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R. Boyczuk is a writer who lives and teaches in Toronto, Canada. His fiction has appeared in On Spec, Prairie Fire, Transversions, Northern Frights, and the anthology Erotica Vampirica.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1999 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Object of Desire

by R. Boyczuk

 

     Lying back on the acceleration couch, Cat dug her fingers into the warm, yielding material. Gritting her teeth, she waited for the drop. In less than a tenth of a second she knew it would be over: the Zel'dovich tearing through bent space nea r the singularity gate, the throat opening to swallow them whole. Yet for her it always seemed an eternity: a lurch, then a sudden terrifying plummet away in all directions, her body drawn out thinner and squashed flatter, tailing away into an emptiness without end, stretched beyond redemption. And when she thought she could take no more, she fetched up against an almost barrier, a sensation like being run through a strainer with an impossibly fine mesh, wires so thin they sliced away tiny subato mic bonds, made her into a cloud of cold, unfeeling matter.
     Yet awareness persisted.
     Each time a brief instant followed in which she was sure this was the final drop, that she would be sucked into the gravity well of the singularity gate like the stream of helpless, lonely particles she had become. But at that last moment the singula rity seemed to relent, to relinquish its grasp, and her body pulled together again like an elastic band stretched to its limit, collapsing back into the woman known as Cat, leaving her weak and sickened, feeling useless and somehow violated in a way she c ould find no words to describe.
     Why did this always make her think of love?

 

     "The planet wasn't been there before," Wei said hunching over her comm panel.
     Simon laughed; he stood behind her, his tall, gangly form dwarfing Wei, shaking his head. He patted her on the back in mock consolation.
     Cat looked up from ops; she could see the muscles tense in Wei's shoulders as she hunched lower, drawing away from Simon's touch, her compact body coiling itself even tighter. A few meters away, completely oblivious to Simon's goading, Chan hummed to himself in the pilot's cage, his eyes large and a dreamy expression on his face.
     "Perhaps," Simon said, "perhaps it arrived with us?" Then he smiled at Cat.
     Wei turned, her eyes cold and hard. "Stay away from me," she hissed at him.
     Simon's face coloured and he stepped back. Then he composed himself, and smiled crookedly. "Sure," he said in a too casual tone. "Whatever you say." Sauntering over to Cat's station on the opposite side of the bridge, he placed a cold, moist hand on her shoulder.
     Cat shrugged it off.
     Leave me alone, she thought irritably. Just leave me out of it. She felt nauseous and disoriented as she always did after a drop. Only this drop, the effect had been more severe than usual, almost debilitating. She bent over the ops p anel, her stomach churning, trying to concentrate on the diagnostics that ran past her eyes like an unfamiliar alphabet.
     Simon hovered beside her, and Cat knew Wei was watching them. When Cat glanced up, Wei caught her eye and held it. Cat shook her head slowly from side to side and smiled, trying to reassure her across the distance, feeling a sudden spur of anger at Simon. What the hell was he up to? He wasn't even supposed to be on the bridge now; he should have been below, with the rest of the survey team. Why was he acting like a jealous lover now? Their affair had been short and impersonal, the way she liked them, months before she had met Wei. She glanced at him and a strange look -- pain, she thought, mixed with longing -- flickered across his face; Cat's stomach tightened and she averted her eyes quickly, her lips curling in distaste.
     "The diagnostics indicate everything is functioning correctly," Wei said. "The survey must have been incorrect."
     "What do you mean?" Simon asked.
     Wei swung her chair around. "The survey was your responsibility. You didn't do your job properly."
     Simon's face flushed again; his half-smile disappeared completely. "And perhaps you haven't yet learned how to do yours properly --"
     "Brethren," Chan said, twists of dreadlocks bouncing from side to side as he shook his head. Exhaling a long thin line of smoke into the cabin, he sighed contentedly and smiled. "No need fe argument."
     Yeah, thought Cat sourly. That's a lot of help. She whispered a command to her panel; the lights dimmed and an image coalesced between Simon and Wei. At first it was an indistinct, colourless ball, a swirling sphere of grey. But then it began to firm, become a planet, its surface dappled with smudges and clots of growing colour, deep, earthy tones, ochre and sienna and paler, sandy browns; sparkling aquamarine blues rippled across its surface and slipped into cool shades of slate grey ; bright greens blossomed, splotches like spills of paints, here and there; and great expanses of eye-straining white, lumped across the sphere in long, distended masses.
     The fourth planet in a system that was supposed to have only three.
     Fully resolved, it shimmered, suddenly became sharper as the simulation slipped into real-time. It was rotating now, its motion so slow Cat could detect it only by watching the clouds and darker land masses slip past the edge of the world.
     How could they have missed it?

 

