A kind of horror story with an SF setting. Originally published by Postscripts in 2010 and subsequently collected in The Peacock Cloak. The idea of ‘tardies’ came from a real-life creature.
The Desiccated Man
On the final leg of its twenty-month journey back to Little Earth from Doubters’ Rock, the starship Rio Quinto IX docked for maintenance at an unmanned torus station called New Vegas. Scores of small hive robots swarmed aboard and at once dispersed themselves through the ship and its cargo of samarium, searching for everything from electrical faults to infectious diseases. Since the complete process normally took about twelve hours, Jacob Stone, the Rio Quinto’s captain and sole crew member, availed himself of the opportunity of a little shore leave. It was an opportunity to stretch his legs and partake of a few diversions that were not on offer in his cramped captain’s quarters on the ship.
Picture Stone as a podgy pale-skinned man in his middle years with indifferent personal hygiene and poor social skills. There are reasons why people choose a career that will mean they spend most of their life alone in a space the size of a cramped one-bedroom apartment. Day to day, Jacob’s life had no meaning. He slept, he watched movies, he played video games, he slept some more. His dream, his sole dream, was to accumulate so much money that he would one day be the envy of men whose more conventional lives had been encumbered by such inconveniences as wives, children, families, workmates, friends. He often laughed to himself, alone in his quarters, surrounded by vast tracts of nothingness, to think of his generous untaxed salary accumulating, virtually untouched, in his bank account. Boy oh boy, would he show them! He was already well on the way to his second million.
Now he strolled alone along Main Street, New Vegas, illuminated and animated for his sole benefit, checking out the craic. There was Clancy’s Irish Bar, Yoko’s Geisha Paradise, the Good Ol’ Little Earth Bar, and Mr Wu’s Wonderful World of Food, each one with its name in bright lights, and its own cheery theme tune tinkling out into the street. Then there was the Simply Vegas Casino, Brando’s Old Time Movie Theatre, and the Vegas Forever Grocery and Souvenir Store. After that came the Wild West Saloon, the Gay Paree Revue Bar and Mrs Morgan’s Place, “the Great Little Whorehouse with the Heart of Gold”. Then came Donny’s Downloads, Vera’s Virtual Vehicle Rides, Pistol Pete’s Shootin’ Range, the Pocket Hilton Hotel (with its grand total of four bedrooms) and the Simply Peace chapel/temple/synagogue. (You could choose which religion when you went in). And then… well, then you were back at Clancy’s Irish Bar again because, like I said, New Vegas is a torus station. The street goes round the inside of it.
Jacob tried out Clancy’s, Mr Wu’s, the casino and Mrs Morgan’s. Inside these establishments, Jacob found various humorous, folksy and eccentric characters of both sexes, along with lots of pretty young girls and a few handsome young dudes. There were more of these folk out on the streets: Officer Murphy, for example, who stood outside Pete’s with his hands on his hips, surveying the scene with his sharp and humorous eyes, or Ol’ Pop Johnson on his rocking chair outside the Saloon, chewing his unlit pipe.
“Howdy Cap’n Stone. Long time no see, buddy,” Ol’ Pop called out.
“Howdy,” grunted Jacob, half-pleased and half-irritated.
All of these Vegas people were rooted to the spot on which they stood or sat or, in the case of some in Mrs Morgan’s, lay. All of them were controlled by the same single computer and all of them had spent the two-and-a-half months since the previous starship left, motionless and in pitch darkness. In New Vegas, the music played and the lights twinkled and the faces came alive only when a spaceman docked and crossed over from his ship.
Jacob was paying a second visit to the restaurant, dining alone on a synthetic pap said to “have all the spice and excitement of Old Bangkok”, when the game show playing on the TV over the bar was interrupted for some news.
“Hey folks,” said the handsome anchorman, “this is a news flash brought to you by NVBC. We have a new visitor! Following the arrival a few hours ago of respected starways veteran Captain Jacob Stone we are now also hosting the Exocon Enterprise V and her up-and-coming head honcho Captain Doug Hempleman.”
