Looking upon the infant in my arms, its wide black eyes staring back, a flood of emotions swirled inside me. How could anyone have involved a child in this mess? Rage burst forth and I stormed up to the wooden gate. Shifting the tiny bundle to one arm, I raised my hand, the wooden door planks rattling and nearly buckling beneath the force of my repeated pounding.
The cold night wind bit at my face, and I finally stopped my attack on the door. Tucking the child closer, I pulled the pink wrap around the child to protect it.
The crunch of gravel under someone’s feet finally made me push out a sigh of relief. They drew closer until an antique bar lock was pulled loose with a thunk. The door finally squeaked on its hinges, pulling away from me.
A young woman covered in a dark cloak stood there, her dark blue eyes penetrating my soul. “Yes?”
“I’ve been told you take in orphans.” It hadn’t been easy to find out about this place, but thankfully those who knew me realized I was in no way capable of raising a child.
In fact, in their exact words, “Aston West? A father?” Following that with unending laughter was disheartening, but at least I’d discovered this orphanage’s location.
She looked at the pink bundle, then back at me. The woman’s eyes narrowed. “We are not a depository for unwanted children.”
I lifted an eyebrow, the implication clear. “This isn’t my child.”
“A likely story.”
I cursed under my breath, which she didn’t take well. She started closing the wooden door, but I shoved my foot into the gap. This one would need some convincing.
“Are you certain this time will be different?”
My ship’s computer was always a bit overprotective, likely one of the reasons I’d survived deep space for so long. “There are no certainties in life, Jeanie.”
“If you recall, the last time Diedra Cane sent you on a job, you ended up imprisoned in a sting operation.”
I frowned. “Mistakes happen.” Plus, I couldn’t overlook the fact Diedra had gone against any protocol I’d ever experienced, and bailed me out for a quick escape. She’d learn from her errors. I just hoped I wouldn’t be the victim every time she did.
A dark gray hulk of a starship sat before me, its exterior lights blinking in a repeating pattern around its torroid hull. I reminded myself, money was money. Being as how my accounts were nearly dry, the risk had to be taken.
“Take us in,” I told her.
Before long, we’d docked with the much larger craft and I stepped through the airlock hatch into an empty corridor. Eyebrows raised, I looked in both directions. I’d expected a welcoming party at the very least.
Raising my left sleeve, I spoke into the embedded transmitter. “We spoke with an actual crew before coming in for docking, right?”
“Where are they?”
“I no longer detect any life signs on-board.”
The hairs rose along the back of my neck and I pulled my Mark II blaster from under my jacket. My first thought was to turn around, rush back through the airlock and make an escape. Then, instinct took over. I’d been sent here to acquire two containers of cargo and transport them to the nearby Ureskal system. I could still finish that mission, presuming the cargo actually existed.
“Jeanie, can you dump the cargo bays?”
“Negative. They need to be dumped manually.”
It wasn’t surprising, but still disappointing. “Where are the controls?”
“Main bridge. Proceed to the left.”
I progressed around the empty ring until I found a metal door. Cautious, I brought my weapon up and took another step forward. The door swished aside.
Scanning the room beyond, I now knew what happened to the crew, at least superficially. Bodies lay on the floor, burn marks gracing their green battle fatigues. I would have feared for my life a little more, aside from Jeanie’s proclamation about there being no life forms present. I moved from console to console, until I finally found the cargo bay controls. From there, it wasn’t hard to eject the only two containers on-board. I was just glad the mission wouldn’t end up a total, and expensive, failure.
And then a muted screech sounded off nearby. I brought my weapon up.
“Jeanie, everything okay with the cargo containers?”
“They appear undamaged.”
I gulped. “Bring them in.”
The screech repeated, and against my better judgment, I moved to a second exit along the opposite wall. The mystery behind the crew’s deaths was solved when I saw a man in a dark blue jumpsuit, an automatic blast rifle beside him. He’d been the shooter, and judging from the burn marks under his chin, he’d finished up his work here by taking his own life.
I stepped toward the door, it swished open the same as the first. The screech repeated, this time louder.
This next room held a series of holding cells, something I had a lot of experience with. Red beams of energy still ran at full strength in front of all cells but one. That lone compartment was the only one empty of prisoners as well, though two guards lay dead just this side of where the field would have been. Only one held a weapon.
The prisoners in the other cells all lay face-up on the floor, motionless. Shiny gelatinous orange goo covered each of them, both their skin and their blue jumpsuits.
I looked back through the bridge door at the gunman. His blue jumpsuit matched the prisoners and his weapon matched the automatic blast rifle in one of the dead guard’s hands. He’d found a way to escape his confines and go down fighting rather than face whatever fate had befallen his fellow prisoners.
