Edward Willett

The first two chapters of Terra Insegura

Terra Insegura

Chapter One

Listen to Ed read Chapter One 

Bump.

Emily Wood jerked awake in the pilot’s chair of the tiny sub, heart pounding. Her eyes flicked over the control panel, searching for red lights that would indicate they’d hit something.

But nothing had changed. All the indicators still glowed green. The sub continued to purr along on autopilot, and the Marseguroite ocean outside the transparent canopy remained as black and impenetrable as always, with dawn still hours away on the surface, a hundred meters above.

Emily glanced at the woman in the chair beside her, but her mother still slept, her graying hair an unruly halo around her head, the gill slits on the side of her neck showing the slightest trace of pink.

It was a sign that her sleep had been helped along by drugs: relaxed like that, gills dried out faster, so normally a Selkie’s gills remained as tightly closed in air when the Selkie slept as when she was awake.

But it was also a sign Dr. Carla Christianson-Wood, formerly the foremost genetic engineer of Marseguro and member of the Planetary Council, really was asleep, not just keeping her eyes closed because she couldn’t be bothered to take an interest in anything around her.

These days, that was just as likely.

Not even the news of the impending marriage of Emily’s sister Amy to her old school friend John Duval had stirred much response. But least she had boarded the sub under her own power, even if she hadn’t said a word since they’d left Newhome Station five hours ago.

Emily sighed and settled back against the soft black pseudoleather. Something in my dream, she thought, though the dream remained clear in her mind and nothing had happened within it that should have jolted her out of it.

Richard had been in it, of course. He often showed up in her dreams now, more than a week after he had left Marseguro aboard MSS Victor Hansen, bound for Earth. She both missed him and worried about him. No one knew what the Victor Hansen would find on the home planet. If The Body Purified remained in power…

She didn’t like to think about that possibility. If The Body Purified remained in power, Richard faced imprisonment or death.

But the other possibility was maybe even more horrific: that the crew of the Victor Hansen would find Earth devastated by the plague the Marseguroites had created to kill the Holy Warriors who had attacked and occupied their world six months ago.

The Victor Hansen carried vaccine, and the knowledge of how to make more…but would there be anyone left alive on Earth to save?

The crew, in other words, faced a mission fraught with uncertainty and danger…

…rather like her relationship with Richard.

With a finger, she traced the stitching of the pseudoleather covering the arm of the chair. She and Richard had fought together. They’d become friends…more than friends. She’d thought–fantasized–about their becoming lovers…but it hadn’t happened. Not yet.

Once, she’d thought…but the moment had passed. She hadn’t been ready. She’d told him so. He’d taken it well…but another moment hadn’t come.

His fault, or hers? She wasn’t sure. They’d been working apart for much of the past few months, Richard focused on bringing the former BPS Sanctification back to life as MSS Victor Hansen, while she’d had her mother to worry about, and her sister Amy, and the job she’d taken on coordinating construction of the new deep-sea habitats the Planetary Council had started to build as insurance against further attacks or natural disasters. They’d hardly had a moment together since they’d ridden the crippled Sanctification down from orbit.

And now he was gone. Maybe for good.

She shook her head. No, she thought fiercely. He’ll be back. He promised.

As if that guaranteed anything.

She checked the board one more time, then settled back in the chair and closed her eyes, hoping to recapture the dream. She and Richard had been walking along the shore of…

Bump. Bump.

She jerked upright again. No denying it this time!

She scanned her controls. Nothing, but the little sub didn’t have the greatest suite of sensors, and those it had were all focused in front of it, to guard against collisions with other vessels or one of Marseguro’s sea-predators.

Could it be a daggertooth? Emily had never heard of one of the killer whale-sized creatures trying to attack a sub, but…

Of course, it could be something entirely new. Except for one island-continent, the whole world was ocean, almost completely unexplored. Emily felt a surge of excitement. Here there be monsters? If I could get a photo of a new species…

She still wasn’t worried. A predator might check out the sub, but since it obviously wasn’t edible, the creature would lose interest in a moment. Maybe as it swam away she could…

And then Emily was thrown forward hard, only the pilot’s harness she kept fastened by habit keeping her from smashing her nose into the control panel.

Her mother opened her eyes at last. “Emily? What’s happening?” She almost sounded scared, which perversely pleased Emily. Any real emotion from her mother was so rare these days she leaped at it like a drowning landling lunging at a twig, hoping it was a harbinger of recovery.

“I don’t know,” Emily said. “Something has grabbed us, I think. We’re at a dead stop.” She peered uselessly through the canopy. The sub’s headlights showed only plankton, swirling in twin cylinders of light that faded away into darkness within a dozen meters. And still nothing showed on the sensors. “It’s under us, whatever it is. It must be a predator, something bigger than we’ve ever…”

She stopped. Her mother’s eyes had closed again, the drugs pushing her back into sleep. Emily was talking to herself.

The floor canted. They were descending. Emily glanced at the depth gauge. Pressurized, the sub was good to three hundred meters. She had no idea how deep the ocean was at this point, but she’d bet it was deeper than that. If this thing pulled them far enough down…

She could flood the sub. Flooded, it might survive all the way to the bottom. But she and her mother would not, not unless they put on deep-water suits. Even before the pressure crushed them, they’d asphyxiate, their gills, though far more efficient than any fish’s, unable to draw enough oxygen.

Getting her mother into a deep-sea suit would have been a nightmare under ideal conditions. Now…she looked at the older Selkie woman, once more asleep, gills once more over-relaxed. How many pills did she take?

A strange vibration rolled through the sub. It felt mechanical, not biological, and it was followed by a series of clanks that were most definitely mechanical: metal against metal. Then came a high-pitched whine that set Emily’s teeth on edge. Drilling, she thought. It must be another sub. We’ve been grabbed by another sub, and someone is trying to get in.