“Looks like you’ve got company Mr Stone!” said Mr Wu from behind the bar. Mrs Wu and all three of the pretty animatronic waitresses looked over at Jacob and smiled.
They were decorative only, of course, those waitresses, since they were unable to walk. One of them also had a missing arm.
“Yeah I guess,” said Jacob without enthusiasm, wiping his mouth.
“Exocon Enterprise V,” said the newsman on the TV screen, “is one of the new Class-F multi-function ships that we’ve heard so much about lately, currently carrying cerium extraction equipment to Trixie Dixie colony from Proxima-3.”
“You know Doug Hempleman, Captain Jake?” asked Mrs Wu.
“Never heard of him.”
“He’s quite a guy,” Mr Wu said with a chuckle. “You should stay a few days, Captain, maybe check in to the Hilton, and hang out with Doug for a while. You two would get on like a house on fire.”
“Check into the Hilton?” Jacob Stone gave a hollow laugh. “Check into that dump, when I can sleep for free in my own berth back on ship? That’s not how I got to be a millionaire, buddy.”
Mr Wu raised his animatronic hands creakily in humorous surrender.
“You’re the boss, Captain Jake, you’re the boss.”
“Haven’t got much time for young guys who get themselves given a fancy F-class ship and think they’re it,” growled Jacob. “Still, guess I’ll check him out. It might fill up an hour. This guy play cards at all?”
“Spent an hour or two last time playing the guys down at the Saloon. There he is now, look.”
From the TV screen looked down a still picture of a pleasant and surprisingly normal-looking man in his early thirties.
“Hmm,” said Jacob sourly. “Barely more than a kid. Think they’re it don’t they? Think they’re bloody it.”
He shook his head in a world-weary way.
“What kind of a card player is he anyway?” he asked after a time.
“Pretty good, I heard,” said Mr Wu.
“Pretty good? Just pretty good? Maybe I should teach him a lesson.”
The two men met on Main Street, outside the Wild West Saloon. Inevitably, after months of solitude, they regarded each other at first with wariness and suspicion. But Hempleman quickly mastered this initial feeling, and stepped forward with a pleasant smile and his hand extended in greeting.
“Hi! Doug Hempleman. You must be Jacob!”
His grip was firm and strong.
“Yup,” said Jacob indifferently. “You a card player at all?”
He looked Hempleman up and down with unconcealed dislike. The other captain was twenty years younger than him, strikingly good-looking, and very trim. He was one of those, Jacob saw at once, who worked out every day in the little gym which every starship company, by law, provided for its crew. An hour a day was recommended by the doctors, but Jacob had no time for the damned things.
“Yes, sure,” said Hempleman. “I like a game of cards. Maybe a drink first though? What do you say?”
Jacob shrugged, looked at his watch, and ungraciously assented, as if he was fitting Doug in reluctantly before a more rewarding engagement. They made their way to Clancy’s and ordered beers.
“Nice to see you guys hooking up,” said rosy-cheeked Mick Clancy from behind his bar, lifting the chemically synthesised drinks from the dispenser and placing them in front of the two space captains. Like several of the denizens of New Vegas, Mick was in need of repair. Part of his right ear was missing, and only his left eye blinked.
“Been at this game long?” Doug asked Jacob.
“Thirty-two standard years,” Jacob said with grim pride. “Never more than three weeks planetside during that whole time.”
“Jesus!” said Hempleman. “What kind of life is that? I’ve done this run three times – six years of my life – and this is the last. Then I’m buying my own little place by the sea in Prox-3 and giving up the starways for good. In eighteen months time it’ll be over, thank God. There’s a lovely woman waiting for me back on Prox – I met her last time I was home – and we’re going to get married as soon as I get back.”
He fumbled in a pocket and handed a picture viewer to Jacob.
“This is her,” he said, “this is my Helen. I can’t tell you how much I miss her!”
