Their ship slept a dreamless sleep in that liminal place between planet and space. It was closer to Venus than the ring of manmade debris around it, yet not close enough to slip beyond the gravity well and come burning down planetside. Three figures slid down its landing tentacles, gliding hand over hand to the planet below. They wore breathcauls, living masks undulating orange and fleshy against their faces as they provided much needed oxygen.
“There, look, see? Right there, the center palace is our target. Remember what we discussed, okay? In and out, right and quick,” Miriam spoke calmly, her voice warbling and static tinged as it floated between the descending bodies. “I’m looking at you, Ela. No screw ups like last time.”
They changed direction, moving more towards east and twisting up the descending tentacles, aiming for the central sky palace below. It was a large dome of stained glass, floating amongst the roaring sea of clouds and high up in the hostile atmosphere of Venus. Spidering out from the central palace were a series of long glass walkways, elaborate green tubes covered in fine art deco designs and golden filigree. The tubes led to massive greenhouse domes, filled to the brim with thriving artificial rainforests. Two ships lay docked on either side of the palace, their large whale bodies calling out in song, waiting diligently to return to space once again.
“You sure we got clearance,” this was Ela’s voice now, static and nervous as they crept lower and lower like dangling spiders, “And there won’t be any surprises?”
Miriam didn’t respond. They were almost there, just about ready to slip on in. At the crest of the stained glass dome was the logo for the Sisterhood of the Bright Path, a notorious cult that lived on the fringes of the civilized universe. The logo was two golden hands praying, with a silver key rising up between them. Innocuous enough for a place so dangerous that even the Fourfold Gangs of Titan left them alone. The cult was notorious on the black market, and made a reputation for doing things no other organized crime family would even think of attempting.
“Okay, we’re just about there, get ready to roll and move on through the third door. We’ll get changed right quick and then get going. Jazz, you have to keep quiet. They’ll be able to tell right away that you’re not one of them, that voice of yours is a dead giveaway.”
Jazz’s rough accent echoed through the fleshy caul intercoms. “I know, Miriam, I know. But there was no way I would let you augment me that much, there is only so much I can give up and not be me anymore.”
“Understood. But this whole thing is a house of cards, we need you quiet and your lohack skills up and up. You blow this and we all go down, and I hate going down. We made a promise to Kindane Moon that we would get his daughter back, and he’s definitely someone you don’t want to piss off. Especially now that he’s dying, he’s gotten extra ornery.”
They swept closer and closer, aiming for the key in the logo, just as they’d planned earlier. Miriam landed just fine, and watched in disbelief as her coworkers fell through the ceiling and stained glass flew everywhere. Of course. She was hoping that they would’ve at least gotten into the palace okay before things started going south, but no. It wasn’t even twenty minutes into the plan when it all just blew up in their face.
Thankfully, she was excellent at improvising.
Kindane Moon was not pleased. He spoke via umbilical link between the prophets who floated around him in crystal cages, their bodies highlighted by the eclipse light, their faces frozen and eyes slit shut in constant agony.
Those jokers are botching the mission right now, I can tell. What clumsy idiots, find me someone else, and have them killed for making a fool out of me. I will have my daughter back, and I will show her what pain means, and what she gets for defying me like her mother had defied me in the past.
The prophets hummed in response and pooled together their meaty calculating power. They had been raised in genius vats off the coasts of Michigan on Earth, bodies grown specifically for this exact thing. Minds ten times more powerful than any other organic computer, able to harvest their own quantum natures and use them to perform complex thousandfold operations. They were connected to the galaxy wide slownet on a cellular level, able to send and request information with a mere thought or a single twitch of a pinky bone.
Already, they were sending communications. Abort your mission. And then calculating who was the next best quasilegal rescue team they could send to save his daughter.
The poison is working.
It’s working faster than we planned. See? Look at him dying on such a massive level.
Does he still think it’s moonrot?
Yes, yes, he still thinks it’s moonrot.
Good, let him believe what he wants to believe. Let’s give him hope of a miracle cure as we ache towards our own freedom. Moonrot! Moonrot. If only.