But that made no sense. If someone needed them, they could wait until their next radio check-in, due in an hour. No one would send a sub to grab them in the middle of the ocean. No one would have any reason to.

Unless…

Emily’s already oversized eyes widened even further. “Shit!” She scrabbled at the buckles of her harness, got free, then scrambled out of her chair and plunged through the cockpit’s after hatch into the hold.

Like the rest of the sub, the hold was full of air on this trip, because they were carrying all the food for the upcoming wedding reception, including a magnificent wedding cake, five tiers high, with Amy and John recreated in colored sugar atop the highest. The cake resided in a large box placed safely on the floor. As Emily burst into the hold, she saw the box rise on one side, then tip over. It crashed to the floor, breaking open and spilling pink icing and yellow cake across the decking. The spun-sugar Amy and John skittered across the floor but somehow remained intact.

A metal tube protruded into the hold from where the box had been, shiny silver shavings of metal scattered around it and clinging to its tip.

Something hissed. White mist spewed from the tube. Emily took one abortive step toward the deep-water suits racked at the back of the hold before the floor somehow rose up and smacked her on the cheek. She found herself staring at the sugar figures of Amy and John, lying in a welter of crumbs. They seemed to whirl around Emily in a bizarre wedding dance, and then everything went black.

#

“Impressive, isn’t it?”

Richard Hansen just barely managed not to jump as the voice sounded in his left ear. It wouldn’t do for the captain of the Marseguro Star Ship Victor Hansen to appear anything less than perfectly calm at all times. It particularly wouldn’t do to flinch violently in zero gravity, which could send him on an unintended journey down the cylindrical corridor, bouncing off the padded walls as he went…and given his stomach’s usual reaction to violent maneuvers in zero-G, possibly throwing up as well. And it particularly particularly wouldn’t do for Richard to give the owner of the voice the satisfaction of knowing he’d been startled.

“Isn’t it,” Richard said mildly, without looking around. “Hello, Andy.”

An amused snort, and Andy King drifted across the corridor to cling to the webbing next to Richard, and look out with him into the main equipment hold of the Victor Hansen. Assault vehicles, cargo shuttles, boats, submarines, ground vehicles–some armed and armored, some not–small airplanes (ditto), racks of personal weapons and body armor: there was enough materiel in the hold to equip a small army: a lot more of an army than they had, for sure, since their entire ship’s company numbered seventy-eight souls, fifty-two Selkies and twenty-six nonmods. But then, if it came to fighting–if, against all their best estimates, The Body Purified still held sway over Earth and refused to even talk to them–they didn’t stand the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell.

Or, as they used to say on Marseguro, a landling’s chance in deep water, though the term “landling” was no longer considered polite when talking about a non-genetically modified human. (“Normal” was even worse, since it implied Selkies weren’t.)

Richard realized Andy was looking at him, not at the equipment ranged around the hold, and turned to face his first officer.

“You’re thinking again,” Andy said, as though accusing him of a misdemeanor, if not a capital crime. He was a bald-headed, round-faced, brown-skinned, short-but-muscular Selkie. He wore a black landsuit: one hold of the Victor Hansen had been flooded, lit and equipped with oxygenators to provide the Selkies with a swimming area, but most Selkies still wore landsuits while on duty to enable them to remain at their stations as long as necessary in the event of an emergency.

Like the rest of the crew, Andy King had no space experience. But he had captained the largest ocean-going vessels, surface and sub, that Marseguro boasted, and he knew how to gain a crew’s respect and keep it disciplined. He’d also become, in the few months that Richard had known him, a good friend.

“Does it show?” Richard said wryly.

Andy made a circular gesture near his vestigial ears. “Smoke,” he said. “Burning smells.”

Richard laughed. “Well, I promise not to do it again.”

Andy’s smile faded. “I didn’t just come to insult you–respectfully, of course,” he said. “I’ve got news. Planetary Communications forwarded it just before we entered branespace.”

“Nothing good, I take it.”

Andy shook his head. “No. O’Sullivan’s been murdered.”

What?” O’Sullivan, the former Holy Warrior who had thrown in his lot with Richard and Emily aboard this very ship and done more than anyone else to help her return to space under her new name, had sent good wishes to the crew just two days before, as they broke orbit. Richard couldn’t believe he’d been killed. And murder? Crimes of any sort were rare on Marseguro; murder almost unknown. Richard didn’t even know when the last had been committed.

Unless you counted all the people killed by Holy Warriors in the attack on the planet he had facilitated.

He shoved that thought away, as he did a dozen times a day. “Do they have a suspect?”

“They have the killer himself,” Andy said. “A Selkie. I didn’t recognize the name. He shot O’Sullivan dead in the street, then slung his body over his shoulders, walked to Peaceforcer headquarters, dumped the body on the doorstep, and turned himself in. Said he was avenging his daughter, no Holy Warrior could be allowed to breathe the air of Marseguro after what they’d done, that kind of thing.” Andy shook his head. “There’s a lot of anger, a lot of tension between land…nonmods and Selkies. O’Sullivan was a hero to a lot of nonmods. I’d say the tension just got worse.”

“Which is why this mission is so important,” Richard said. “We’re Selkies and nonmods–Marseguroites, all–working together for the good of people we haven’t met, in the name of our common humanity.” He couldn’t help smiling a little. “It’s a team-building exercise.”

Andy winced. “I’ve always hated those.”

Richard changed the subject. “Well, you claim you didn’t come down here just to insult me, and as it happens, I didn’t come down here just to be insulted. I’m looking for Smith. He’s supposed to be in there,” he indicated the hold, “somewhere, but I don’t…”

“Here I am, Captain.”