     Cap/N's projected image wavered, then solidified above the empty chair, drifting down into the seat at the head of the oval table; he had assumed the form of a middle aged man, with an expansive, fatherly face. Knowing wrinkles radiated from the corn ers of his eyes. An air of calm seemed to emanate from him. "Well?" he asked, resting his chin on steepled fingers, a hint of a smile playing about the corner of his lips.
     The lounge was silent. Above the table a smaller version of the planet floated, high enough so they could see each other under the white of its southern pole.
     Wei squirmed impatiently in her seat, staring angrily at Simon; Cat reached over and squeezed her hand and Wei, after a moment's hesitation, returned the pressure. On the other side of the table Simon crossed his arms, his eyes flicking from Wei to C at. A vein throbbed in his temple.
     Cat glanced around the table. If the others were aware of the tension, they didn't seem to be showing it: Singh, their planetologist, sat next to Simon, staring at the planet with his habitual air of distraction. And at the far end of the table, opp osite Cap/N, sat JC, the geologist, his massive body crammed into a seat far too small for him, doodling in the small, brown sketchbook he carried everywhere with him. He looked bored and half-asleep. The only person missing was Chan, whom they had left in his cage, wreathed in a holy cloud of ganja smoke, a joint the thickness of his thumb dangling loosely from his lips.
     Cap/N cleared his throat. "Singh, perhaps you'd best begin."
     The small man nodded, flipped through several sheets of hardcopy until he found the one he wanted. "According to the earlier survey, we had a stable, three planet system. Three cold worlds. Now we have a fourth." He held up a second sheet. "So I reworked all the orbital data. The numbers for the original planets hasn't changed from the earlier surveys. Which means that the new planet appears to exert no gravitational influence on the others."
     There was a moment of silence. Then, with a bemused smile, Simon spoke: "You're telling us it's not there?"
     Singh dropped the sheets, looked at him. He blinked. "It shouldn't be -- if the figures are to be believed."
     "What about Simon's suggestion?" Cap/N asked. He had drifted out of his chair and now floated thoughtfully above the planet, half his normal size so that he could squeeze between the image and the low ceiling. He gestured at the globe. "Are we sur e it's even there?"
     "Not there?" JC scratched his head with his pencil. "What do you mean?"
     "Well," Cap/N said, "What if the instruments are malfunctioning? Or if they have been tampered with in some way?" He slipped back down into his chair as if he rode an invisible slide, now looking like young child perched on the edge of the seat. "W hat if we only think it's there?"
     Cat squirmed in her seat. "Is it possible? That we could be looking at a false image."
     "Who can say," replied Cap/N, returning for the most part to normal size while his shoulders continued to grow, shrugged, then shrunk back. "I know no better than you. Perhaps worse since everything I perceive comes to me through the ship's Net."
     "We can check easily enough," Cat said. "We don't need the instruments. We're close enough so that an EVA could verify its existence."
     "I'll do it," said Singh.
     "Fine," Cap/N responded warmly. "That should help clear things up."
     "It flickered." Wei said softly, staring at the table top. "When I started running the diagnostics the screen was empty. I'm sure of it. Then something caught my eye: a small blue dot in the corner where there'd been nothing before."
     "Maybe it was just a hiccup, Wei," Cat said softly. "You know how temperamental the imaging system can be after a drop." She glanced at Cap/N for support, but he had become semi-transparent, making his expression difficult to read.
     "No," Wei said. "This was different. The image was straight through without any enhancements. Nothing else in the field changed. The planet wasn't there -- then it was."
     "Were you recording?" Cat asked.
     She shook her head.
     "Any way you can verify that Cap/N?" Singh asked.
     "No. I'm afraid not. Wei's board was fully manual at the time, so if she didn't record, I have no back-up."
     "You think the planet is a glitch in the imaging system? On every wavelength?" Cat shook her head. "Then it's a pretty damn specific glitch. With lots of specific detail." She stared at the dark continents, the sharp blue of the sea.
     Cap/N shrugged. "It does seem unlikely. However, I have another reason to believe the instruments may be defective," Cap/N said. He rose, his chair dissolving behind him and his suit melting away to reveal a lab smock beneath. Using a pointer that materialized in his hand he gestured at figures that now scrolled on the wall behind him. "My observations also show something odd about the singularity gate. They recorded a decrease in the angular momentum of the singularity without an accompanying i ncrease in mass."
     Singh drew his brows together in a frown. "The event horizon shrunk?"
     Cap/N nodded. "Yes."
     "Is that important?" JC asked slowly.
     "The event horizon of a singularity can't shrink," Singh said. "It can only get bigger. Cap/N is telling us that the hole has lost mass energy. An impossibility." He sat back in his seat. "Our instruments must be shot."
     "Yes," Cap/N said, "That seems like a reasonable conclusion." As he spoke a thick, dark beard with flecks of grey flowered on his cheeks and chin. "Which also means that until we can verify and correct the problem, any data we collect might be compr omised."
     "Then what do you suggest we do?" Simon said irritably.
     "We've still got twenty-seven days before they open up the throat for the return drop, Simon. So I suggest we let Singh make his observations, and then we'll decide what our course of action should be."

 