If only, if only. Good thing he doesn’t know its poison, else he would just take the antidote…the one we have here. It’s not that hard to find…
Stop, don’t speak again. Are sure this channel is encrypted?
Sure, sure, we’re sure! He hasn’t the processing power in that giant crater skull of his to crack our communications. If he had, he would have no reason for us to even exist.
True. But let’s play it safe, shall we? No more talk of this. Not until he’s dead.
Of course Miriam ignored that stupid request to abort the mission. It would be just as easy to fix it and get paid as it would be to abort the mission, anyway. And at least that way they would have some dosh for the leg breakers and still be on Kindane Moon’s good side. She cut off the signal to those creepy umbilical meat calculators, then peered over the side of the broken glass, looking down at her companions in a crumpled heap on the ground.
“You clowns still alive down there?”
A few groans and a thumbs-up in the shadows, as they attempted to stand and mill about down below. Thankfully, no one had spotted them yet. It was only a matter of time, and she had to hurry and fix this and fix it soon. She slid off her breathcaul, and let it dangle around her neck. This area was surrounded by a tiny ozone layer that kept the oxygen in place, in case the glass domes broke (like what happened right now). She breathed in deep, then pulled her hair up into a ponytail.
For some reason she found it easier to think with her hair pulled back. And right now she had to think, think, think. They were in a pickle. It wouldn’t be long before the alarm sounded and people came to see what’s what. The drop in pressure and oxygen would probably be a dead giveaway, and it wouldn’t take too long for them to hunt down which matrix had been pulled offline.
There were a few prophets amongst the sisterhood, an item of interest she’d learned from last week’s scouting mission. She just had to calculate the distance and the speed of the slownet here on Venus, and figure out how much time they had before the prophets caught wise to the hole in the ceiling. That gave them probably about five minutes, fifteen tops. She decided to keep it at five, just to be on the safe side. That way, any extra time they had would be gravy.
First things first, she cut the tentacles and tossed them aside, watching the remains shrivel up and climb back up to the ship. Hopefully that would keep the ship safe and they won’t send any missiles or crap up there to blow it to smithereens.
Next, she had to get down to where the others were and get the ball rolling. The mission was still a go, this was only a minor setback after all. “Okay, you guys, you have to move out of the way. I’m going to jump down and I don’t want to land on any of you and murder you.”
“You sure that’s a good idea, boss,” Jazz said, calling up as quietly as he could. “I feel like crap, if you land wrong, you’ll break your leg.”
Miriam shrugged. A broken leg would be nothing compared to the wrath of Kindane Moon. One, two, three, she exhaled and then jumped. Thankfully, she’d trained just for this moment and knew exactly how to land and roll all while minimizing damage.
The prophets floated in tandem around the subsatellite body of Kindane Moon. A massive, organic hunk of flesh now greyed and mottled with dying skin. He was originally meant to be a living space station, a habitable beast of a submoon that was meant as the first step in colonizing Titan. It didn’t take long for him to develop a mind of his own, thoughts of his own, and a taste for the more illicit things in life.
Long had he reigned as the leader of the second largest illegal enterprise in the galaxy. He was the grandfather, the godall, the one who united the Fourfold Gangs of Titan under one banner, his banner. Thanks to his brilliant leadership they were now the keepers of the spice, the hoarders of thirteen worlds, and the virtual miners of the xzexyx-bitcoin, the only currency used to buy anything and everything on the galactic blackmarket.
The prophets floated further around him, chattering to themselves on their encrypted channels, while he breathed and wheezed slow exhaling breaths. Some people had remarked in the past that he sounded eerily like Orson Welles. Those people were all missing now, presumed dead.
He should be dead already. Why isn’t he dead?
I don’t know, the calculations were correct, according to mass and weight and everything else. He should be dead by now!
It has to work soon. He’s going to catch onto us…
“What are you three chattering about? I can hear you in the radio waves, like a thousand chipmunks blathering on and on. Stop it, there will be no secrets here between us.”
Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
“Tell me, then. Tell me where we stand with the mission to save my one and only surviving daughter? I cannot deal with another one of my children dead or enslaved as revenge for my unorthodox ways of conducting business.”
