Masks by Stewart C. Baker [sci-fi]

Imprint - SciFi Imprint Logo 200wMasks by Stewart C. Baker

Min can tell by the way the man in the lizard mask drums the fingers of one hand on the surface of his desk that he is angry. She avoids the bright green glimmer of his eyes, wishing she were anywhere but here. Wishing she remembered who she was supposed to be.

“This is all you bring me?” the man asks, his voice raspy with distortion. In his other hand he holds the latest chip Min has stolen, heavy with data on Ship’s communications to the other surviving colony ships and its route away from Earth-long-gone.

Min says nothing. She is not strong enough to answer, cut off and alone as she is.

The man grunts; his lizard-tongue flickers out of the mask and dances across the chip. His eyes glimmer to blackness as he decrypts the data it contains; his fingers stop drumming and begin to twitch and spasm on the desk’s austere surface.

When his tongue retracts and his fingers still, he lets out a long, slow hiss. “Whatever the navigators are hiding, it is not here,” he says, and the chip bursts into flame.

Min flinches, although she should be used to such theatrics by now.

“Go,” the man tells her when the chip has burned to ash. “Twenty-four hours, little spy. Do not fail me again.”

The threat stirs something in her she hadn’t known was there. A subtle, quiet warmth that seems to spread out from somewhere deep inside her brain. She lifts her eyes from the tiny pile of bone-white powder on the desk and sets her jaw. “Then tell me what it is you want. Let me remember all this, when I am whoever-I-am up there, and I will bring it straight to your hands. Stop this pointless—”

“Enough,” says the man, his voice quiet but hard. His fingers begin their drumming again, and his eyes shine so bright that they escape his face. They are everywhere, they are endless, they are twin suns going nova. The familiar pressure builds up at the base of her skull, and then the world explodes.

***

Almost there. Hush now, child, hush now.

Hands pull her up, caress her, soothing in their warmth. Nothing she can do is wrong. Nothing she can do is bad. She is loved. She is part of a greater whole.

She fades away to nothing.

***

Min lies curled up and shivering on the cold titanium floor of the lift as it ascends, the implant-node on the back of her neck burning with a surge of backlogged data. She does not need to look to know it is an angry red beneath her cropped black hair, and the flesh around the indestructible node pale with scratch marks.

Another blackout, and this time barely a week after the last episode. As usual, there are a dozen messages from Külli. Those she sets aside for later, though she can already hear the anger in her wife’s voice, the worry that lies beneath it. Once the backlog clears, she reaches out to Ship through the node, but the data it feeds her answers nothing: Navigatrix-ensign Min, last Ship-level active 192a, timestamp 040899/19689; current Ship-level 176 and rising, timestamp 160108/19689.

Min winces at the timestamps—she’s been out for nearly half a day, much longer than ever before—then struggles to her feet, leaning against the handrail as the blood rushes from her head. She picks little flecks of her skin out from under her fingernails, wishing they could tell her where she’s been, what she’s been doing.

The door chimes open on the hab-deck, and she steps out into its gentle artificial sunlight. Her quarters aren’t far and when she arrives, Külli is waiting outside, arms crossed over her chest, hands tucked into her underarms. Her eyes are raw with crying, but Min can see no trace of tears.

***

Navigator-Chief Nkosi’s personal office is small, without even a proper desk. With Min and Külli, as well as the Chief himself, packed in together, there is barely room to move.

“Sorry for this,” Nkosi says. He is dressed in the blue-and-white uniform and bright gold cape that make up his official regalia, and his eyes are focused on a nav-screen folded out of one wall—a clunky and outdated piece of equipment for someone so high in Ship’s hierarchy. “But you didn’t give me enough notice to get one of the consultation rooms, and I have work to do.”

“No sir,” Min says, but before she can apologize further for the disruption to his schedule, Külli overrides her.

“Look,” she says, “you know why we’re here. You have to. So let’s skip all this posturing and get to the point: how long are you going to ignore these episodes of Min’s, and when are you going to do something about them?”