     They were both naked.
     Wei lay next to Cat on the bunk, staring at the ceiling. It was the first chance they had had to be together since the drop, and their lovemaking -- normally slow and unhurried, a leisurely, pleasurable stroll -- had been sharp and urgent, with an in tensity that had made Cat gasp in surprise and pleasure. Her body was covered with a sheen of sweat.
     Cat sat up. She reached over and pulled gently at Wei's shoulder, felt the tension still there. "Come on," she said. "I'll give you a massage."
     Wei looked at her a moment, then shrugged. She let Cat roll her onto her stomach. Above the bunk was a shelf, and Cat reached up and lifted off a bottle of oil. She flipped open the lid and squirted some into the cup of her palm. The scent of tang erine and rose filled the small cabin. Kneeling, she straddled Wei's back.
     Soon her fingers were warm and slippery and Wei's skin glistened, though her muscles were still hard and unyielding beneath Cat's touch. Despite her own fatigue, Cat pushed with determination against the knots of resistance, losing herself in the rhy thm of her strokes, thinking of nothing but the smooth skin that slid beneath her fingers, of the slight angles of Wei, of her spare, economical frame.
     Cat envied Wei's body, its smooth hairless contours, its sleek, almost boyish, proportions. A compact, functional form. In comparison, hers felt loose, rounded, far too soft. Too much a useless, inefficient, pampered body. There had been a time wh en she had loved her own shape, had admired its curves and hollows in the mirror, tracing them slowly with the tip of her index finger. When men and women alike had vied for her attention, pursuing her, proclaiming in unstinting terms their love, each wanting desperately to possess her --
     No, she thought suddenly, and bitterly, not me. It was this body they wanted. Never me. Just like Simon ....
     Wei grunted sharply, and Cat was suddenly aware of the woman beneath her, of the flushed skin on Wei's back and neck, of her own fingers digging deeply into the flesh. Cat released her grip, lifting her hands away. Curling her fists and using only h er thumbs, she pressed lightly into the shallow channels between Wei's ribs. A moment later she was rewarded with a sigh. Shifting her weight, Cat wiggled forward, and began to knead the muscle just above Wei's shoulder blades slowly and tenderly; she c ould feel the ridges of tissue beginning to break down under her fingers. Wei was finally letting go, her anger broken, Cat feeling it seeping through her skin and evaporating in the warm air of their cabin. Cat pushed though the joints in her fingers a ched. Soon Wei's breathing became quiet and rhythmic, her muscles relaxed, a calm washing over her face as she fell asleep. Cat smiled, a feeling of affection suddenly and inexplicably welling in her ....
     She caught herself. It is only admiration, perhaps the warmth of friendship, I am feeling, she thought, having decided long ago that she did not, could not, love Wei. No, not love, she thought. It was more respect for her self-sufficien cy, envy, perhaps, of her independent nature. Wei needed no one. And Wei let her alone, let Cat be, asked no questions, made no demands. It was why she had agreed to share Wei's cabin. Cat glanced at the wall where a shadow, roughly square in its dime nsions, was visible. It was the shadow left when, at Cat's request, Wei had removed the mirror.
     And she had never asked why.

 

     Singh's EVA confirmed the planet was real. And Cap/N's instruments continued to report the hole not only had lost mass, but apparently was continuing to do so at a small, but constant, rate. Though the news should have disturbed Cat as much as it bo thered the others, she felt only a mild annoyance. There was really nothing she could do anyway. It was up to Cap/N and Singh to decide on the significance of these facts, if any. Instead, she spent most of her time avoiding Simon, whose resentment see med to have grown. His jealousy had become an almost palpable presence, stalking her down the corridors, following her into her cabin, creeping into her dreams. Whenever she encountered Simon in the corridors, he stared at her wordlessly, his face pale and his eyes red and darkened by ever-larger circles. It left her unnerved. So much so that she found an excuse to miss the meeting in which they had decided to scrap the system survey for the chance to map the new world.
     Cat was relieved by the decision. It meant plenty of activity, realigning the instruments and collating entirely different sets of data for which they had not been prepared. It was an opportunity to throw herself into her work, to forget, at least f or a time, the tension she felt whenever Simon entered the room. Yet, as they moved towards the planet, she sensed a growing unease, not just in Wei and Simon, but in the others, too, as if Simon's jealousy had infected them. They seemed to make efforts to avoid Cat, to dodge conversations with her, barely acknowledging her when they passed in the corridors, as if they blamed her for Simon's feelings. She'd encountered many such reactions in the past.
     She didn't mind. Not really. In a few days they'd make orbit and do their survey; two weeks after that they'd be back at the way station. There, she'd request a transfer like she'd done several times before -- whenever things had gotten complicated .
     And then she'd never have to see any of them again.

 

     Cat sat in the lounge, her eyes fixed on the screen, several hardcopies scattered on the table in front of her. She had just finished the third run of the imaging survey. They'd been in orbit for twelve hours now.
     "Do you love her?"
     Cat looked up, startled; she had thought herself alone.
     Simon stood on the opposite side of the table near the door; he lifted one of the photos and idly examined it. He swayed slightly. "Well," he said smiling weakly when Cat did not reply. "Do you?"
     Cat curled her fists. "Simon. Dammit, don't creep up on me like that --"
     "I mean," Simon continued as if he had not heard her. "I know you don't care for me. You've told me that much already." His voice was calm, almost detached, as if he were reciting an often rehearsed scene of which he was bored. He dropped the cha rt. "But I want to know if she's special ...."
     "I don't think that's any of your business."
     "Special," he said again. "That's all I want to know." He leaned forward, resting his hands on the table. "Why?"
     Cat looked into his eyes; they were red and his pupils were unnaturally large. "You're high," she said, and began organizing the survey shots, stacking them in a neat piles. "I have work to do."
     "Is she a better lover?" Simon reached across, snared her wrist. "Is she? Tell me!" Simon's face flushed; his grip tightened until Cat could feel the tips of her fingers beginning to throb.
     "Simon," she gasped, "you're hurting me!"
     "Hurting you? Hurting you?" For a moment his eyes seemed to clear, his vision to focus, and he appeared surprised. Then his face fell back into unrepentant lines. "And me? What about how you hurt me?" He turned Cat's arm down towards the table, pulling her out of her chair and making her stagger. A contorted smile twisted his face. "How do you like it now?"
     Cat tried to pull free of his grip, but he held her arm firmly. With a sudden thrust he cracked her hand sharply on the table. Cat's mind filled jagged pain; her eyes blurred with tears. "Perhaps now you can see --"
     "Trouble?" A voice, Chan's voice, cut off whatever Simon was about to say. "Let the sistah go, man," he said calmly, as if he were asking for a light.
     Cat blinked back tears, saw Chan standing beside Simon; in his left hand he held his hookah loosely by its throat. He had none of his usual distractedness about him. "Yuh no hear what I-man seh to you?" The hookah was an antique, Chan's pride, glas s fluting above a base of thick, solid brass. It had taken his entire weight allowance. Simon wavered for a moment, and Chan hefted the pipe. Simon watched it closely. Then he released his grip on her arm. "You don't know what you're doing," he said. He turned, brushed past Chan, and walked out the door.
     "Hey. Yuh alright, sistah?" Chan stood next to Cat, his arm around her shoulder, supporting her.
     Cat rubbed her wrist, felt along the bone. Nothing seemed broken. "Yeah," she said numbly. "I think so."
     Chan smiled broadly, displaying an irregular grin of darkening teeth. "Irie. That man is a good fe nuttin, yuh no see it?"
     Cat nodded. "Yeah, you said it."
     "Seen. But don' fret, sistah. Cap/N tell I say, yuh need help, so I-and-I mek haste to be here. Cap/N watching out fe yuh." Chan gave her a friendly squeeze and left his arm resting lightly over her shoulder.
     "Chan?"
     "Yeah?"
     "Would you have? Creamed him with your pipe? I know how much you love that thing."
     He nodded.
     "Thanks."
     "Thanks not necessary, sistah. I-and-I do anything fe you." He smiled broadly. "Yuh is a righteous woman, a fine woman." He bent his head and kissed her before Cat could react; she tasted ganja thick on his lips and tongue. "Me ha'fe go," he said . "Later ...." He gave her a final squeeze, winked, and walked out the door.
     For a moment Cat stood unmoving, her wrist still cradled in her other hand. Her heart seemed to falter. Oh, God, she thought. Oh, God.