They floated about, trying not to whisper too loudly to each other on their encrypted channel. Thankfully, it seemed like he hadn’t hacked it yet, that he didn’t know what was going on. It would only be a matter of time…
Miriam is refusing to back down, and is still going on ahead with the mission, sir.
“Hmm. How gutsy, but also how stupid. Do we have any replacement for them yet?”
No sir, no one will touch this one. They are more frightened of the sisterhood than they are of you, as impossible as it is to believe.
The submoon laughed and what a horrible sound it was, like an earthquake and an explosion all mixed up and melded together. It rattled the bones of the prophets and they worried for a brief moment that he might be suspicious.
“Fine. We’ll let this little crew of hers finish the job. When she gets back, well. If she gets back, have them all killed.”
Yes sir, of course sir, we will sir, right away sir.
After much crawling, sneaking, sliding about, and after much hacking and searching and looking,, and even after a few gun fights, a few close calls, and a few murdered souls of the sisterhood (poor things, may they rest in peace), they finally found Kindane Moon’s daughter, Aliss Wellflower-Moon. Well, what was left of her, anyway.
There she was, a severed hand in a jar covered in flowers, with an eye on the center of the palm. The jar was filled with blue fluid, bubbles, and strange wires and cords and electrical lights. The hand looked almost like flesh and almost vegetable, like a strange cross between the two of them. Speakers lined the outside of the hand, blasting music, the eye in the center of it lidded and closed.
And then it saw them. Immediately it perked up, and from the speakers they heard the voice of Aliss Wallflower-Moon, haunting and reverberating about with an audible hiss. “Oh! Oh! Father said that you would come, he sent a whispersparrow and everything! I could not believe it, but here you are. Help me, please, help me! I need to get out of this place, this was a huge mistake.”
Miriam nodded to Ela, who went and guarded the only exit in and out of the large freezer warehouse, her gun poised and her shirt splattered with the silvery blood of the cultists. “Jazz, I need you over here, you need to hack and see if you can untether her jar from the mainframe without killing her.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Jazz said and rolled over and started hacking away, his fingers floating in the air and his umbilical cplusplusmask plugged right into Alyss’s jar, compiling tetrabytes of stored functions in a microsecond. “Shouldn’t take more than a few moments, these untrained scriptkiddies they hired are easy to dance around and outhack, no problem.”
Miriam calculated the timing once again in her head. She had an almost perfect sense of what things might happen, how they might happen, and when they would go down. It’s a trick she’d had since she was a kid, one that was beyond handy in situations like these. It’s why she was the boss, the leader, the head honcho. That impeccable sense of time, danger, and opportunity.
“By my insights I think we have maybe three minutes tops before they trace us here. They’re already onto us, and they have a good idea on where we are. You think you can drop it in less than three?”
Jazz smiled. “Already done.”
And then the jar made a wooshing sound and untethered from the metal bones of the storage unit. She grabbed it and started running without thought, without a single beat dropped at all. Kindane Moon better be goddamned happy they got this done in the way they got it done. He’s going to owe them big time, and a favor from Kindane Moon was a priceless thing, indeed.
Is he dying now?
Yes, yes, yes! I think he’s finally dying now!
Will his daughter be pleased?
I think so, I think his daughter will be very happy when she gets back to us.
Good, good, good.
“Are you fools chattering again,” Kindane Moon spoke calmly, and then began a long, drawn out phlegmy cough. The cough of a man dying in a movie or television or a novel, that kind of cough that’s supposed to signify the hand of the grim reaper, even though no one really died of consumption anymore, out here amongst the stars. Even though the Prophets should have known better, should’ve realized that the poison doesn’t have any coughing in it at all. They were just too excited about what was about to transpire. And how, yes, how they would gain their freedom (finally!) with the help of his daughter.
No sir, not chattering again, sir. Are you feeling all right? You don’t look so good. Shall we scan your systems?
Another cough. “If you scan my systems without my permission it will be a century before they find your shriveled up corpse, and the ones who find it will commit suicide at the horrors they see. Do you understand?”