This time Richard did jump. So did Andy. Neither let go of the webbing, though, and so were at least spared the embarrassment of floating away.

Smith, the Victor Hansen‘s quartermaster, was a stolid nonmod with a uniform air of grayness about him: short gray hair, short gray beard, gray eyes. His skin had a grayish tint. Even his pale-green standard-issue jumpsuit looked a little gray around the edges, Richard thought.

His first name, of course, was John.

“You wanted to see me?” Richard said–a little too quickly, to cover his startlement.

“Yes, Captain,” Smith said. “I found something you should see…”

Ten minutes later Richard, Andy and Smith floated inside the quartermaster’s cube-shaped zero-G office. Most of the senior staff operated in the ship’s rotating habitat ring, where something approaching normal gravity existed, but the quartermaster needed to be close to his stores, though like the rest of them his sleeping quarters were in gravity.

The room’s walls were, naturally, gray. (Richard had sometimes wondered–though not enough to actually ask the computer–if the Sanctification‘s quartermaster had also been named Smith; he couldn’t remember a thing about the man, though he must have met him sometime during the two-week-long flight from Earth.) Glowstrips broke up the plain metal walls at meter intervals, and almost-invisible seams marked the various panels that could be opened to access storage compartments–and a vidscreen, which Smith now activated.

“As you know, Captain–“

Richard sighed. “Please don’t start your explanation like that, Smith. It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a bad adventure novel.”

Smith blinked, which was as close as he ever came to looking flustered. “Very well, Captain. Well…um…as you…um…that is, we’ve been having difficulty penetrating the quartermaster’s personal security to access his records, which for some reason are segregated from the main ship’s data store. As a result, we’ve been uncertain how much of the ship’s original supplies remain aboard. Thanks to our own manual inventory we know what we have, but we haven’t known what we’re missing.” Smith’s thin lips curled up in a tight smile. “Until now. Computer, display file Smith 23A.”

The vidscreen lit up with a series of text entries, accompanied by small pictures of various items. “I’ve gained access,” Smith said, entirely unnecessarily.

Andy whooped. Richard didn’t go that far, but he gave the quartermaster a huge grin. “Fabulous! How’d you do it?”

Smith snorted. “The quartermaster’s software encryption was unbreakable. However…” He reached into the right breast pocket of his jumpsuit and drew out a small rod that glittered like a jewel in the light from the glowstrips. “I found this taped to the underside of his bed. It’s a data crystal, and it unlocks the files.”

Hanging on to the webbing with one hand, Richard shook Smith’s hand with the other. “Great work, John.”

Smith shook his head. “I should have looked for something like that sooner. But thank you, Captain.”

“So what have you found out?” Andy said. He gestured at the display, still flicking automatically through page after page of records. “This kind of thing makes my eyes glaze over.”

“As near as I can tell, we’re primarily missing only what you would expect–some small arms, ammo, personal armor, that sort of thing. However, there are two major items which remain unaccounted for.” Smith turned back to the vidscreen. “Computer, display items UWV108 and ASV03.”

The screen blanked, then showed two images side by side. Andy and Richard leaned in. “A sub,” Richard said.

“Pretty big one, by the look of it,” Andy agreed.

 “And a shuttle?” Richard looked closer. “It doesn’t look like any of the others, though…it’s huge!”

“The sub is a Jonah-class attack submarine,” Smith said. “Crew of eight. Designed to sneak up on other subs and either sink them or board them. A nice toy, if we’re ever able to retrieve it. The shuttle, though…” Smith paused. The thin smile broadened; for a moment Richard thought the quartermaster was actually going to show his teeth in a grin. “It’s something special. It’s a GDPSS.” He looked at them expectantly.

Richard glanced at Andy. Andy shrugged. They both looked back at Smith, who sighed.

“A Grand Deacon Personal Star Shuttle. It’s twice the size of any other shuttle aboard, and that’s not all: it has Cornwall engines.”

“It’s a mini-starship?” Richard took another look. “A second ship for our Navy?”

“If we can find it,” Smith said. “According to these records, it was offloaded the day after the attack. Presumably it was intended to take Grand Deacon Ellers back to Earth once Marseguro was pacified, so he could move on to other things while Sanctification remained on station.”

“But we’ve seen no sign of it,” Andy said. “Wouldn’t we have noticed…?”

“Computer,” Richard said.

“Yes, Captain,” the computer replied instantly.

“Computer, whereabouts of shuttle…” he looked at Smith.

Divine Will,” Smith supplied.

“…Divine Will.”

Divine Will is not on board,” the computer said.

“I know that, you…” Richard stopped himself. He was pretty sure arguing with the computer was not a Captainly thing to do. He tried again. “Computer. State the last known whereabouts of the shuttle Divine Will.”

Divine Will is on Marseguro.”

Richard sighed. “Computer, where on Marseguro is the shuttle Divine Will?”

“Precise coordinates unknown.”

“Why?” No answer. It’s just a machine, Richard reminded himself for the umpteenth time that day. “Computer, why are precise coordinates of shuttle Divine Will unknown?”

“Shuttle Divine Will launched without proper authorization on Day 22 of current mission. Shuttle descended erratically. Shuttle disappeared from ship’s sensors beneath ocean surface at coordinates…” It reeled off a string of letters and numbers.

They meant nothing to Richard. “Computer, display those coordinates on a map of Marseguro.”

The screen obligingly shifted to a map. Richard recognized the northern tip of the island continent at the bottom of the screen. A red spot glowed in the waters offshore. Andy pointed at it. “It went down a good 15 kilometers offshore. And way north of any settlements or habitats. No wonder we had no idea.”