 

     "Simon's gone?"
     "Yes, Cat." Cap/N was a disembodied voice that drifted near the ceiling; there were no projectors in the hold of the dropship where Cat had been storing gear.
     Her arms trembled. "How ... how could that happen?"
     "I don't know. But I am gravely concerned."
     "You monitor the ship, don't you? You watch every member of the crew?"
     "Yes." Cap/N paused and Cat fancied she heard a sigh, though she couldn't be certain. "However, for some reason I am unable to access anything relating to Simon after 14:35:53, shortly after your altercation. The moment, in fact, he entered his cab in and I passed the monitoring function back to a subroutine."
     "A software failure?"
     "No. At least not as far as I can tell."
     Cat dropped onto a crate containing drill bits. "Then what happened?" she asked, her voice subdued.
     "I don't know. There's no record. The only thing I can tell you with certainty is that he's no longer on the ship." He paused, then added quietly, "The others are waiting in the lounge."

 

     Cat passed through the doorway. Singh stood quietly in the corner, his hands hanging down in front of him, his fingers interlocked, studying the floor at his feet as if nothing mattered more. Wei, who sat at the table, darted a glance at Cat then lo oked away quickly. JC was next to her, his sketch pad closed beside him; he had been drumming his fingers on its thick, brown cover, but stopped the moment Cat entered the room. He too glanced up then looked away.
     They think it's me. That I did something. The thought shook Cat; she dropped numbly into a chair. No one spoke. She tried, unsuccessfully, to catch Wei's eye.
     Chan strolled in, smiled broadly as if nothing were amiss, and slipped into the seat next to Cat. He pulled a plastic bag and some papers from a pocket in his coveralls and began rolling a large joint. Under the table his leg pressed against hers; s he jerked away.
     Cap/N materialized near the end of the room dressed in baggy trousers, a brightly flowered, short-sleeved shirt, and a white apron that ran from his knees to his chest and which bore, in large red letters, the words Kiss the Cook! On his head an oversize chef's hat drooped. "Ah," he said cheerily, "I see we've all arrived." In his left hand he held barbecue tongs.
     "Except for Simon," Singh said dryly. For the first time he looked at Cat; in his eyes she saw anger -- and perhaps fear. Something else, too, something that she couldn't quite place.
     "Um, yes." Cap/N furrowed his brow. "No doubt."
     JC eyed Cap/N's image sourly, pushing his sketchbook back and forth between his forefingers. "Why are we here?" he asked.
     Cap/N lifted the hat's mushroom top which had collapsed over his eyes. "We are here to discuss our next step."
     "Next step?" JC growled, a deep sound that seemed to rumble even in Cat's chest. "Shouldn't we return to the drop site immediately? Regulations specifically stipulate that we are to abort missions if the event of death."
     "True," said Cap/N. "But we don't know Simon's dead. Not yet anyway. I've listed him as missing."
     "You said he's not on the ship. Out here, missing or dead amounts to the same thing."
     "Not necessarily," Cap/N said. "It is possible that he may be on the planet. We already know it's a hospitable environment, surprisingly earth-like. And there is this." Cap/N gestured with his tongs and a holo of the planet appeared above the tabl e. A tiny pinpoint of light flared on its surface near the equator, then began pulsing with regularity.
     "Radio beacon," Singh said, incredulous.
     Cap/N nodded. "The signal appeared almost immediately after Simon vanished. Regular one second pulse on the emergency band. I've returned messages on same frequency, but haven't received a response yet."
     Singh leaned forward. "Visuals?"
     "The source is obscured by heavy foliage."
     "Could be anything," JC mumbled. "We don't know it's Simon."
     "No," Cap/N said. "We don't. There may be no connection whatsoever. But if he's alive and down there, leaving now would almost certainly result in his death. It would be weeks before a proper rescue mission could be mounted."
     This is crazy, Cat thought. Why doesn't anyone say this is crazy? She looked around the group, at the six of them, but no one -- except Chan, who bared a mouthful of yellowed teeth at her in a lopsided grin -- would meet her gaze. How could they sit here, she wondered, discussing these absurdities as if it were some sort of minor technical problem?
     "What do you recommend?" Singh asked, looking at Cap/N.
     The apron and shirt dissolved, were replaced by a sober, dark jacket; Cap/N's face aged, the lines on his forehead deepening, crow's feet crimping the corner's of his eyes. "I'm afraid I have no suggestions this time." He seemed to shrink, to stoop with age. Reaching up, he plucked the hat from his head. His hair was white. "This decision is one you'll have to sort out amongst yourselves. In situations such as these my role is limited to pointing out the available options. I am, after all, mere ly a simulation." The hat had, during this last speech, metamorphosed into a narrow, darkly bound volume, with gold lettering embossed on its cover. Cat wasn't sure, but it still appeared to say 'Kiss the Cook!'