Jacob let the viewer run through its sequence of images. Helen smiled, pulled a face, struck a mock-sexy pose, laughed. She did look lovely. She might not be quite as flawlessly pretty as some of the hundred thousand women whose images Jacob kept in his on-board entertainment system, but she was pretty all the same and she also looked funny and warm and kind. Unlike many of Jacob’s hundred thousand, she looked liked a real human being. Jacob shrugged and handed the viewer back.
“Nothing but trouble, women, if you ask me,” said Jacob. “F and F, that’s my motto. Fuck ’em and forget ’em.”
Doug looked at him appraisingly.
“Not much time even for that, eh, Jake, if you never stay planetside for more than a few weeks? No, I wouldn’t be without my Helen, not for anything. Meeting her was like… like finding water in a desert… like I’d been hollow and empty up to that point and suddenly found I had a heart.”
His voice became a little wobbly at this point and he paused in order to get his emotions under control. The life of a space captain can be a very lonely thing.
“Two more years,” he said. “That’s what we agreed. Two years apart. Build up the savings we need for a life we can really share together, and then no more wandering for me. Two years for me that is: it’s four for her of course, which I do feel badly about, but then I tell myself that at least for her it’s not time spent completely alone, so it’ll pass a lot more quickly.”
Again Jacob shrugged.
“Depends what you want, I suppose,” he said coolly. “Me, I’m going for the real money.”
Doug gazed into the middle distance. It was painfully obvious to Jacob that the other space captain had already grown bored of him.
“Anyway, Jake my friend,” Doug said, bringing himself, with an effort, back to the present moment, “weren’t the two of us about to have a game of cards?”
It wasn’t much of a present moment to come back to, a plastic mock-up of an Irish bar surrounded by millions of miles of void, where the chemically synthesised drinks were served by a puppet with a broken blink mechanism. But Doug smiled kindly at Jacob, realising that, to him, this was virtually the whole world.
“Minimum stake of five dollars suit you, buddy?” he asked.
Jacob snorted derisively. He was determined to get one up on prettyboy Hempleman with his pretty girlfriend and all.
“Five?” he guffawed as he sat himself down at the card table. “That’s not real money. A hundred, and rising in steps of a hundred. Or there’s no point in playing.”
“Well…uh… okay,” Doug agreed and touched the button to tell the machine to deal out the first hand. “I guess we can always stop if we want to.”
An hour later and Jacob had lost nine thousand dollars. Things were not going according to plan.
“You had enough, Jake?” Hempleman asked him mildly. “You’ve been a very good sport. I must admit if it’d been me, I’d have dropped out when I was five hundred down.”
Jacob made a contemptuous sound.
“Nine thousand is nothing. Not to a millionaire like me. Cards aren’t coming up right that’s all. Bound to happen sometimes. Last time I played I won five million.”
Again Doug regarded him gently but appraisingly, in a way that Jacob was rapidly growing to hate. He felt sure that Hempleman knew quite well that the five million win had been against a simulated player on the Rio Quinto’s on-board entertainment system, set to “medium skill”.
“You really want to carry on then?” Doug said.
Jacob touched the button for more cards. Prettyboy Hempleman might be able to see right through him, but Jacob wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of proving his perceptions to be correct.
“Yeah, sure, may as well,” Jacob said, “I guess it passes the time…”
Jacob lived for money – money was the only measure by which he could deem his own life to have been a success – so he hated the thought of losing any part of his precious stash. But one thing he hated more was the idea that this young whippersnapper, with his class-F ship and his pretty fiancée, might think he’d got one over on him.
How to end the game without looking like he was pulling out, though? He’d lost another five grand before a plan finally came to him.
“Got some passengers on board my ship,” he informed the other captain archly.
“Passengers? Really?” Hempleman was very surprised. “I could have sworn your ship was a standard C-class mineral transporter.”
“Correct. It’s a standard C-class. No fancy F-class for me.”