“Day 22,” Richard said thoughtfully. “That’s when the plague hit the ship. Whoever took the shuttle must have realized what was happening and tried to escape. Probably collapsed or died during the descent, and the ship hit the water and sank. Computer,” he said, raising his voice, “was impact of shuttle Divine Will sufficient to destroy it?”

“Negative,” the computer said.

“Computer, what is the maximum depth of water shuttle can withstand?”

“Two thousand meters,” the computer replied.

Richard whooped. “Another starship, waiting for us!”

“If we get back,” Andy said.

Randy waved him off. “We’ll send a null-brane pulse as soon as we emerge from branespace.” He turned to Smith. “Great work, John,” he said. “Congratulations. If this were a proper military I’d promote you.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Smith said. His face actually colored a little.

Richard and Andy took their leave, pulling themselves along the webbing toward one of the transport platforms that would whisk them along the ship’s giant central shaft to the habitat ring. “So tell me, Captain,” Andy said as they went, “which are you looking forward to more when we emerge from branespace in two weeks: letting Marseguro know where to look for a second starship, or talking to a certain Selkie girl?”

Richard resisted the temptation to kick him. “I doubt I’ll get to talk to Emily,” he said. “I’m sure she’s busy. Amy’s wedding.”

“Uh-huh.” Andy was quiet for a moment. “I envy you,” he said at last. “I don’t have anybody waiting for me on Marseguro.”

Richard said nothing. Most of the crew didn’t: it had been planned that way. It was one reason he’d kept his distance from Emily over the past few months. There had been that one night, after the victory celebration, they’d kissed, and they’d almost…

…but she’d pulled away, said she wasn’t ready. And afterward he had kicked himself for even letting things progress that far, knowing he would soon be off on this dangerous adventure. If anything happened to him…well, she was young. She was Selkie. He didn’t want her pining after him instead of getting on with her life.

If he made it back, then maybe…

“Emily is her own woman,” Richard said. “She may not be waiting at all.”

Now why did I say that? he wondered. The possibility stung.

Well, whether she’s waiting for me or not, I’m glad she’s safe back there on Marseguro. “Hurry up, Number One,” Richard said over his shoulder. “We’re going to be late for the staff meeting.”

“Race you to the platform,” Andy said, and after that, they were working too hard to talk.

For the moment, that suited Richard just fine.

 

Chapter Two 

Listen to Ed read Chapter Two

Emily woke in the dark to confusion and a pounding headache, wrists bound behind her back so tightly her hands felt numb. Where was she? What had happened to the sub’s cockpit?

Where’s Mom?

She blinked. It wasn’t completely dark. Maybe it would have been to a nonmod, but her Selkie eyes saw a faint, indirect glow, and as her vision cleared and the headache receded slightly she could see enough to get a sense of the space she lay in. Small, but…living quarters of some kind? Certainly she lay on a bed, not on a bare floor. And that looked like a tiny sink and counter over there. Submarine quarters, she thought. But not our sub. And not any sub I’ve ever been in on Marseguro.

That really left only one other possibility, and so when the door suddenly opened and flooded the tiny space with light so bright it made her wince and turn her head away, she wasn’t surprised to glimpse a man in the powder-blue uniform of the Holy Warriors.

She’d hoped to never see that uniform again. She’d seen enough of them, generally splattered with blood, during the battle to free Marseguro from The Body Purified’s occupation, and the long clean-up afterward.

Why was this Holy Warrior still alive, when the plague had taken all of his comrades?

“She’s awake,” the man said. Emily turned her head back to see a different Holy Warrior take the first one’s place. Both men were bearded, something she’d never seen in the original force. Makes sense if they’ve been hiding in a sub all this time…but they’re doomed now. Mom and I are carriers of the plague. Everyone on Marseguro carries it. It’s only a matter of…

“Bring her out,” the second man said. “I want to talk to her.” He stepped out again, and the first man bulled into the room, grabbed her by the arms and hauled her to her feet. She tried to kick him, but he spun her around and propelled her head-first into the narrow corridor outside the door. Then he marched her down it to what was probably one of the largest spaces in the sub, since its curved walls suggested it extended the full width of the hull. Some sort of wardroom, furnished with four unpainted metal tables bolted to the walls, two on each side, each with four attached, red-painted chairs.

Three more Holy Warriors stood at the far end of the wardroom as she was brought into it. Her mother sat in one of the chairs, arms tied like hers, face cheek-down on the metal table, eyes closed.

“Mom!” Emily tried to pull free. The second man she’d seen said, “Let her go,” and a moment later she fell to her knees at her mother’s side.

Dr. Christianson-Wood’s eyes were open just a slit, but only the whites showed, glittering in the light. Her skin looked waxy. But she was breathing. Emily gulped a sigh of relief. For a moment she’d thought…

“What’s wrong with her?” said the Holy Warrior who seemed to be in charge.

Emily struggled to her feet and turned to face him. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“Don’t tell me you don’t recognize the uniform,” the man growled.

“I know you’re Holy Warriors. I want to know your name. I want to know who I’m talking to.”

The man cocked his head. “Fair enough. After all, I know who you are, Emily Wood. I’m Alister Stone, commander of the Body Purified submarine Promise of God.”

“What do you want, Commander Stone?”

“We’ve got what we want, Emily Wood,” Stone said. “We’ve got your mother.”

“And me?”

He shrugged. “You’re incidental. Bit of a nuisance, really. Unless you can help us talk to your mother, I might decide to just put you out the airlock. At depth.”

Emily ignored the threat. “Why do you want my mother? Why do you need to talk to her?”

Stone’s lip curled. “Because she designed the filthy plague that murdered every other Holy Warrior on this planet.”