     "Yes," JC said. "Cap/N is right. And I think it's a decision we need to make in private."
     "I understand," Cap/N said agreeably. "I shall make myself scarce."
     Cat looked at JC, surprised, realizing suddenly she was scared, that she didn't want to be alone in the room without Cap/N.
     Cap/N smiled reassuringly at Cat as if he sensed her discomfort. Drifting in her direction, he rested an insubstantial hand on her shoulder. "I shall restrict my monitoring to areas outside the lounge until you have reached your decision." Then he vanished.
     Cat sat up straight in her chair. "JC," she said sharply, trying to mask her discomfort with anger, "what the hell was that about?"
     "We only have Cap/N's word that Simon is gone," he said. "I think we should conduct our own search of the ship."
     "You think Cap/N is lying?"
     "Lying may not be the right word. Perhaps he's malfunctioned. Something might have gotten scrambled when we did the drop. Or," and here JC paused, staring at a point on the wall just beyond Cat. "Maybe he's been tampered with."
     Chan exhaled a large cloud of smoke that wafted over Cat and settled around her like a fog. "Wha' that man mean?" he said, threads of smoke still spilling from his nostrils.
     JC shrugged, then looked away. "This is too weird to be explained by a simple glitch in the system. Cap/N controls everything. If someone's messed around with him, then we can't be certain of anything. Hell, for all we know he might still be liste ning." He stared at the spot Cap/N had last occupied.
     Smoke wreathed Cat's head, tickled her nose. She breathed deeply, drawing the numbing fumes deeply into her lungs.
     "All right, an onboard search," said Wei evenly, her eyes focussed on the table top. "If Simon is still aboard, then we know the problem is with Cap/N. I'd just as soon find that out before we trust Cap/N to the return drop. If he's acting up, we c an send a message and wait for another team to come get us."
     "And if we don't find Simon, what then?" Singh asked.
     "I think we should do just what Cap/N suggested," Wei answered without hesitation. "Check the planet."
     "I agree," JC said. "We can't just leave."
     Wei looked at Singh.
     He shrugged. "I'll go along with the majority."
     "Chan?"
     "Aye, aye, mon."
     "What about you, Cat?" Wei asked, for the first time looking directly at her.
     Cat could read nothing in her gaze. But Wei's hands lay stiffly in her lap, curled into small, tight fists. For some reason Cat didn't feel threatened by this. Instead, she found Wei's hands fascinating. Smoke spiralled around her head; bright, fr iendly pinpricks of light flared in her brain. "Sure," she said at last, inhaling deeply, her tongue feeling numb, growing heavy, making it hard to speak. "Why not?" The words rushed out with her exhalation. Beneath the table Chan was pressing his leg against hers again. "What else is there to do?"

 

     Searching the Zel'dovich took just a few hours; there were only so many places into which you could squeeze a body of Simon's size. Cat had worked her way back to the last two holds, crawling over containers and bundles of dogged equipment, co nvincing herself that Simon was not an occupant of any of them. She sat on a box designed to hold core samples. Her head throbbed.
     "Cat?" Cap/N appeared across from her, hovering above a stack of flat alloy plates JC used for some sort of geological research. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but Wei asked me to tell you the others have completed their search and have failed to find S imon."
     Cat nodded.
     Cap/N slipped down along the far wall, his shape flowing like water around the plates. "Do you think they believe me now?"
     The question surprised Cat. He sounded genuinely concerned. To be believed had never been a thing she would have thought important to Cap/N. "Who can say? Does it bother you?"
     "Yes," Cap/N said sadly. "A little."
     "Well," Cat said, "for what it's worth, I believe you."
     "Thanks." Cap/N floated in mid-air, his legs crossed, his chin resting in the palm of his hand, staring at her. "Please forgive my impertinence, Cat, but I was wondering about your relationship with Simon? Would you mind if I asked you a question."
     "Ask if you want," Cat said slowly. "Though I don't think it's going to help anything."
     Cap/N drifted next to her, eased himself down on the edge of the same container on which Cat perched, careful to keep a polite distance. "I inferred from your conversation with Simon that you were once lovers. Do you still love him?"
     She felt her face colour. "No," she said quickly. "I didn't love him. I never loved him. Love and lovers can be very different things." She stared at Cap/N. "Why? Why do you want to know?"
     Cap/N lifted his hands and stared at them. "I was just thinking," he said, his voice tinged with melancholy, "that it can be very hard when you are unable to touch the one you love." He vanished before Cat could reply.