Min’s mouth goes dry. Ship’s hierarchy is paramount, and for Külli, who isn’t even part of the Navigation department, to address its chief this way is practically criminal. But Nkosi doesn’t seem to care. He is still looking at the screen, his forehead creased in concentration, muttering something under his breath that she can’t quite hear. He makes a few swipes at the device with one finger, then looks over at them both and sighs.

“They have been getting worse lately,” he says. “Closer together, too. But I’m not sure what it is you would have us do about it.”

“Ask Ship.”

Nkosi smiles. “We have of course consulted Ship already, and it denies she is even dropping off the Network. The Techs are working to explore why this is, but unless you have a suggestion on how they might do their jobs better…?”

Külli’s shoulders slump, and she shakes her head mutely. She came here expecting a fight, Min knows, not reconciliation. And for all her good qualities, her wife has never been good at thinking on her feet.

“In any case,” Nkosi continues, “I’ll have the Techs send you copies of their reports on the matter as a courtesy, but I’m afraid that’s all I can do.” He flips the nav-screen closed with a snap. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must get back to work.”

“Of course, Sir,” Min says. “I hope we have not caused you any problems.”

Nkosi smiles at that. “Oh no, Ensign. On the contrary; you’ve been most helpful.” He exchanges a glance with Külli and before Min can think to ask what he means, he is out of the room, cape flapping behind him.

Once he is gone, Külli growls in frustration. “He knows. That arrogant bastard knows exactly what the problem is, and he wants it to continue.”

“Külli!” Min hisses, sticking her head into the hallway to be sure Nkosi is really gone. “You can’t speak about him that way. If he hears he’ll have you—”

“He’ll do nothing,” Külli says. “He’s toying with us, Min! With you. I bet they told Ship to respond how it did. I bet they…what are you doing?

Min freezes. Somehow, without her noticing it, she has opened Nkosi’s nav-screen and is keying in a passcode she definitely should not know. She’s lost control of her body; she wants to tell Külli to leave, quick, to get Nkosi back in here before it passes, but her voice won’t work. She tries to send out a warning through her implant-node, but all she gets is static.

Külli steps up next to her just as the screen switches to show table after table of navigation data—data that claims that Ship hasn’t so much as moved in over two decades. Külli frowns. “That can’t be right. Something must be wrong with this thing. Min, are you…”

Min shudders as a buzzing sensation travels down her spine from the implant-node, which is burning hot against the base of her neck. Time jumps, and she’s—

—pressed against a wall by a woman she’s never seen before, a woman who’s calling out her name as though they’re close, but who holds a stunner in one upraised hand and has one of her arms twisted up behind her back. The data. She has to get the data.

Min slams the palm of her free hand into the woman’s nose and the woman collapses to the floor, face a bloody mess. Grimacing at the pain in her arm, Min turns back to the nav-screen, which is spooling log after log into the chip she’s placed in its data port. The woman on the floor moans, and Min leans down—

—over Külli’s inert form, blood on her hands as her wife lies there unmoving, a stunner just beyond one of her hands.

Stars beyond, what have I done?

And then that buzzing again, that burning, that sensation of pressure building up behind her eyes.

***

Hush now, child. This will be the last time, we promise.

Down into darkness as cold as the vacuum of space, hand after hand releasing her until, with a jolt of electric agony, they are gone. She cries out, but no one responds.

***

The man in the lizard mask holds the data chip before him in the forefingers of both hands and smiles, the expression visible in the narrowing of his eyes, in the way the mask rises up slightly to reveal the tip of his chin. “From Nkosi’s nav-screen itself? How bold.” Even his voice, with its distorted accoustics, sounds somehow more pleasant.

“Yes,” Min says. “I…” she begins, planning to tell him about the woman she fought, but her implant-node hums and crackles and the details of the struggle recede. She has worked with the man in the lizard mask for long enough to know that half-accurate information is worse than none at all, and so she shakes her head and snaps her mouth closed.

