“Jesus, get us out of here!”
The two surface cannons fired again. Once more the massive shells detonated to the Kingfisher’s stern, but this time they were disturbingly close. The next shot would probably hit. And given the incredible size of those cannons, and the horrifying brisance of those shells, a probable hit would be followed by a certain kill.
“Ryugi, decrease speed by 3k.p.s., and increase port-speed by the same amount. We can’t let those cannons draw a bead.”
Jaime flicked a switch on his seat. “Gunnery-Sergeant; report status.”
“All guns spiked and rolling, sir. Anything with more than two legs is going to have a fuck of a hard time out here.”
“Excellent. Bridge out. Vinga?”
“Still no sign of enemy ‘ceptors, sir. Aint nothing big enough for them to hide behind out here, either.”
“Thank you.” Another switch toggled. “Duty navbot?”
“Yes, Commander.” The voice of PNR-47345 was strangely distorted through the comm, electronic through electronic, like watching a video on another video screen.
“Time to jump point?”
“Eighty-seven seconds.””And remaining calculation time?”
Jaime flicked off the comm. “Hear that, Ryugi? We’ll be cutting it close.”
Ryugi grinned through the sweat running down his face. “Three seconds? Maybe I should try it blindfolded and give the ‘pedes a chance.”
Jaime had never commanded in battle before. It had never occurred to him how impotent the experience was. Give order. Receive report. Give order. Wonder how much longer they could stay alive. And even those first three had dried up now.
There was one thing he had left to do, though. One task he was both desperate and terrified to perform.
Another explosion from the cannon fire rocked the craft, but Jaime didn’t notice. He slowly reached out once again for the comm switch.
The comm-plate in sickbay chimed happily. A moment later the captain launched a spray of blood-tinged vomit across the room. The resulting impression might have seemed almost Pavlovian, but this was far from the first time this had happened.
Jessa sprinted back to her patient, only just avoiding slipping on the bile now coating much of the floor. The two rodent-sized cleaning robots were fighting a losing battle against the various bodily fluids on the floor, and in the meantime they simply made navigating the room even more difficult.
She found the captain in an even worse state than when she had left him fifteen seconds ago. Blood was dribbling from his mouth and nose, and his eyes kept threatening to roll back into his skull. For the moment his convulsions had paused, but they could easily return full-force, and they were too violent to even strap him down; he would dislocate every joint almost immediately. And of course they made any attempt at an IV futile, which rendered any necessary injections quite literally hit or miss. This time Jessa was able to administer a hit, for all the good it would do.
There was another chime from the comm.
“Sickbay!” she shouted over her shoulder, activating the plate.
“What took so long?” came Jaime’s voice, “What’s happening down there?”
“The captain’s slipping, Commander. I don’t know how much longer I can keep stabilizing him; the injections are having less and less effect.”
There was a momentary lull as the commander considered this. “What about the others.”
Jessa glanced at the nurses tending to her other two patients. One nurse nodded, the other slowly shook his head.
“Second Officer Summers will be fine. He escaped infection, and I’ve almost closed the wound. And we can bring her round in…” she inclined her head, and the nurse raised three fingers, “…Three hours.”
“As to Davis… I’m sorry Commander, there’s nothing we can do. He’s even further along than the captain. He’s not responding to the injections, and he’s skirting the edge of a coma. I can’t see him surviving to Gateway Kappa.”
Jessa felt the deck shift under her; another barrage from the R’Dokken Starport. It felt less bad than the others; Ryugi must be earning his pay up there. Even so, they couldn’t keep running indefinitely.
Jaime knew the same thing. “Let me know if there’s any change, and be advised of hop in eighteen seconds. Bridge out.”
Toggling switches on the array above her captain’s head, Jessa began a scan to ensure his HS-implants were still running. She didn’t like to think what effects a hop might have on her patient without any internal compensation.
The captain’s voice was soft and slow, but it was at least steady.
“I really wouldn’t advise you to talk, Captain,” said the physician, “The best thing you can do for yourself is rest.”
The captain smiled weakly at that, displaying the tips of his blood-flecked teeth.
“Where’s Keigh?” he asked, eyes fluttering.
“She’s with Hanna. I thought it would be better for her not to see all this.” Hanna Whitford was a Secondgrade Gunner, and Keigh’s unofficial babysitter, ever since the child had taken one of those inexplicable infant shines to her. Jessa had had a hell of a time prizing Keigh away from the gunner during their headlong flight from the Starport.
“I need…her…here.” Gabe gasped.
“It really isn’t a good idea, sir. Right now, this place could traumatise her permanently. If you want to speak to her, surely the comm-link-“
“No,” the captain hissed, through teeth gritted with pain, or perhaps anger. “She…has…to be here.”
“There’s no way it’s happening, Captain. Why are you so insistent, anyway?”
Gabe paused for a moment before replying. Whether he was gathering his strength, or attempting to gauge her reaction, she couldn’t say.
Jessa’s brain froze. So did her blood.