“I’m sorry Jake, I’m just not getting this. You have passengers in a mineral freight hold?”
Then Hempleman gave a strained laugh.
“I’m a fool,” he said. “You’re joking, aren’t you, Jake? If you’d really had passengers they’d be here with us in Vegas. They wouldn’t be waiting back on your ship.”
“They are on my ship,” said Jacob, “and they are in the mineral freight hold, and they’re real passengers who paid their own fare. I bet you can’t tell me how come.”
“Not a clue, but I’ve an idea that you’re about to tell me.”
Jacob regarded Doug more archly than ever, savouring his own knowledge and the other’s ignorance.
“They’re tardies,” he said at length, “that’s why. Going to Little Earth for some sort of meeting or something, their agent said. Do you know what a tardy is?”
“Yeah. Sure. Hey, wow, that’s really something. I’ve heard of them, of course, but I’ve never seen one.”
“Like to see them?”
“Yeah. Yeah sure. I really would.” Doug laughed. “Man, when you check into one of these dumps you really don’t expect to see anything that’s actually interesting or real. But tardies, wow!”
Jacob sighed, as if he were constantly being pestered about this, and it was starting to play on his nerves. But inwardly he smiled. He could see that Doug had completely forgotten the game.
“Yeah,” he grunted, “everyone wants to see them.”
“Of course they do. Little aliens from far away. The first truly intelligent alien species. Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to see them?”
“Yeah, well I’ve got a whole tribe of them I’m taking to Little Earth,” said Jacob.
“A whole tribe, wow!” Doug exclaimed.
He considered this for a moment.
“Come to think of it,” he said. “It’d have to be a whole tribe, wouldn’t it? From what I’ve heard and read they’ll travel as far as anyone wants them to go, but only if all their kin go with them. That’s so isn’t it? I’ve got that right? They’re very family minded?”
“Can’t say I know or care, to be honest. Want to come and check them out?”
“Sure! Let’s go.”
Doug Hempleman jumped up from the card table, Jacob noticed, without even glancing at the unfinished game.
“Bingo!” he said to himself.
They headed back to the station’s hub and crossed from there over the bridge to the Rio Quinto. Doug screwed up his nose as they entered Jacob’s squalid quarters and tried not to look at the mouldy plate and mug, the stained sheets, the squalid toilet with the door left open. They went to the hold airlock and put on pressure suits, then entered the airless hold itself.
Jacob turned on the lights. Huge containers packed with samarium stretched out in front of them in stacks four metres high. Stepping over a couple of small hive robots from the station that were scuttling from one maintenance task to the next, he led his guest along a gangway that ran down the centre of the hold.
“Their planet has an eccentric orbit, apparently,” said Doug, speaking over the radio link between the two suits. “Half the year it never falls below 100 centigrade and there’s no liquid water. The other half of the year it’s warm and pleasant like Little Earth or Prox. Isn’t that right?”
“If you say so,” said Jacob.
They reached a container at floor level at the far end which differed from all the others in that it was painted white. Jacob opened a small door and turned on a light.
“Oh wow!” breathed Doug as they entered the chamber.
He was immediately entranced.
In the olive groves that ringed the crystal blue oceans of Prox-3, there were little creatures called cicadas that the early colonists had imported from Old Earth. Sometimes, walking in the hills, you’d find the discarded skin of one: hard, fragile, transparent and almost weightless, with eyes, wing cases and limbs just like the living creature, but completely hollow and dry. The tardies, about thirty of them, strapped in little seats down each side of the brightly lit container, looked very much like those empty skins. They were transparent too, and hard and fragile.
But these had hands and feet and little faces. They were unmistakably people, very small perhaps, less than half a metre tall, but people nevertheless. And they weren’t really empty shells either, even if they looked that way. Their flesh was actually still there, shrivelled so much that it was just a dried-up smear inside the hard transparent surface. If the tardies were rehydrated these skins would fill out again with living tissues, and soften, and they would grow and move and come back to life.