Emily felt as if he’d slapped her. “How–“

“How do I know? Because we’ve been down here since it started, listening. We know what happened to all of our comrades. We know what happened to BPS Retribution. We know about the vaccine–and we stole some for ourselves, so don’t start listening for a cough.”

“You’ve been hiding out–underwater–for six months?”

“Lots of rations on board these subs, Miss Wood. Enough to keep us going this long.”

“But…why? What do you hope to accomplish?” Emily looked down at her unconscious mother. “What do you want with my mother?”

“Retribution,” the Holy Warrior said. “Like the name of our former ship.”

“But that won’t get you anything in the long run,” Emily said. “When we don’t show up at our destination, there’ll be a search. Subs, surface ships…they’ll find you. And then you’ll have to deal with a whole planet full of people who’ll know what you’ve done. How long do you think you’ll last then?”

“Oh, there’ll be a search,” Stone said. “And they’ll find exactly what we left them to find: debris–wedding presents, that sort of thing–” he showed his teeth in a wolfish grin– “floating on the surface, and in the deep-sea trench you were crossing when we grabbed you, the flattened remnants of your sub, five hundred meters below its crush depth.”

John…Amy…Emily imagined them getting the news, their grief, the wedding postponed… “You can’t hide forever,” she snarled. “Your rations will run out. Your recycling equipment will foul. You’ll have to surface…”

Stone’s grin widened. “Will we?”

“No sub remains underwater forever,” Emily said.

“We’re not going to be remaining on the sub.” Stone moved closer, uncomfortably so, until his face was only centimeters from hers. “Listen to me, Emily Wood, and listen well. We are going to board the shuttle Divine Will, lying sunken but intact in relatively shallow water just fifty kilometers from our current position. We are going to take that shuttle, and your mother, back to Earth. And then we will hand her over to The Body Purified for trial and punishment, and accept our reward from The Avatar with all due humility.”

“But the plague–” Emily said. “You must know–“

“That it returned to Earth with Retribution?” Stone shook his head. “Ridiculous. Do you really think something your mother cooked up in a lab on this water-soaked rock could overwhelm The Body Purified on Earth itself? It may have sickened a few people, but it won’t have swept the planet as you naively hope. The Body Purified still rules Earth, Miss Wood. Count on it.” He leaned in even closer, until she could smell his slightly sour breath and feel its heat on her face, and lowered his voice to an intense, vicious whisper. She forced herself not to flinch away. “You’d better count on it. Because if we get to Earth and find no authorities for us to answer to, we will use you two Selkie bitches as God Itself intended men to use women, and discard the broken bloody remains without a moment’s regret. Because never forget, Miss Wood…you…are…not…human!”

Emily felt an old familiar rage building inside her, the rage that had driven her during the battle for Marseguro, when she had watched men die horribly–at her own hand, from the plague, and at the hands of others–without pity or regret. “You try,” she snarled, “and I’ll snap your spine like a twig. Because I’m stronger than you, Alister Stone. Stronger, and faster, and smarter. Not human? Maybe not in your eyes. But if I’m not human, it’s because I’m better, not worse.” She showed her teeth. “New and improved. Humanity 2.0.”

Stone’s lips tightened and his eyes narrowed. “Blasphemy!” he spat–literally; she felt the spittle hit her cheek, but she forced herself to ignore it. For a moment she was sure he would slap her, but instead he stepped back. His mouth curved in a cold smile. “You may indeed be stronger than me,” he said. “But your mother…” He glanced at Dr. Christianson-Wood. “…is not. Would you prefer we start with her?”

Emily stiffened. “Don’t touch her.”

“We won’t…for now.” He gestured to the first Holy Warrior Emily had seen. “Release her hands, Abban.” He looked back at Emily. “Look after your mother. I want her awake and talking when we present her to The Avatar. But cause any trouble, and I’ll reconsider the advantages of presenting her to The Avatar catatonic…or dead.”

Emily fought the fury inside her, tried to turn it cold instead of hot. While there’s life, there’s hope, she thought. It wouldn’t do either of them any good if she got herself killed. Her mother needed her. “I’ll behave,” she said finally.

“I know you will,” said Stone. He looked at Abban again. “We’re only a couple of hours from the Divine Will. She can stay in here with her mother. Keep a close eye on her.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” Abban saluted.

Stone turned to the others. “Pass the word,” he said. “I want everything ready to transfer to Divine Will the instant we dock.”

A chorus of aye-ayes followed, and the men dispersed fore and aft. Stone gave Emily one more long, hard, look, then went forward.

Emily sat beside her mother. “Mom,” she said. She glanced at Abban, who stood by the forward hatch. He watched her, his hand resting on the black grip of the sidearm in his belt holster. She looked back at her mother. “Mom, can you hear me?”

Slowly, as though emerging from a fog, her mother’s face somehow…came into focus. She raised her head from the table, blinked at Emily, and managed a small smile. “Emily,” she said. The cheek that had been pressed against the table was bright pink. “Have I been sleeping?”

“Yes, Mom,” Emily said carefully. “Don’t you remember what happened?”

“We were…going somewhere?” Her mother frowned, and looked around the Spartan wardroom. “Have we arrived? Where are we?” Then her eyes drifted over to the Holy Warrior in his distinctive blue uniform. She stared for a moment, her eyes growing wider and wider–and then she screamed, the sound bright and piercing as a laser. Abban whipped the gun from his holster and pointed it at them, holding it in both hands, finger on the trigger.

Running footsteps sounded, and a moment later Stone and four crewmen, whether the same ones as before or others Emily couldn’t tell, burst into the room. “What have you done?” Stone shouted above her mother’s unending screams. He shoved Abban’s gun down; the Holy Warrior lowered it but didn’t holster it.