Yes sir, of course, sir. But what happens to us if you…
Yes sir, what he said, what happens to us if you…
Well, sir. Die, sir.
A laugh, and the laughter was coarse and violent, as Kindane Moon spoke yet again. “You will stay tethered to me, and I will feed you my blood as I die. It will take me so long to die, and my own poisoned blood will slowly murder you as I watch. It will be long and drawn out and painful, and I will enjoy every last minute of it.”
Poison? Oh no. He’s wise to us.
This will not end well.
We cannot untether from him, not without the release.
The release! The promised release from his daughter.
“Chattering again and again and again,” Kindane Moon said, “I don’t need to understand you, I have a good idea what’s going on. I can scan my own systems after all, and I can see this kind of poison slowly killing me through the years. Oh, don’t look so worried. We’re all going to die together. How much fun will that be! And I know you’re not clever and conniving enough to do this yourselves, I know you too well. Tell me. Tell me who did this to me. Tell me who put you up to this.”
The prophets floated around the submoon in silence, as their shadow coated the methane seas of Titan below. A sense of dread flickered between them, a marching drum beat of doom and terror. Doom, doom, doom their hearts beating in unison, doom, doom, doom. Too scared to speak, mouths unable to open in fear, their hearts beating rapidly and loose.
“We’re all going to die together, and it is going to be glorious.”
Oh man, oh damn, they’d just gotten out by the skin of their teeth. So far no mortalities, so it was better than the last mission they’d gone on, and Miriam would hate to have to revive one of them yet again. The clonebodies weren’t cheap and took a bit to fit into the right shape, and sometimes a mind rejected the body and they were back to square one and broke again.
But no, this was not the case at all. The tendrils had come down, the fire fight was intense, and they’d set off a few perfectly timed explosions to rock that damned compound to the ground. Wait until Kindane Moon heard that they not only saved his one and only daughter, but they’d also wiped out his competition! It would be amazing. He would be forever in their debt.
Miriam couldn’t help smiling at her damned brilliance in this whole situation, as she clutched that climbing tentacle and rode the whole thing skyward. A success, with so few screw ups. Sure, it had gotten to a rocky start and everything seemed like it was going to blow up in their face? But not anymore! Now they were all golden and on their way to getting a big paycheck.
He decided not to tell the prophets that he had the antidote after all, and he would survive this all perfectly unscathed. He wanted to see them die, and watch the terror in the eyes of their own mortality. And he needed to know who did this to him, who put them up to this whole thing in the first place.
It had been a few hours now and they were all weak and screaming in pain as the poison surged through their veins. Was it time to let them know? Not yet. Just let them suffer a little longer.
Your daughter is on her way, they rescued her…
The Prophet’s voice was weak, disparaging, on the edge of collapse. The others vibrated in their shells, howling in pain.
“Good, good. I need to have a few words with her, too.”
On the trip back Aliss Wellflower-Moon played against Jazz in a game of Eightfold Quantum Go. The whole time she talked, as the ship breathed and thrummed around them, the massive heart beating overhead and shedding incandescent light through the insides of the ship.
“When they first told me I would have to be taken apart, I was cool with it, you know? Death of the ego and all that, I would ascend to a higher plane of existence and all would be golden. I know it’s hard for you to understand, but when you’re in the sisterhood, well. You’re in the sisterhood, if you get my meaning. I can see you probably don’t, but this was the highest honor, and they had the best dissociation tech in the whole galaxy. They could just snip, snip, snip off your limbs, preserving your mind in whatever bodypart they wanted by using a simple mindflower, like the one you see here wrapped around my arm. That’s my mindflower, and my arm, and my eye.”
Jazz moved a few hops, but she saw his trap plain as day and avoided it all too easily. This would not be a long game of Go, she could have him down and out sooner than soon. Looked like the poor boy could barely understand the eightfold nature of time and how it related to this game of Quantum Go. She was enlightened, she could grasp such things easily.
“So what made you panic and call your dad and have us come get you?” Miriam said, speaking over her shoulder as she piloted the ship through the emptiness of space, and towards her father’s place.