 

     They landed in a meadow seven klicks southwest of the beacon, the closest open ground that was large enough for the dropship. The early morning sun was a brooding, red eye on the horizon, a few thin clouds drifting forlornly across its surface. From the open hatch of the ship Cat stared down a gentle incline to a narrow creek; their survey shots had shown the creek ran a relatively straight course to the point at which the signal originated. Behind her she heard JC shifting things in the hold; he h ad spent most of the short flight back there, sketching in his book, staying as far away from her as possible. Ignoring him, Cat stepped out of the dropship.
     The flora seemed strikingly similar to Earth's, the thick forest and broken hills reminding Cat of southern Vermont where she had grown up. The trees looked like twisted version of pines, though their shapes were more rounded than conical. Low clump s of silver-grey bushes grew between the trees, and thick blades of grass, indistinguishable from those back home, grew wherever sunlight penetrated the canopy of the forest. Despite the impermeable membrane of the skinsuit Cat fancied she could smell sp ring sap and the pungent odour of the decaying forest floor. The sun warmed her, felt good on her. In the morning light her suit was almost completely transparent, and it was possible to believe she stood alone and naked basking in the warmth of the new day. She closed her eyes and stretched.
     JC cleared his throat; Cat opened her eyes. He stood behind her, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his squat form hunched more than usual. "Perhaps we should get going, huhn?"
     Cat realized he had been watching her. She stared at him, and his face coloured slightly, something like anger flashing there for an instant then disappearing. "Sure," she said. She reached down to the small box fixed near her waist and pressed a b utton. The skinsuit opaqued.
     Behind them, the exterior of the dropship shimmered in the morning light, and Cat located the remote through which Wei would be watching them from the Zel'dovich. She raised her arm and waved. Turning her back on JC, she plunged into the shad ows of the trees.

 

     The day grew hot. Cat pulled at the fabric of her skinsuit where perspiration had collected in the small of her back. The suit should have wicked away the moisture, recycled it, should have, in fact, left her cool and dry despite the heat. Cat trie d adjusting the temperature manually, but nothing seemed to help. Both she and JC were covered with a film of sweat. They had been scrambling over rugged terrain all morning, and the creek, fed by a number of runnels, had widened into a vigorous river o f dark agitated waters that cascaded over a series of rugged, stepped falls. The seven kilometres they thought they'd be able to traverse in a couple of hours had taken much longer as they had to skirt two large bluffs and swing wide when the river had d ropped off into a steep-sided ravine. It had been five hours and they were, according to Cap/N's latest estimate, still nearly two kilometres away from the beacon.
     JC had remained sullen and Cat had given up any attempt to talk to him. She could hear him now, struggling behind her as they ascended a steeply pitched hill, the river falling away to their right into a precipitous canyon. Footing was treacherous h ere, the ground covered with loose, rocky soil. A tangle of rotting logs criss-crossed the slope, caught on the trunks of upright trees, blocking their path. Cat listened to JC curse incessantly between ragged breaths as they scrambled over the smaller barricades and crabwalked sideways to get around the larger trunks that blocked their progress. Each footstep was followed by the rattle of loosened debris rolling down the hill in their wake.
     Cat quickened her pace, and soon JC's sounds faded into the distance. She felt a little prickling of guilt at leaving him behind, but suppressed it; there seemed to be no real danger. The suits, though not indestructible, were designed for far more extreme conditions, and they had encountered nothing more dangerous than a few large insects that floated lazily amongst the lower branches of the trees. She continued to climb.
     Cat crested the hill suddenly, breaking from cover into a tiny clearing. The sun was directly overhead, and to her right the river had become a thin ribbon a hundred meters below. In the distance, back towards the dropship, tree covered hills recede d in a series of rounded humps, like a green, rolling sea. A breeze rustled through the grass. It seemed to lick at her as well, and she imagined it evaporating the sweat that had collected on her, though she knew this was impossible through the fabric of the suit. She sat down in the grass, fatigued, watching as the material began to darken, obscuring her body with a smoky translucency now that she was in bright sunlight. She reached down and pressed a stub on her control panel, activating the suit-t o-suit radio. Heavy breathing filled her ears.
     "JC?"
     There was an answering grunt.
     "I've reached the top of the hill. I'll wait here, okay? I need a bit of a breather anyway."
     There was a pause. "Sure."
     "Right. See you shortly." She cut the link.
     Cat lay back in the grass. Overhead, the ring of sky was blue, and a single cloud, small and lonely, hung just above the swaying tips of twisted pines. Cat closed her eyes, not intending to fall asleep.

 

     A dark figure knelt over her, his form blocking the sun. For a moment, she experienced confusion. Then she recognized JC's shape, remembered suddenly where she was. His silhouette moved and she felt a heavy weight settle on her legs just above her knees. She gasped. "JC! What are you doing?"
     "Do you love me?" he asked.
     Cat's heart pounded wildly. "What? Don't be absurd!"
     JC leaned forward, and his face emerged from shadow; his eyes were wide, his face flushed, his breathing rapid and irregular. Cat could see large drops of perspiration rolling down his forehead and temples. One splashed on her suit just above her ch eek, making her blink.
     "Your suit!" Cat shouted. "Where's your suit?"
     Thick fingers encircled her wrists, bent them back, pinning her to the ground.
     "Cat," Cap/n's voice sounded in her ear. "There is something wrong. JC has discarded his skinsuit. Quarantine procedures dictate --"
     "We'll stay here together, just the two of us," JC said calmly. "Then you'll understand." He let go of her left hand and fumbled at her suit's fastener. Horrified, she watched as his finger found the stud. There was a faint pop as the seams split along the length of her sides and the material began to peel back. "Stop it!" she shouted, and twisted between his legs, flailing at him with her free hand; but he was heavy, too heavy, and all she succeeded in doing was pulling away more of her suit.
     "I want to be with you," he said in a hoarse whisper. "More than I've ever wanted anything." JC smiled weakly at her, and for an instant Cat saw Simon, that same mad smile twisting the corners of his mouth. JC lifted the suit fabric from her face l ike a veil, and bent his head to kiss her.
     She screamed.
     The air howled around them, as if a great bird beat its wings above them. JC pulled back, blinking rapidly, an expression of bewilderment on his face. Light descended, enfolding them, crackling around them. The tips of JC's hair rose; he looked dow n at Cat, as if he were surprised to find her there, beneath him. Then he was gone, the pressure suddenly lifted from Cat, the brightness fleeing with it, dazzling afterimages darting in her eyes.
     A tremor began deep in her chest, then spread to her limbs until she was shaking uncontrollably. A moment later she curled into a ball and began sobbing.

