she looked up again to the nearly-fixed north star, getting her first clear look at the sun their ancestors had left behind.
Two hundred and forty years had passed since then, as the ISMV Argos slowly plowed its way to the star called Tau Prius and its third planet. The bulk of that long voyage had been spent coasting, the engines sitting idle as generations of passengers lived and died within the confines of the vast ship. Six months of acceleration had gotten the Argos up to its cruising speed, and once set in rotation to provide a semblance of gravity for its inhabitants, the Argos was again little different than the inert rock it had been carved from. Though it now moved at five percent the speed of light—an admittedly glamorous life for a rock.
Thanks to the hard work of Isaac Newton, the end of the trip would look much like the beginning, with the ship, now flipped around, decelerating for six months. According to the original itinerary, April 3rd, 239 A.L.—the date currently displayed on the front of every terminal—was the day that the brakes were to be hit. But plans had changed.
The Argos was running late.
Stein let the door to her apartment close behind her and leaned back on it, exhaling. After leaving the observation lounge, the arch in Sergei’s eyebrow gave away his hope for what the rest of the evening had in store. But the near suicide and lingering smell of urine had left Stein feeling distinctly unsexy, and when she’d firmly told him she was going home, he hadn’t forced the issue.
“Smart guy,” she said to herself as she lurched across the apartment to the bathroom. Sergei was sweet. She performed some mental gymnastics, imagining more weeks and months, maybe even years, in his company. She probably would be pretty happy with him, based on what she understood the word ‘happy’ to mean. But for a variety of reasons—none of them very clear, even to her—she still didn’t seem terribly interested in letting that happen.
After a quick shower, she returned to the living room and slumped on the couch. Her eyes drifted up to the lamp embedded in the ceiling. She blinked. No secret messages. What the hell was that all about? It was definitely something. Unless it wasn’t. The shapes were muddled, but definitely looked like letters. VLAD. Probably Vlad. Who the hell is Vlad?
She had been to doctors before. They had never said a thing about anything unusual in her eyes. Not that they had been looking for VLAD. But those guys had no problem telling her about her other faults; if they had known her eyes belonged to someone called Vlad, they would have said so.
They hadn’t exposed her to a blinding blue light though. She hadn’t seen anything like that before either, during any of her aboveground or subterranean wanderings. She was confident none of the regular electrical or mechanical systems could make that kind of light, having seen most of those systems violently malfunction at one point or another in her life. Besides which, there was nothing terribly exotic in or around that room, equipment-wise. She tried to piece together the sequence of events that had led up to the light. She had bumped something in the corner. Some kind of booby trap? What kind of self-important maniac thought art that crappy was worth booby trapping? And what kind of booby trap blinded someone with strange messages about eastern Europeans?
Bruce would know. She decided she would tell him the next morning. It had been smart not to tell him immediately—he would probably have gone back there that night with welding goggles and a sledgehammer to plunder the room like some kind of contemporary Viking. No, she would let him get his beauty sleep.
Stein got up from the couch and crossed the room to Mr. Beefy, the potted meat plant in the corner of the room, and the sole other living creature in the apartment. Mr. Beefy was a steak plant, a smaller version of the monsters in the meat farms downstairs. A metal armature of braces and feeding tubes supported several dangling ‘fruits’ swaying slightly under her touch. She poked thoughtfully at a couple of them, then adjusted the nutrient settings on the panel mounted into the plant base. “You’re all right, Mr. Beefy. Steady, not too lippy. And you never want to know where ‘this’ is going.” She patted the tree gently, then went to bed.