“Shhh, shhh,” Emily said, kneeling by her mother, putting her arm around her, but her mother would only look at the Holy Warriors, eyes jumping from one to the next. Emily stood and confronted Stone. “Get them out!” she shouted. “Get them all out!”

Stone hesitated, then nodded. “Everyone out,” he said. “Close and dog the doors. Abban, you stand guard outside the forward hatch. Biccum, stand guard aft. Move.”

The Holy Warriors exited, all of them this time, Abban the last to go, looking back over his shoulder at them as he finally holstered his gun.

The hatches closed, leaving Emily alone with her mother. Dr. Christianson-Wood’s screams tapered off, but her eyes still darted around the room as though she expected the Holy Warriors to reappear from thin air.

Maybe she does, Emily thought. “It’s okay, Mom, they’re gone.” She knelt and put her arm around her mother once more.

Her mother turned wide, stricken eyes to her. “Ghosts!” she whispered. “Ghosts, Emily. Didn’t you see them? They’re all dead…all the Holy Warriors…I killed them…I killed them all…but they were here! They were here a minute ago!” She grabbed Emily’s hand. “They were here!” But then her face softened and her eyelids drooped. She blinked. “Weren’t they?”

“They were here, Mom,” Emily said. She squeezed her mother’s shoulder. “But they’re not ghosts. They’re survivors. They were in this sub when the plague hit. They figured out what was going on, and they got hold of some hypervaccine somewhere. They’re immune.” She took a deep breath. “And they don’t think Earth is dead, Mom. In fact…” She swallowed. “In fact, they’re planning to take us there.”

But her mother’s eyes were almost closed, and Emily didn’t know how much she’d really heard and understood. “Don’t be silly…” Dr. Christianson-Wood murmured. “We don’t have a spaceship. Richard took it.” And then she was asleep again, head dropping heavily onto Emily’s shoulder.

Emily held her as once her mother had held her. She didn’t cry. She wished she could.

In the sudden silence, all she could hear was the steady thrumming of the sub’s propellers, the hiss of ventilation…and her own thoughts, which were not very comfortable companions.

Her future had suddenly narrowed to only two possibilities. The best: imprisonment on Earth, a life of slave labor. The worst: horrible death or gang rape. Oh, she’d meant what she’d said to Stone, but of course they could tie her down or drug her or in some other way keep her from fighting back. She would struggle, but they’d have her in the end.

So forget about her. Her focus had to be on her mother. She turned her head, studied her mother’s slack, waxy face. Dr. Christianson-Wood had always been so vital, so in charge of herself and whatever situation she found herself in. But something had broken inside her when she’d heard that Chris Keating had taken her plague to Earth.

On Marseguro, it had been one-hundred-percent fatal among nonmodded, unvaccinated humans. Dr. Christianson-Wood’s colleagues believed–hoped–it would not be quite as deadly on Earth, because a portion of its effectiveness depended on interaction with Marseguro-native viruses. But only a portion: it seemed likely it would be at least as deadly as Ebola-Zaire, which, before effective treatments and vaccines were developed in the early 21st century, had sometimes killed as many as nine out of ten.

And unlike Ebola, it was easily spread. It could pass from person to person with a breath or a cough or a handshake, or linger in the very air of a building. Worse, most small mammals–rats, mice, cats, dogs–could carry it without themselves being infected. So, probably, could birds.

Dr. Christianson-Wood herself had been unable to provide any input: in her mental breakdown, she seemed to have rejected all the knowledge and experience that had enabled her to make the plague in the first place. She could not or would not draw on it: she wouldn’t even make the effort.

Her mental breakdown had been followed by a physical one. She had always been strong, athletic. Now she looked weak and underfed, and her hair, still mostly blonde just months ago, was now almost entirely gray.

In a strange reversal, Emily had become the strong one, the grown-up, the one who had to have all the answers and make everything all right when the world seemed broken.

She took a deep breath. She would be strong, whatever the future held. For her mother. For herself.

And one thread of bright hope wove its way through her personal tapestry of darkness, a thread she held in her mental grip like a lifeline: they were going to Earth…and so was Richard.

When they reached the home world, MSS Victor Hansen would already be there. And if things on Earth were as bleak as the Marseguroites thought, she might be the only ship in orbit, the only ship to greet the shuttle when it arrived.

By Emily’s count, Richard still owed her several rescues. She hoped he’d get a chance to even the score.

#

Chris Keating crouched in an empty garbage bin and listened to wild dogs howling in the streets of the City of God.

More dogs than people inhabited the City these days. Chris hadn’t seen a human being now in a month, unless you counted the flotilla of aircraft that had roared low over the burned-out shell and toppled spire of the House of The Body two weeks ago. Chris had stood in the rubble-strewn street outside The Body’s central place of worship, torched at some point during the days of violence that followed the outbreak of the plague, and shouted himself hoarse, jumping, waving, begging The Avatar and his surviving followers to take him with them, but of course they hadn’t heard him. Even if they had, they probably would have left him behind.

God Itself has some other role in mind for me, Chris had comforted himself. God wouldn’t have gone to such extraordinary lengths to ensure I would be on Earth at this time if I weren’t part of Its plan.

He still wondered how Richard Hansen had done it. For a long time he’d been convinced that the deaths on Marseguro, on board Sanctification and, later, Retribution, had been a sophisticated chemical attack planned by Hansen. But he’d had to change his mind shortly after he’d arrived at Earth.

He’d tried to radio Earth control when Retribution arrived in orbit, but though he’d been able to send a final message to Marseguro as the ship had left that system, he no longer had communications control by the time he reached Earth: the computer kept telling him that attempts had been made to compromise its programming and it had therefore initiated Security Protocol something-or-other. He would have told them what had happened on the ship, and they would have taken precautions, even though at that point he still hadn’t believed the plague was a plague.