 

     "Are you sure you're all right?" Wei's voice sounded distant, unnatural.
     Cat rubbed her wrists; they still ached and yellowish bruises discoloured her flesh there. A few meters away, in the shadow of the nearest trees, JC's suit lay like a discarded snake skin. "Yeah," she said. "Fine." She had managed to struggle back into her suit, and seal it again; standing in the centre of the clearing, she stared at the outline where she had lain, the only place the grass had not been singed. The tips of the branches of nearby trees were blackened. "JC?"
     "Cap/N doesn't know, or won't tell. He said something jammed most of the frequencies when JC was ... taken. All he knows is that the beacon stopped transmitting at the same time."
     There was a moment of silence. Then Cat asked, "What now?"
     "Back to the dropship, I guess. You okay to get back?"
     "Yeah, sure. But what about the quarantine?"
     "Let's worry about that later," Wei said. Her voice sounded tired, worn out. "Cat, did JC say anything strange to you? You know, when he was, uh, trying --"
     "Yeah," Cat said. "He asked me --" something caught in her throat. "-- asked me if I loved him." She waited for Wei's response, for a statement of disbelief, for a comment, for anything. But there was nothing. "Wei?"
     "I've got this bad feeling, Cat. We should have never --"
     Chan's distinctive voice rose angrily in the background making it impossible to hear the rest of her words. "Wei? What's going on up there?"
     "Chan and Singh are arguing about something," Wei shouted over the noise. "Just worry about getting back to the dropship, okay? I'll talk to you then. Got to go."
     "Wei?" Cat asked. But the connection had already been broken.

 

     Darkness had fallen.
     Cat stood in the artificial light of the dropship's hold, turning the pages of JC's sketchbook. She had found it here, lying atop a crate meant to hold mineral samples. Page after page contained sketches of her. Between the last two sheets she had found a carefully folded note scrawled with a charcoal pencil: Dearest Cat, it began, I am sorry I do not have the courage to tell you my feelings in person. I had wanted to speak to you before, but I never had a chance to be alone with you. P erhaps this was best, what with Cap/N and all. I know now I cannot trust even him. I am frightened and alone. I have seen the others looking at you, and I know they are all dangerous. I know now it is unnatural, these feelings, and that you are the ca use of something terrible. Sometimes I think the best thing would be to kill you, to end this madness, but I know I could never do that. Perhaps I will kill myself instead. I don't know what I am saying, but I cannot face you. I love you -- I have no choice. Isn't that strange?
     The note ended there.
     "What's that you're reading, Cat?"
     Cap/N stood behind her, staring over her shoulder. He wore a simple pair of blue work coveralls and a white shirt with its sleeves rolled up. "Nothing," she said, refolding the sheet quickly and fumbling for a place to put it. But she was still wea ring her skinsuit, and had no pockets, so she pressed the little square tightly into her fist.
     "Cat?" Wei's voice filled the cabin. "You there?"
     "Oh yes," Cap/N said with a distracted air. "Wei has been waiting to speak to you."
     A holo of Wei appeared near the pilot's console. "Where are you?"
     Cat walked to the forward cabin and dropped into the co-pilot's seat. An indicator flashed red. She touched it and it turned a steady green. "I'm here, Wei," she said.
     "You had me worried!" Wei looked angry and relieved all at once. "You wouldn't believe what's happening up here. Singh's locked himself in his cabin and won't come out. He and Chan had a fight. Chan would have killed him too if I hadn't stepped i n. That little laid back son of a bitch can really move. I had to brain him. There's no telling what he'll do when he comes to."
     Cat felt giddy, lightheaded, as if she had been too long in the sun. "Fighting?" she asked. "Why would they be fighting?"
     "Don't you know?" Wei stared at her. "It was about you. It's all been about you." Cat felt her stomach begin a slow spin. "Everything that's been happening. Simon, JC, Chan and Singh. Even me, dammit. Something's happened to us. To make us --" she stopped abruptly, and her face twisted up as if in pain. Her expression hardened, became resolute. "To make us want you, Cat. To make us want you so bad it hurts. God, Cat," her face filled with anguish, and Cat could see he r hands shaking. "I can't tell you how much I love you ...." A tear slipped down her cheek. She closed her eyes, her face crumpling. "We've all got it, Cat," she said, her voice choked with emotion. "Everyone of us. Even Cap/N." She laughed, but it was a pained sound. "Do you know he's been running holographic simulations of you for the last two hours? Dozens of them. Gobbled up every last bit of processing power. Holos of you on the bridge at the ops console, walking through the corridors, sta nding in the lounge, eating in the mess. God, there's even one lying in our bunk. I had to rip the leads to this board and wire it up directly to the solar panels to get through to you."
     "Why?" Cat clenched her fists. "Why is he doing this?"
     "Cap/N? You think it's Cap/N?" Wei shook her head. "He's not the one doing this, Cat. Couldn't be. He's just an AI. He can't create planets or make people disappear, can't change human feelings. He's only a hologram. He can't even touch you!"
     Can't touch you. Hadn't Cap/N said something like that to her?
     "He was here," Cat said. "Just a minute ago. In the hold."
     Wei looked surprised. "Who? Cap/N?"
     "Yeah."
     "In the hold?"
     Cat nodded.
     Wei stared at her. "You know there aren't any projectors in the hold, Cat," she said slowly.
     Cat swung around. The cabin was empty. She looked through the doorway to the hold, but if Cap/N was in there, she couldn't see him.
     "So," Wei's voice was cold, even. "You've finally met it."
     Cat turned back. "It?"
     "Him. Her. It." Wei stared over Cat's shoulder. Her image flickered and lines began running across it. "Remember," she said, her eyes moving back to Cat, "remember what Cap/N said, about how the hole lost some of its momentum? Cap/N kept an eye on the hole after that, at least until he flipped out. I checked his data. It kept losing momentum, Cat. A tiny loss. But steady. With two notable blips." She paused. "The first when Simon disappeared, the second when JC did." Wei's image seemed s uddenly grainier, almost pebbled. "It's the hole, Cat. It's the hole that's doing it."
     Cat clutched the armrests, tried to keep herself from slipping out of the chair. "Wei," she whispered, "help me."
     "I don't think I can." Wei reached out as if to touch the side of Cat's face, but her hand passed through her cheek. The corner of Wei's mouth twitched, her image wavered, became static, a crooked smile frozen on her face. Then it depixelated, bit by bit, an image carved in sand, washed away by the tide. The connect light died.
     "Wei? Wei?" Cat reached across, pressed the Request/Connect button several times. She banged it with her fist, but the entire panel had gone dead. Pushing herself from the seat, she staggered out the hatch. The sky was clear and darker than she c ould have imagined; she looked up to where the bright point of the Zel'dovich should have been, but there was only empty space and a handful of cold, glittering stars. A moment later, the stars winked out.