“They’re beautiful,” said Doug. “Quite beautiful. You’re lucky to have them, Jake. I wish I had some on my ship to look after.”
He walked slowly between the two rows of seats, studying each individual in turn.
“Hello there, little fellow. I wonder what your name is?… Oh and good day to you my dear lady, you look very much like you might be the one in charge.”
Hempleman turned and beamed at Captain Stone.
“I bet you come down here all the time to check them out, don’t you?” he said. “I know if it was me I wouldn’t be able to keep away.”
“Not really. Got better things to do.”
“Better things? On a space freighter? You’ll have to tell me your secret, buddy.”
He turned back to the tardies.
“What happens when it’s time, you know, to rehydrate them?”
“Not my job. I deliver the box. Someone at the other end sees to the rest.”
“Sure,” said Doug. “It’s just that they are pretty unique creatures, you know. Their planet is so far away – they must have been travelling for many years before you took them on board – and they’re pretty much unheard of in this sector. If I had on them on my ship, well, I would have wanted to find out as much as…”
But, realising it was rude to criticise Jacob’s lack of curiosity, he broke off and answered his question himself.
“You just fill the chamber with moist air, is what I’ve read,” he said matter-of-factly. “Fill it with moist air and they’ll slowly come back to life. Or most of them will. Apparently one per cent or so rehydrate with the others, and show signs of life, but then immediately die. I guess it doesn’t matter how well-adapted they are, you can’t completely dry out a living organism without the risk of doing some damage to it.”
He looked up and down the rows.
“Which means there’s a distinct chance that one of these guys is not going to make it.” He frowned, looking round him at the empty transparent shapes. “I wonder if that’s the case, and if so which? It’s weird that you can’t tell.”
“Not my problem.”
Hempleman glanced at his fellow space captain with a slightly troubled frown.
“Uh, I guess not. Wow, will you just look at these little kids here! They’re tiny aren’t they? Imagine how cute they’ll be when they come back to life.”
The little dried up figures delighted him.
“They’re so light, so… insubstantial. A breath of wind could blow them away.”
“Yeah,” Stone said, “and a fist could smash one of them to bits.”
Hempleman winced but did not respond.
“Hey! Look at those two right at the end,” he presently exclaimed, “sitting together on one seat. What’s the story there? I don’t suppose you know do you?”
“Just got married, apparently, or whatever the heck tardies call it,” grunted Jacob. “Guy who shipped them told me that she was from a different tribe or something. Scared to be alone, or some such.”
Doug went to the diminutive pair and squatted down in front of them.
“She’s holding his hand. Imagine that. Holding his hand and looking at him. And him looking at her.”
With immense care he reached out his big, clumsy space-suited hand and touched their tiny joined fingers.
“Lucky devils,” he said. “One minute they are getting drowsy in the dehydration chamber – that’s how it feels to them, apparently, like going to sleep – the next they’re waking up again together. Not like me and Helen. Another eighteen months we’ve still got to get through the slow way, day by day by bloody day, until we see each other again. Eighteen months for me, three years for her. No other way to reach her except through months and months of nothingness. The worst part is that for the whole of the next six months I’ll still be travelling away from her.”
He straightened up, stood looking at the little alien couple for few more seconds, then turned away. With contempt, Jacob noticed tears in the other space captain’s eyes.
“Well,” said Doug Hempleman, “better get back to the bloody old Exocon I guess. Get ready for the final haul out to Trixie Dixie, that godforsaken hole. I’m done with New Vegas.”
Back in the malodorous captain’s quarters he shook Jacob’s hand.
“Nice to have met you, Jake, and all the best with the rest of your journey. Thanks so much for showing me those tardies. The highlight of my voyage they’ve been I can tell you, the highlight of all my voyages in fact.”
“Well,” said Jacob Stone ungraciously, “they say there’s no accounting for taste.”