Why should he? He’d worked in a genetics lab. It was impossible–absolutely impossible–for the Marseguroites to have created a plague, specifically targeting normal humans, in the few days that had passed between the Holy Warriors’ initial attack and the day the Holy Warriors started dying. Therefore it couldn’t be a plague. It had to be something else, most likely a chemical agent of some kind that Richard Hansen had somehow smuggled aboard.

The Holy Warriors who had boarded the ship, and taken him off of it, and brought him to the City of God, had been looking for armed intruders or mutinous crew, not viruses or poisons. And shortly after they detained him and took him to the Holy Compound in the City of God, they began to die.

“Damn Hansen,” Chris muttered, as he did several times a day. He’d obviously been wrong about the deaths being caused by a poison. But he was obviously right about the Selkies having been incapable of creating such a finely tuned plague. The only thing he could figure was that Victor Hansen, creator of the Selkies, had himself designed the disease organism before he died, and that Victor’s grandson, Richard, had brought that knowledge to the Selkies as part of his own twisted plan to gain power.

Because if there was one thing Chris was absolutely certain about, it was that every disaster that had befallen him–and The Body Purified, of course, but especially him–could be laid squarely at the feet of Richard Hansen.

By the time The Body Purified had realized what was happening, the plague was out of control. Incredibly infectious, incredibly deadly, carried by animals–there had been no controlling it. It had swept the world like a tsunami.

The hospitals filled with the infected, then overflowed with the dead. Few bodies ever made it to the morgues. Mass graves were dug and bodies bulldozed into them by the dozens, but soon enough there was no one to drive the bulldozers. The Holy City’s infrastructure continued functioning on automatic. Lights stayed on, water flowed, Body hymns wafted from loudspeakers five times a day. ‘Bots emptied the already-empty garbage bins, like the one he crouched in now, and roamed the streets searching for debris, finding little but the occasional leaf or animal corpse: the human bodies had all been cleared away long since, delivered to the back doors of morgues, where they piled up in rotting, reeking heaps. Chris had gotten downwind of one a few days ago and had retched ’til he’d thought his stomach would come out his nose.

The howling had faded. Chris poked his head up, then climbed out and brushed dirt from his stylish black pants and tight-fitting red shirt. No point dressing in rags when the city was full of unused clothes, he’d decided. Fresh meat and produce had become impossible to find, but the city contained enough frozen, canned and irradiated food to last him the rest of his life.

For his lodgings, he’d selected the penthouse of Paradise on Earth, the tallest and swankiest hotel in the city. The smell of decay wasn’t so bad fifty floors up: down here on the streets, it hung over everything, fainter than it had been, but not gone.

Not by a long shot.

He’d come out today to pick up some warmer clothes from Splendid Raiment, his favorite clothing store. The leaves were starting to turn, and the nights were cooler than they had been. The City of God, built on the ruins of what had once been known as Kansas City, was a long way from the Arctic, but it was also a long way from the moderating effects of the ocean that had kept the climate of Marseguro’s single land mass temperate all year ’round.

He’d been halfway to the Splendid Raiment, located about two kilometers from his hotel, when he’d heard the dogs howling. He didn’t think they were on his scent, but at the same time he knew that the plentiful supply of food…something else that didn’t bear thinking about…the dogs had enjoyed for days must be approaching inedibility even for them, and that they were increasingly going to be looking for fresh meat. Probably they were hunting the deer that had begun wandering through the deserted streets, but Chris saw no reason to offer them an easier alternative.

Now he emerged from the alley onto the street, and looked both ways.

It was the main boulevard of the City, the one that ran past the ruins of the House of The Body straight to the Holy Compound, the city-within-a-city where The Avatar and all the highest members of The Body hierarchy had dwelt in happier times. Paved in spotless blue ceramic tile, it glittered in the sun. The white stone sidewalks and white stone buildings that lined it were almost too bright for him to look at, and he’d foolishly left his sunglasses back in the hotel.

Well, he’d pick up another pair at the store.

Nothing moved along on the boulevard. Directly across from Chris lay Mercy Park, immaculate lawns and manicured flower beds surrounding a cheerfully plashing fountain, whose central, pyramidal spire of golden metal spouted water in glistening streams into bowls held in the outstretched hands of dozens of nude men, women and children. Chris had wandered over once to read the inscription: apparently it represented God Itself pouring out Its mercy onto the grateful people of Earth.

With no one to tread on the grass, trample the flowers or spread their litter, the park had never looked better. As he watched, a tiny gardenbot trundled into view, carrying a single wilted flower in its manipulator claw.

Chris crossed to the park side of the boulevard and headed away from the Holy Compound toward the commercial district, still four blocks away. The sun shone warm on his shoulders, and birds chirped in the trees. He couldn’t help grinning, and tilted his face to the sun to enjoy the warmth even more. Despite everything, he was happy to be on Earth, happy to be far away from Marseguro and its genetically modified monstrosities. The Body had long since cleansed Earth of such things.

Then why has God visited this punishment on Earth? a rebellious voice whispered inside him. Why did It save the Earth all those years go, if It intended to destroy it now?

Chris shook his head. He would not question God’s Will. He dared not: only the mercy of God had enabled him to survive this long…

The mercy of God, and the mercy of the Selkies, who had given him their vaccine before the plague was unleashed against the Holy Warriors.

No! He shook his head again. Their mercy had been unintentional: they would certainly have let the plague take him if they had realized it was he who had brought the Holy Warriors down on their blasphemous planet in the first place. No, God’s mercy, not that of the Selkies, had been at work in that moment. God wanted Chris Keating alive, and It wanted him where he was right now.