“Jesus, Gabe; you can’t be serious!”
“Has…to be done. And it can’t be… anyone else. Blood-” he coughed, “Blood relative.”
“Don’t lecture me on goddamn medicine, Gabe,” she snapped, too angry to worry about insubordination, “You know damn well the law on this; even if I was prepared to do it, which I’m bloody not!”
”We are at peace!”
”Maybe not for long.”
That got her attention.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I’m … not… fucking around, Jessa. I… have to get back… to Proxima. Tell them… what I know. Doesn’t… look like…my body’s coming too.”
“Then tell me, Gabe. For God’s sake, she’s just a child!”
“There isn’t any time!” said the captain, with new found vigour. Damn it, the injection had worn off already; another fit of retching could start any moment. “Of course she’s just a child! She’s also my fucking daughter, Doctor.” He broke off for a moment as a fresh bout of coughing shook his body. Blood leaked from the fingers of the hand he used to cover his mouth. “But my God, I have to get back with everything I’ve found. Otherwise, Davis and I have died for nothing, and we’re not going to be the only ones. Now go!”
Jessa shook her head sadly.
“I’ll get Hanna to bring Keigh down. It appears I have a lot of preparing to do.”
Harlan stepped out into the stars.
Jessa held her breath as she watched Flopsy’s lumbering bulk enter the monitor picture behind him. The still-wet patches of blood on its chassis evaporated in the void, leaving small trails of red mist in the machine’s wake.
The latest victim of the captain’s kangaroo court had been the Kingfisher’s head chef, a likable, if bumbling, woman named Carra. Now they would likely have no decent food, in addition to no showers and no beds. Jessa had been confused at first as to why Keigh had blocked off access to the crew quarters when she took power, but following their conversation with Geiss it seemed likely that there were simply no pressure sensors installed in there.
Jessa couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this was her fault. If she had found a way to save the captain, gotten to him sooner, tried something smarter; none of this would have happened. It was the only part of this horrible little drama that she had had any input into whatsoever, and she had screwed it up royally.
In truth, it had not been failing to the treat Gabe that had made this all her responsibility, it was what she had done to the child.
It had not taken long to realise that somewhere along the line the mind-dump had gone terribly wrong. Or maybe not, maybe this was exactly result they should have expected. Jessa had been unable to find a single case file of a child receiving someone else’s consciousness. There were two common reasons for the treatment. The first was euthanasia; people could sign documents stating that in the event of brain-death, they would allow their blank mind to be written over with someone else’s, giving those with terminal illnesses a second chance.
The other reason was punishment. Jessa could still remember watching the news report of the method’s inventor condemning its use in such a fashion. The interview had been followed by policemen proudly parading former quadriplegic Dayvid Harker, now in the body of multiple-murderer Samuel Craig. A local judge had been trotted out to talk about a new age of humane punishment, as though wrenching out a man’s mind was any less appalling for not taking his body alongside.
None of this applied to children, though. Their still-forming minds could not stand removal from their bodies, and imprinting them with other intellects. Children stood outside the regular methods of criminal punishment, even if one had committed crimes that qualified as sufficiently serious (Jessa could no longer make herself believe such a thing was impossible), and parents invariably refused to allow their brain-dead offspring to become hosts to invalid adults.
Quickly, then, so that parents could feel their children were safe, and by extension so that politicians could feel their votes were also safe, a law was passed banning the inclusion of a minor in the procedure.
From then on in, mind-dumping became increasingly rare. It had initially been hoped that the technology could be combined with a form of cloning, growing new bodies to specifications, and jumping from husk to husk every few decades. In theory it would be a form of immortality, but with a successful transfer rate of only 70% (perhaps as high as 90% if the DNA was a good enough match), constant body hopping was more risky than was palatable. Then pressure built up from various religious groups, claiming the procedure copied mind but not soul, and eventually the procedure had been banned more or less entirely.
All of which had left Jessa with very little information with which to understand what was happening to the daughter of her old friend. Since, in theory, Gabe’s memory and intellect were entirely contained within Keigh’s brains, they had allowed her to give orders to the crew, (checking them quietly with Jaime), since they were so close to Terran space, and because Jessa had shared her concerns regarding the warning contained in the captain’s “final words” to the rest of the command staff.
She had had perhaps one more chance to avert what eventually took place. As CMO she could have relieved “Gabe” of command if his behaviour became sufficiently erratic, citing her fears that the alien virus and/or stress of mind-dump had affecting his rationality. The order for the Kingfisher to bypass Gateway Kappa entirely (in case of further contamination, Keigh had said sweetly, despite Jessa’s assurance that the virus had been utterly destroyed by the quarantine systems) had raised some eyebrows, but the course change from Proxima to Helioshea was strange enough for Jessa to have acted on.
She hadn’t, though. Perhaps it was cowardice. Or perhaps she was so desperate to believe that her old friend was still alive in some way, still whole, had blinded her to the very simple truth.
The captain was still alive, but he was utterly, irredeemably insane.