“Oh and by the way,” said Hempleman, “don’t worry about the money for the cards, huh? It was just in fun really, wasn’t it? And I’d have happily paid you twice that much just for a peek at those little tardy guys in there.”
“Okay buddy,” said Jacob, smirking to himself, as Doug returned over the bridge. “I’ll try my best not to worry. I’ll certainly try my best.”
Jacob went back down to Vegas, with its colourful lights and its jolly music (honky-tonk outside the Saloon, the Can-Can outside the Gay Paree, “Molly Malone” outside Clancy’s). He bought a snack at Mr Wu’s and made a couple of circuits of Main Street, accepting enthusiastic greetings from all the friendly animatronic characters: Mr Wu, Officer Murphy, big Momma Jackson, Ol’ Pop Johnson in his rocking chair.
“Howdy there, Captain Stone. You on your way again soon, I guess?”
Their folksy cheeriness would turn to stillness and silence as soon as he’d rejoined his ship, and Main Street would plunge into a darkness that might be unbroken for weeks or even months, but now they behaved like they’d spent the whole four years since Jacob’s last visit talking about him fondly, chuckling over his wry remarks, and looking forward to his return.
“I often smile to myself when I think about what you said to me last time,” said Officer Murphy. “ ‘How can a cop catch bad guys when his feet are fixed to the floor?’ That’s what you said, you sly dog. Good one Captain, good one. Still makes me smile.”
But Jacob was bored with Main Street – the illusion of companionship was thin from the outset and it didn’t last – and he settled for a bit of drinking instead. He had a “whiskey” in Clancy’s, a “cognac” in the Gay Paree and a “bourbon” in the Good Ol’ Little Earth. All the drinks tasted vile and all pretty much the same, but they contained the prerequisite amount of ethanol. He followed them up with a chaser in Yoko’s, a nightcap in the Wild West Saloon and one for the road at Mrs Morgan’s gloomily watching an animatronic stripper gyrating round a pole. (She had one finger broken on her right hand. It dangled limply on a piece of wire.) Then he returned to the Rio Quinto to try and sleep.
He was not at ease though. He was agitated. The normal, sluggish, barely conscious flow of his life had been disrupted. There was something he needed to do to put it back in its regular channel but he couldn’t think what it was. Only as he was lowering himself onto the crumpled sheets of his berth (as usual neglecting to remove his clothes or clean his teeth), did inspiration finally came to the drunken brain of Captain Jacob Stone.
He smiled grimly, sat back up again, and went to his toolbox to select a fine-pointed awl.
Jacob turned on the big hold lights and made his way slowly and unsteadily down the gangway between the containers of samarium, his breathing loud and laboured inside his helmet. He headed straight for the specially adapted container that held the thirty tardies, and then wobbled along between the rows of seats until he reached the two newlyweds on their single seat at the end.
“Hey there my beauties,” said Jacob. “Hey there my pretty lovebirds. Old Daddy Stone has a little surprise for you when you get to Little Earth.”
He leaned forward, peering into their delicate, empty, transparent faces, examining first the male, then the female and then the male again, patting the awl gently against his left hand all the while, as if he were an artist trying to decide the final brushstroke on some great masterpiece.
“Which one of you, eh? Which of you little lovebirds wants to be the one that wakes?”
Finally he made a choice.
He knelt, awkwardly and with much wheezing, in front of the dry shell of the young wife, reached behind the hollow bubble of her head, and pressed his little awl against the hard but fragile surface until it broke through into the small dried lump against the back of the skull that he surmised, correctly, to be her desiccated brain.
“Like the guy said, there’s often one or two of you that wake up and then die. People expect that. There’s often one or two.”
He hauled himself, wheezing, back onto his feet, then stood for a moment, swaying, to admire his handiwork.
“A neat job though I say it myself,” said Captain Stone.
He leaned forward into the empty transparent face, which was like a sculpture made out of blown glass.
“What do you think sweetheart?” he asked it. “Done you proud, wouldn’t you say?”