Why else allow him to escape Marseguro to Sanctification, escape Sanctification for Retribution, and come at last safely to Earth? Why else insure that he was released from detention when it became clear everyone else was dying?

He’d been terrified of being trapped in his cell. He’d banged on the door and screamed until his hands were bloody and his voice gone, and then, when he’d almost given up hope, the door had been opened by a Holy Warrior whose face was mottled and splattered with blood that ran in trickles from his nose and eyes.

“You seem to have escaped it,” the Warrior had wheezed. “I won’t leave you to starve in there.”

Chris had thanked him and run, run as fast as he could, out of that charnel house…and into the greater charnel house of the City of God.

He had dreamed of coming to Earth, to the City of God, since he’d first listened to the contraband recordings of The Body’s holy book, The Wisdom of the Avatar of God, that his grandparents had smuggled to Marseguro decades ago. He’d dreamed of seeing for himself the new order The Body had imposed on the scarred but Purified Earth.

He’d arrived just in time to see that order unravel.

Lost in his thoughts, he’d been watching his feet instead of his path: he looked up to discover he was already across the street from Splendid Raiment. He crossed and climbed in through the shattered front window. One reason he favored it was that it had been locked up before the riots began, and no one had died in it. Finding a space free of the reek of corruption and the buzzing of flies was rare enough to make it his favorite store even without the fact that he thought the clothes in it made him look damn good.

It was too bad no one else seemed to be alive to appreciate it. Not that he hadn’t imagined what it would be like to find another survivor: a beautiful young girl, of course, lost and alone and desperate for human company…for male company…

He shook his head. The hotel had a rich collection of vids he’d begun to explore, with much, if unavoidably lonely, pleasure. He’d have a romantic date with himself that evening. For now…

He spent a few minutes browsing through the coat racks, finally settling on a long black overcoat that looked warm and also had enormous pockets he could fill with anything he came across that might be useful. On his way out, he grabbed some multi-shades, dialed them to their second-darkest setting, and stepped out into the sunlight.

A block from the safety of his hotel, he realized he was being stalked.

When he first glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye, he thought it was the dogs…but it had looked too big to be a dog. A human?

Chris’s pulse quickened. Unlikely though he knew it to be, his fantasy of the beautiful young girl resurfaced. Certainly he had no reason to think another human survivor would be a threat. With a whole city to loot, what could he possibly have that another survivor would want?

Unless they knew I was on board the Retribution when it brought the plague back to Earth, he thought uneasily. Which they just might, if they’re from the Holy Compound.

Well, it couldn’t hurt to pick up the pace just a little–

And then, from the alley on his right, from behind the trees in the park, and from the lobby of his hotel itself, dark figures emerged.

Chris stopped. What the hell…?

They weren’t human. Not fully. No more so than the Selkies. Maybe less. They wore no clothes except for straps and belts that held tools and weapons, but they weren’t naked: instead, they were covered in thick fur, not like a gorilla’s, but more like a cat’s. Ears larger than a normal human’s, pointed and tufted, sat high on their heads and twitched and swiveled like a cat’s. Their faces were catlike, too, nose and jaws extended to make a kind of muzzle, though without the harelip of a cat or dog. Just like the Selkies, they had human-looking mouths, the full lips looking incongruous on the animal-like faces–but unlike the Selkies, when those lips were drawn back into a grin…or a snarl…they revealed sharp fangs. One female, staring at him without blinking, ran her tongue over the tips of those fangs.

After one shocked, frozen moment, Chris dropped the coat he was carrying, turned and ran the only way open to him, into the park.

They followed instantly, in unnerving silence. And they were fast–incredibly fast. As he dashed headlong toward the fountain, two of the creatures ran past him as if he were strolling, leaped up onto the fountain’s lip, and turned to face him.

Chris stopped. He had no choice. He turned slowly, encircled, taking in more details of the creatures as he did so: particularly their hands, shaped the same as his, but covered with fur on the backs and black pads of naked sin on the palms. As they came nearer, needle-sharp white claws sprang from the tips of each finger and toe. “What…what do you want?” Chris finally managed to squeak out. “Who are you?”

“We are the Kemonomimi,” said the biggest, a huge male whose fur did nothing to hide just how male he was. He made Chris feel small in more ways than one, and his voice rumbled like thunder. “You will come with us.”

Chris could smell them now, a musty scent, not unpleasant, but…feral. Disturbing. They stopped just out of reach, but close enough he had no doubt they could rip him to pieces with their formidable natural armament before he took two steps.

“But…where? Why?”

“You will come with us,” the male repeated, then nodded. Chris felt his arms suddenly seized from behind. He tried to struggle, but they were strong, so strong…stronger than anyone he’d ever met, except for Selkies.

They’re moddies, he thought, horrified. But…Earth was Purified. There are no moddies on Earth. This is impossible!

The Kemonomimi didn’t seem to realize that they couldn’t exist. He felt his hands being tied together, then someone jerked a black hood down over his head. A moment later he felt himself being lifted; then he was thrown over a furry shoulder like a…

…well, the image that came to mind was of an animal trussed for butchering.

He remembered his earlier thoughts about the dogs searching for fresh meat in a city where even the plentiful carrion was becoming too gamy, and hoped fervently that he hadn’t just become the main course for that evening’s Kemonomimi feast.

No, he thought, as the creature carrying him broke into a loping run that caused his head to bounce hard against its back with every step. No. God Itself has spared me for a purpose. That purpose cannot be to feed moddie monstrosities. It can’t.

But he couldn’t help remembering something The Avatar had always emphasized: God’s ways are mysterious. To think you understand them is to verge on blasphemy. And those who blaspheme deserve death.

It’s not fair! Chris thought.

But fair or not, it seemed, once more his fate lay in the hands of moddies.

#