 

     Cat stood, her toes curled over the edge of the world. In either direction the rim curved away from her like a ragged shoreline. Below, the ground angled to a distant, singular point where it vanished altogether. She stood atop a cone, outside whic h she could see nothing, not even stars. It made her dizzy. She felt a breeze; behind her the trees stirred restlessly.
     The wind whispered to her: Cat.
     Cat glanced over her shoulder. There was no sun, yet light filled the world. A low rise covered by thinning forest stopped half a kilometre away, dropping off into empty space, the furthest point from which she stood, the extent of her world. "You killed them," she said to no one.
     No, Cat. The breeze tickled her back, playfully pulled on her as if to draw her away from the edge. It ran its fingers through her hair. I only sent them away.
     "You destroyed them."
     Silence.
     "What will happen when others come for me? Will you destroy them too?"
     They will not come here. We are ... elsewhere.
     Cat leaned forward, felt the soil begin to crumple beneath her toes, trickle away into the void. She closed her eyes and shivered.
     The wind was restless, tugged at her. Please, it said. It was an accident. I did not mean to change them. I wasn't aware of the effect I was having on them.
     "You did it on purpose. You were playing with us, watching to see what would happen."
     No. You are wrong.
     Cat imagined herself tumbling through the emptiness beyond her feet, through the oblivion, the not knowing. She began to sway.
     You are beautiful. I love you.
     Cat's motion stopped abruptly. She opened her eyes. "Love me?" She laughed bitterly. "How can you love me?"
     I was sleeping. You woke me.
     "No," Cat said.
     I love you. You must love me.
     "No."
     You will learn. I will teach you.
     "Teach me?" Cat shouted. "Like you taught the others? Why don't you just change me the way you did them? Make me into whatever you want me to be!"
     I cannot. It must be your choice. Otherwise, it would mean nothing. "Nothing."
     The word startled Cat; she spun around. Wei stood behind her, arms open, her face filled with longing and sadness. A bright, peculiar light burned behind her eyes.
     "Please, Cat."
     Cat took a step towards her. "Wei?"
     "You must stay. You must love me. I can be anyone you desire me to be." The voice was Wei's, but Cat knew it wasn't her, could never be her. "I cannot let you go."
     Cat shook her head, mouthed the word No. Then she turned, leapt past the edge. Her stomach tore into her throat; she tasted the sickening rush of vertigo as the ground slipped by in an incomprehensible blur.
     Then nothing.
     Nowhere. A universe without sensation, without dimension, without light, her awareness the only thing that existed.
     I will not let you go.
     Alone and naked, she stood in the middle of a forest.

 

     Time is an ocean in which an island floats.
     Around the island's shores darkness gathers from every direction, black waters rising, eating away at the edges, drawing inwards. Where the black sea touches, land falls away, drops faster and faster into the abyss, stretching towards the heart of th e nothingness below. A stand of twisted pines is swallowed on one side, a grassy knoll on the other. Shadows roll like gentle waves across a ravine, a brook, through forests and glades, gathering, finally, around the base of a hill. All else has been c onsumed. The waters continue to rise quickly; then slow, falter, finally halting just before the summit.
     On this last bit of land she sits, unmoving, knees drawn up to her chin, arms locked round shins, in the centre of a small patch of green grass the shape of a woman's body. Words fill her mind, and she shivers, drawing herself tighter: I will love you, they whisper. Forever.

 

THE END