He laughed wheezily.
“Certainly done you anyway.”
He looked round and gave the husband a little avuncular pat on the head.
“Never mind, my dried-up buddy. Fuck ’em and forget ’em, that’s old Daddy Stone’s advice.”
He laughed again at that, but when he turned and began to stagger back between the seats, he was trembling. And he shrank away from the gaze of the two rows of empty transparent eyes.
“What? What’s your problem? Some of you die anyway. You heard the guy say it himself. You heard Mr Expert Tardy-lover. Some of you die every time. It might have been her anyway for all you know.”
He reached the low door of the container.
“Think yourselves lucky I left your tribe alone, eh? That’s what your buddy Hempleman said, isn’t it? Your Mr Nice Guy. It’s the tribe that counts for you people. At least I respected that.”
Jacob slept for fourteen hours or more at a time. And when he wasn’t sleeping he watched movies and played video games, and ate and drank, and looked at pictures of girls, and watched more movies, and thought about the money building up in his bank account. Just beyond the wall of his tiny quarters blazed the universe, but he paid it no heed.
“One million eight hundred and forty two thousand federation dollars. Lick that, Mr Nice Guy Hempleman, with your little house by the sea.”
He never entered the white container again and tried not to look at it when he had to go into the hold, but he didn’t give much thought to what he had done in there.
“It was only a pin-prick after all,” he’d mutter, “and she might not have woken anyway, just like Hempleman said. And they’re not really alive either, are they? It’s not as if they were human or anything.”
Then he’d let his mind drift to more pleasant things.
“One million eight hundred and forty two thousand dollars. How about that!”
And pretty soon it would be time to lie down again and sleep until the ship woke him to carry out his next round of daily checks.
This was his actual job, stipulated in his contract. The ship ran itself, but every standard day he was required to spend thirty minutes running through checks to establish whether any one of fifteen possible trigger events had occurred which might require human intervention to safeguard the ship and its cargo. None of them had ever occurred, not just on this voyage but on any of the voyages in all the thirty-two standard years that Jacob had spent riding spaceships back and forth across the void. Every single one of them would have passed off just as well if he hadn’t been there at all. He was called captain but as it had turned out, he’d only ever been a passenger, or maybe a janitor at a pinch.
And after another six months the Rio Quinto IX, without its captain’s help, duly put itself into orbit around the planet of Little Earth. Without his help, the ship negotiated with the planetary authorities. Without his help, robot shuttles docked at the Rio Quinto’s bow and drew out the one hundred containers from the hold, four at a time, the tardies’ container being in the first batch.
Unloading took the better part of a day, with Jacob monitoring the whole process from a screen in his quarters (for it happened that no less than three of those fifteen prescribed triggers were events that could occur only during loading and unloading). He was in no hurry. He didn’t enjoy the descent to a planet surface. It wasn’t easy, after all this time, to emerge from his little den into the great gravity well of a habitable world, and see the ocean and clouds and continents, and to know that there was a whole complicated world of human relationships waiting down there, talking, arguing, laughing, doing deals, making love, and just generally getting along perfectly well without him.
When there were only eight containers of samarium left in the hold, and Jacob was waiting for a shuttle to come for the next batch, he was irritated to see instead a government launch docking alongside the external airlock. It was some sort of safety regulations check-up, he supposed. It happened from time to time in the more officious and metropolitan jurisdictions such as that of Little Earth. Safety people came on board with checklists and questions, and told him off for not keeping the gym in working condition, or not changing the air filter often enough. Jacob Stone sighed.
And was taken completely by surprise when five armed police officers came bursting in.
“I’m Lieutenant Gladheart Niyibizi,” their leader told him, “and I am putting you under arrest.
He really was bewildered.
“For murder.” She put handcuffs on him, indicating to the other officers that they should begin their search of the ship. “These are your rights, Mr Stone. You are not obliged to speak, but anything you say…”
“Murder? What? I’ve been in space these last two years for Chrissakes! Who could I murder in space?”