“When they start cutting you apart it’s like, okay. This is no big deal. The pain is just pain, and if you know anything about dear old dad, then you know that I’m used to pain. It just comes with the territory when you’re Kindane Moon’s daughter. But then, like, after a few hours of this, right? The hurt became more than hurt, and I felt myself split away from myself, if you get my meaning. This wasn’t a spiritual awakening anymore, and I was terrified. I’m talking deep in the bone, bloody heart burst into flames, terrified. And you can’t be scared of this process, it means you’re unenlightened.”
She moved a few notches, flipped the x switch, and watched the game flip over and transform itself linearly. She saw Jazz all slack jawed and angry now, and she knew that he probably didn’t even know that such moves were possible. But they were, and she did it, and now he was in a pickle.
“And you can’t go back from that. So they just stuck me in the freezer with all the other unenlightened fools. Eventually they would have used me for compost in the datagardens, maybe growing some kind of AI with my mindspace as fertilizer. It was just a matter of time, I was pretty much a goner. The only good thing was I got a lot of time to see myself, like really see myself and think and plan, and hatch an exit strategy that would get me everything I wanted and more.”
Miriam nodded, still flying onward. “That’s pretty messed up. Good thing we got you when we did, yeah? Well don’t worry, you should be home again soon enough. We’re going to yoyo around this planet here, and slingshot ourselves to your father’s place. This should speed things up drastically.”
“Does it hurt, my little betrayers? Does it hurt as much as it hurts me?”
The prophets writhed in agony, trapped within their crystal prisons, the poison seeping through their umbilical connection to Kindane Moon. One of them screamed and tore at his face, while another vomited and howled in misery and yawped for relief.
“I’ll take that as a yes. You know, I could make this easier on you, yes? I could feed you the antidote, you’re not too far gone, after all. Just tell me who set you up to this, and this could all be done and over with already. No more pain. No more sorrow.”
They would break soon enough, he could tell. He’d been in this line of work long enough to know the moment of breaking, to see it coming a mile away and anticipate it. He smirked and coughed another phlegmy cough, and waited. He had a while to go himself, the weight of him and the size of him, the poison probably had another good decade before it killed him.
More than enough time to apply the antidote to himself and reverse the changes. He just had to sit it out here long enough for these three prophets to tell him what he needs to know. It was only a matter of time, and time was something he had and they did not.
“Come now, I don’t want this to end like this, do you? Have a little self-respect, die with a little more dignity. Tell me who did this. Give me names.”
Yes, there it was, the one who vomited earlier, he was going to break.
“Tell me. You want to tell me. Tell me.”
Aliss, your daughter, sir. Aliss was the one…
No. No. That couldn’t be it, that couldn’t be it at all, no.
“You lie to me.”
No sir, no sir we do not lie, please, just make it stop…please.
“As you wish.”
And with a snap of his fingers the three prophets died and he put the antidote back into his own veins. The umbilical ties between them shriveled up and spun away, and the cages began floating off, off, off into the vast void of space.
“They lied. They had to have lied.”
But in his heart of hearts he worried that they were telling the truth after all. And that idea made him so sad. He trusted her, loved her, sent a party to rescue her, and this was the thanks he received? Poison, plot, and murder?
No, no, it didn’t sound like her, it didn’t sound like his daughter at all.
No, no, of course not.
Jazz paced about the cabin, and it made Miriam nervous just to watch him. Not much further, and the very idea of meeting with Kindane Moon was starting to make her anxious and angry. He had that effect on people, especially when it involved disobeying his orders. “Come on, just sit down already.”
Instead he paced over towards her and pointed his finger against the palm of his hand, emphasizing each and every thing he said. “I’m just saying, he’s not going to be happy to see her like this. Let’s give her a warm body, one of the ones we got saved for an emergency. I bet she’d take to it right away, and we avoid any unnecessary issues.”
Miriam looked over at Ela for support of any sort. Ela just shrugged and said, “Leave me the hell out of this one. I’m here for the cash and that’s that.”
“That’s what I’m saying, is all. There’s not going to be any cash when we bring her to him like this, right? Not after we ignored his orders and everything. What do you think’s going to happen if we go in with his daughter just being a hand and nothing more? He’s going to be pissed off, that’s what.”