I looked at the other prisoners, all still incarcerated post-mortem. A small box rested inside the energy field, all except the open cell. Scanning the room, I finally saw another in the corner, its goo exploded all over the wall. The boxes had been the delivery mechanism for the material, whatever it was.
And then the screech returned, going longer and far louder than I’d heard it before. Now I realized what it was, even only having heard it a few times before.
I moved over to the console and dropped the energy fields. Then, using the continued screeching to home in on, I moved past each cell.
Jeanie was right on top of things. “A single life scan just appeared on my scans.” Which meant that the energy fields had been blocking her scans before. At least she’d only detected one new life sign.
I looked inside one cell where a man and a woman lay dead on the floor. The sound was far louder, and seemed to be coming from a pile of clothing in the corner, under a pair of bench seats. Taking care to avoid the goo remnants, I moved over to the pile and yanked clothing away, revealing what I had feared.
As I lifted the child in its tiny pink wrap, the screeching finally ceased.
“Is there any indication what happened on this ship?”
Jeanie responded. “I have investigated what I can, through ship logs, and it appears this was a scientific research vessel.”
I peered around at the goo and the dead prisoners. “Researching what, exactly?”
“It appears they were researching genetics.”
My eyes widened. “Genetics?”
“In particular, the genetic code of the individuals they were incarcerating, against their will from the way the logs read.”
I suppressed a shudder, fearing the child would start screeching again. These weren’t mere prisoners behind energy fields, but test subjects. The people I’d been contracted out to were testing out a genetic weapon that targeted this child’s entire race.
Suddenly, a far greater fear filled my chest. I raced back toward the airlock hatch, despite the child’s renewed cries. I needed to know for sure, and that meant checking the cargo. “Are the containers loaded?”
“Bays one and two.”
I rushed through my living quarters, placing the infant on my cot and bundling up sheets to immobilize it. Then, I rushed off for the cargo hold at the back of my ship. Stepping inside the hold, and then into the first cargo bay, I climbed onto the bay’s support structure and opened the container. My breath formed heavy clouds of vapor as I stared in upon hundreds of clear cylinders, filled with a blue gelatinous compound. I had no doubt this was the same material that killed the infant’s parents.
Dejected, I instructed Jeanie, “Once I’m out of here, eject these two containers and destroy them.”
“Will this not void your contract with Miss Caine?”
“I’m certain she’ll understand why I had to do it.” And if not, she was far more cold-hearted than I realized.
As I exited the bay and started back toward my living quarters, the bays were evacuated through explosive decompression. I knew destroying the containers wouldn’t solve the problem. There was still the research they’d performed, and that had to be eliminated as well. “Jeanie, does the research ship have a self-destruct mechanism?”
“Get us away from here, and detonate it.”
I stepped back into the living quarters, where the child had returned to screeching, at least until I picked it up again. We disengaged hard from the other ship, and the engines vibrated the floor as we cleared the structure. The child looked up at me and seemed to smile. I’d become its savior and protector, all for research into some senseless act of genocide.
I sighed, looking upon the infant with pity. I’d been an orphan myself, but at least I’d had brothers and a home to return to. This child had nothing.
“A very sad story,” the woman told me.
“The truth often is.”
“Given the circumstances, we’ll take the child in.” She pulled the child away and I felt something I hadn’t before. As the infant was tugged from my grasp, it felt like a piece of my heart was attached. I watched in sorrow as the woman turned and disappeared behind the gate, closing it on me.
I stood there staring at the wooden planks, then turned to walk back toward the city’s space dock. Despite the circumstances of our meeting, and the limited amount of time we’d spent together, the infant had grown on me. I’d become her savior and protector, and those weren’t duties I took lightly. Ultimately, she’d always be in my thoughts.
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Copyright 2012, T. M. Hunter. All rights reserved.
As a writer of science fiction, T. M. Hunter’s short stories have appeared in such publications as Ray Gun Revival, Residential Aliens and Golden Visions Magazine. He currently has two novels with Burst Books, HEROES DIE YOUNG (Champagne Books’ Best-Selling Novel of 2008) and FRIENDS IN DEED. He also has a short story collection, DEAD OR ALIVE, with ResAliens Press. His self-published titles include his novella SEEKER, a sci-fi thriller THE CURE, and the first Aston West Triple-Shot (three-story collection) featuring “Dead Man’s Forge” and other adventures. Learn more about T. M. Hunter and read plenty of free excerpts and short stories at AstonWest.com.