“One of your tardy charges, Captain Stone.”
“Jesus,” muttered Jacob.
For one brief moment it came to him just how much trouble he had managed to get himself into and just how wicked a thing he had done. Then he gave a characteristic snort of dismissal and contempt.
“That little tardy? What a lot of nonsense! It was only a pinprick, and anyway she wasn’t really alive. So how could that be murder?”
“I’ll show you something,” said the lieutenant, linking her data pack to his system.
On his screen appeared the tardies, still sitting in their seats somewhere down on the planet surface, while their container was filled with moisture-saturated air.
“These particular tardies are converts to the Universal Church,” said the Lieutenant. “I suppose you knew that? They’ve spent a total of nine years travelling across space to get here for the Church’s General Synod, which only happens once every hundred standard years. It’s a big occasion, a big fuss is going to be made of them, and they agreed to let their rehydration be filmed so that the whole gathering could see it.”
“The agent guy said they were religious or some such.”
As the tardies’ dessicated bodies absorbed the water, they trembled and quivered and jerked. They would have fallen to the floor if they hadn’t been strapped to their seats. And Jacob could see the flesh rapidly expanding inside the apparently empty transparent skins. As they filled out, the tardies stopped being transparent and began to look solid. They were no longer empty shells but small silvery-coloured people. At one end of the chamber, presumably the end where the moisture was being introduced, some of them began to move.
One of them unbuckled her seat-belt. She stood up and stretched. Nearby an adult male was reaching out to one of the little children. The child had also woken and was tugging crossly at her belt. A couple of seats further down another, smaller female unbuckled and stood up. She looked back at the children too for a moment but then her attention was abruptly drawn away by something happening at the far end of the chamber.
The camera followed her gaze and at once the scene changed from one of calm, slow reawakening to one of crisis and desperation. The newly married husband was holding his wife’s threshing body, his head turned away from her to shout for help. Not only was his wife’s body twisted by violent convulsions, but something had gone terribly wrong with the rehydration process inside her head. Her newly reconstituted eyes were not looking out of the hollows that they were meant to see from, but were pressing up against the top of her transparent skull, staring out horribly in two different directions.
The young husband fumbled with her seat belt to release her, still yelling all the while. Other tardies came rushing forward. As they lifted and turned her, her convulsions were already subsiding into limpness. And then a gaping hole became visible in the back of her head. Lieutenant Niyibizi froze the picture as the camera closed in on the wound.
“Well that was nothing to do with me,” grumbled Jacob Stone. “I just gave her a little pin-prick with a tiny little awl.”
The lieutenant looked at him in disbelief.
“You’ve had all this time to think about it. Did it not occur to you for one moment, Mr Stone, that a pin-prick might get bigger when the flesh expanded?”
“Uh, I guess.”
The lieutenant pushed a button on her wrist and instructed her officers to find the awl.
“And what was the purpose of that little pin-prick, Mr Stone? Do you deny you meant to kill her?”
“She wasn’t alive anyway. No more than that mug over there, no more than that plastic fork.”
In the trial Jacob Stone offered no defence at all other than repeating at every opportunity, and with increasing irritation, “It was only a pin-prick” and “She wasn’t really alive”. Nor did he show any remorse or provide any explanation except for boredom and being drunk.
Stone’s face was indifferent as he was led off at the end to spend the remainder of his life in jail. It was as if he was saying, “You do what you like with me, I don’t give a damn.” But then, of course, he had already spent most of his adult life by choice in a tiny space not so very much bigger than a Little Earth prison cell. All that had really been taken away from him was the prospect of anything different at the end.
And truthfully he’d never been able to conceive of doing much more with his money than spending it in some sort of up-market version of New Vegas, with better and more realistic puppets, and whiskey that tasted real. His imagination didn’t stretch much further than that. And nor did his shrivelled heart.
Copyright 2010, Chris Beckett