Miriam sighed. This wasn’t part of the plan. Then again, none of this was part of the plan. “Right, okay. Get her a new body, I don’t care, it’s not like we won’t make the money back when this job’s over anyway.”
But little did she know just how messed up this job was going to get.
Oh no. Had he waited too long before taking the antidote? Damn him for watching them die and just pumping his own poison into their bodies. It was so delicious and so glorious, but the antidote, it felt wrong. Kindane Moon felt wrong all over head to toe and broken. There was fire in his veins, his eyes felt too big for his head, and everything tasted like coppery apples and lightning.
Coughing large rattling coughs, spraying the space around them, sending a meteor shower of snot and mucus through the atmosphere of Titan below. No, wait, no, this was worse than the poison. This was far, far worse. What was this? The antidote, it was speeding things up and spreading it through his veins, what was this?
If only he knew. He would survive this, he had to survive this, he had so many questions to ask his daughter, and so many people still to kill.
At first Miriam thought Kindane Moon was dead. See it there, through the vane and monitors, coming closer and closer? Massive body all grey and dead looking. Mottled skin, patches rotting off, like a leper of a submoon. Shit. Should they turn back? Of course it would be like this, of course, this whole heist was one big problem after another. Why would she assume things would be going great now, at the end of the whole thing?
That was it. She was done, this was the last heist. She couldn’t take the messy complications anymore, there had to be an easier way to get some fast cash. What would she even do when she went legit? Maybe manage some big investment company on Mars, it couldn’t be any different than managing all these bungling heists. Although that would be even more stress, wouldn’t it?
Maybe she should just retire to Europa and be stroon farmer. She always liked sheep, after all. “Should we turn around?”
Aliss shook her head no. “Look, he’s still breathing.”
Miriam nodded and kept on going towards Kindane Moon. She saw it, the large biomass breathing in and out, inhale exhale. “I don’t think he has much longer.”
Aliss shrugged. “Just keep going and you’ll get your money.”
Would she, though? Would she.
“You don’t have much longer, father.”
Aliss Wellflower-Moon was outside of their ship, floating and tethered by an umbilical life support, wrapped up in a crystal cage. She looked so much like the prophets from before, it brought a smile to old Kindane Moon’s face. “Why did you poison me?”
A shrug and a laugh. “Doesn’t this feel familiar to you? You don’t remember?”
The submoon smiled, his eyes weary and drooping down. “Remember what?”
“The way your tortured mom, all because you thought she was working with one of your stupid rivals. Do you remember poisoning her slowly, promising her the antidote if she said the truth? And then, what happened. Oh, that’s right. The antidote was poison. Fitting that I did it in the same way, don’t you think? You ruined my life, my childhood, everything. I joined the cult to escape you and find inner peace, and you know what? I found nothing of the sort. Here’s hoping your death gives me that peace instead.”
A cough, the submoon spun for a moment and then stopped. All the life drained from his eyes, his lips slack, and there it was, a corpse in space. A giant massive dead body, no longer alive.
Miriam heard the sound of sobs coming through the intercom, and then silence. “Leave now, Miriam, all of you, go. I want to spend the last few hours of his death wandering the halls inside of him, feeling the life go out of his corpse.”
“Okay,” Miriam said. In the background she heard Jazz and Ela complaining about money and she shut off the intercom and turned back to them.
“It’s done,” she said. “Let’s get out of here and get on with our lives.”
With a touch of a button the umbilical cord went snip and Aliss Wellflower-Moon spun off towards her father’s corpse, and the ship turned and spun back into the empty heart of space. The engines left a trail of blue light behind, and Miriam thought about the ship, about her crew, and how this was a passing of an era between them all.
Paul Jessup – Paul Jessup is a critically acclaimed/award winning author of strange and slippery fiction, including The Silence That Binds. With a career spanning over ten years in the field, he’s had works published in so many magazines he’s lost count and three or four books published in the small press. You can attempt to find him at https://pauljessupmain.wordpress.com/
Categories: original fiction