The man does not notice. He is turning the chip over and over again in his hands, head bent low, as though he can find what he seeks with his eyes alone. At last he sits straight in his seat and flicks out his lizard-tongue, just as Min has witnessed countless times before. But this time, it is different: his eyes widen as his tongue touches the chip, and he screams, the sound of his voice dopplering up until it is so high in pitch it is almost inaudible.

Min jumps up from her seat, heart pounding in her throat. Come here, a voice inside her head suggests, the malice it contains like nothing she has ever heard, or you will be next. She claps her hands over her ears to shut it out, then staggers to the door, which is locked and will not open. Behind her, the man in the lizard mask has gone silent, and she dares a look back at him only to find that he is nowhere to be seen.

You cannot escape me so easily, little traitor. Little spy.

A hissing sound arises behind her as she hammers at the door, yanking it open and half-running, half-falling from the room into a hallway thick with dust, dark and empty. She has gone only a few jolting steps when her implant-node explodes with heat, sending burning light up and into her brain.

The last thing she hears is laughter, manic and alien.

***

When Min awakes again, she is in one of Ship’s hospital rooms. The walls are alive with a scene from Earth-long-gone: ocean waves at sunset, with gently waving palms in the foreground. The bed is soft and clean, its sheets smelling faintly of soap. The door slides open, and Külli and Navigator-Chief Nkosi walk in.

“Ah,” Külli says. “You are awake.”

Min shivers at the sound of her voice, which has none of the warmth she remembers. “Külli?” she asks

“If you wish,” the woman says. But she smiles so perfunctorily that Min is sure she is not.

Nkosi steps between them, mouth tight in a grimace. “This would go more easily had you not burned out your implant-node, Ship-construct Min. This woman is Inquisitrix Lang, and she has been on the hunt for a rogue Tech named Aslim for years. You were split off from Ship to act as a lure.”

“He is a dangerous man,” Lang says, “as I’m sure you are aware.”

The two of them keep talking, but the words break over her head like waves. It’s too much to take in—everything she thought she was, was a lie. She is a mere Ship-construct, an automated fragment of the vast AI which powers Ship. And yet she does not feel anything but human. She sinks back against the bed, turns her back on Lang and Nkosi. A dream, she thinks. Let this be all a dream. I will close my eyes and wake again in Külli’s arms at home.

But Nkosi’s voice pulls her back to reality. “We will replace the implant-node tomorrow,” he says, not unkindly. “And then we can reintegrate you with the rest of Ship. Rest until then, Min, and know that all of us appreciate your service.”

As soon as they are gone, she escapes.

***

The hallways and corridors of Ship are dark and lonely, this far down below the inhabited levels. Min wanders them aimlessly: she has nowhere to go anyway, not any more.

After a timeless period marked only by the intervals of her footsteps, she comes across a room. The shape of it seems familiar, yet she has never been here before, she is sure of it. Inside, there is an empty desk, a dead man, and a mask shaped like a lizard’s head. Min turns the dead man over. He wears a tech-ensign’s outfit, shabby with age. The man himself is nobody she recognizes—his features pale and drawn, his eyes unseeing. His flesh is so lumpy and cold that his face seems a half-finished thing. By contrast, the features of the mask atop the desk are hyper-realistic. It seems almost as though someone has dismembered some long-dead Earth creature from the museum decks, leaving only this remnant behind.

Min shudders, but finds herself reaching out and lifting the mask from the desk. She turns it over in her hands, running one thumb over the data port that is embedded in its rubbery hood, then—slowly—draws it down over her head. There is a surge of power as it connects itself to her implant-node, and Min gasps in release at the data that pours over her. But this is not Ship’s reassuring warmth; it is a cold and callous questioning, an insurmountable need for answers. She closes her eyes and sinks into the seat behind the desk as the mask pries open her mind.

Another timeless period passes, and at its end, the thing-that-was-Min looks down and smiles to see the way its new fingers drum against the surface of the desk. It is time to find new answers.

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