I missed physical training, but nobody even noticed because by the time the last bell went the whole station knew that Cameron Rushton was back. It was all anyone could talk about back in my barracks.
“He’s not what people remember,” Moore said, coming out of the head with a towel wrapped around his waist. “That’s why Commander Leonski won’t announce it.”
“What do you mean he’s not what people remember?” Micallef asked. Micallef was new, a skinny sixteen-year-old with buckteeth and a homesick pallor.
Normally Moore would have ignored a newbie like Micallef, but he was just itching to tell the story. And maybe itching to scare the shit out of Micallef. “The Faceless ruined him,” he said, leaning close to Micallef and lowering his voice. “They wrote in his skin, newbie! They carved him up all over!”
Moore worked in the docking bay, so maybe he’d seen it.
Micallef went pale, and he wasn’t the only one who suddenly felt how very, very far from home we all were, spinning alone in the big black like a silver lure on a line.
“Leave him alone, Moore,” Cesari said, and he wasn’t just looking out for the newbie. Everyone was thinking the same thing: the Faceless were back.
When I got the message to go to the medical bay, the guys in the barracks all looked at me, half-afraid and half-envious, and my heart thumped.
I headed up to the med bay, hurrying along one of the station’s arms that led from the barracks in the Inner Ring to the Core. The Inner Ring was living quarters, barracks, rec rooms, refectory, and training rooms. The Core was main operations for Defender Three. It had the Dome, operations, the medical bay, administration, and underneath all that, engineering and the reactor core. Almost everyone you ran into in the Core was an officer. My arm was sore from saluting by the time I finally arrived at the medical bay.
I wondered the whole time why Doc had asked for me.
Doc had always liked me. His name was Major Layton, really, but I called him Doc. He only let a few of his students do that, and I was probably the youngest. He’d told me after my first introductory class that he’d make a decent medic out of me, and for three years he’d been making good on that threat. He said I was smart enough to be a doctor like him, but he didn’t push it. He knew I didn’t want to stay in the military any longer than I had to, and if I graduated as an officer, that would mean another five-year commitment at least. I’d rather stay on the lowest pay grade and get the hell out at the first opportunity, thanks.
When he called me to the med bay, I figured it was probably to check out some idiot who’d fallen off the climbing wall and busted his ankle. That happened at least once a month. It couldn’t be anything to do with Cameron Rushton, because Doc had at least another five doctors working under him, plus a bunch of officer cadets he was training up as doctors. I wasn’t important enough for anything big.
The doors to the med bay opened. For a moment I thought the place was deserted; then Doc appeared from one of the quarantine rooms. He was a big man. His belly pushed at the buttons of his uniform tunic. Doc was also grumpy as shit, and he frowned a lot. You wouldn’t think he’d have much of a bedside manner, and most of the military doctors didn’t, but Doc was a good guy underneath all his bluster. He’d joined late in life, after his wife died, and he didn’t hold much with all that rank bullshit. It was why I liked him so much.
He was smoking as well, even though he always threatened to kick my ass for the same thing.
“Garrett,” he said, and I knew without looking around that there were other officers nearby. Otherwise Doc just called me Brady.
“Major,” I said and gave him my best salute. Which was shit.
His eyes crinkled with a smile, but his voice was gruff. “Garrett, follow me.”
He turned and headed back into the first quarantine room.
I hated those places, and not because of the quarantine rules. In three years on Defender Three I’d only ever seen them used for one thing, and it wasn’t for disease: they were where Doc put the patients he couldn’t leave in the open ward, the ones who needed somewhere quiet to die. They were burn victims, mostly, like after the fire in the reactor. Two engineers and one recruit had died that day, or had begun to die that day. The recruit was called Smith. He’d been in some of my classes. It took him three days to die even after all his skin burned off. I sat with him for a lot of it, because his friends had been too freaked out to do it. It was after Smith died that Doc had told my career supervisor to put me into the medical stream.
I followed Doc inside, and the doors slid closed behind me with a hiss. Another air lock. I stood there with Doc while the air lock cycled through, and then we were inside the quarantine room.
There were six officers inside, including Commander Leonski who was in charge of the station. I was fairly sure he wouldn’t have known my name if it hadn’t been stitched on my uniform. There were over six hundred guys on the station, after all. I wondered what the hell I was doing in this company.
That was when I saw it. Branski had said Cameron Rushton was in stasis, and I guess I’d thought of some sort of plastic pod, all sleek and smooth and rounded, like a throwback to those old sci-fi movies. But this was nothing like that.
This was black, the same oily black as the Faceless battle armor, and it wasn’t sleek. It was bulky and misshapen. It reminded me of a beetle’s carapace. Back home in Kopa we used to get those big hissing rhinoceros beetles, with sharp mandibles and articulated legs. The stasis unit could have passed for one of those, except it was about ten feet long, lying on its back with its legs clamped around an opaque sac of fluid with veins through it. It was fucking terrifying.
Just looking at it, I could feel the blood draining from my face.
There was a body floating inside the milky fluid, and I didn’t have to ask: Cameron Rushton. It looked like he was being consumed by a giant insect, or hatched by one.
I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was grotesque. Why the hell had Doc asked me to be here for this? Whatever this was. I fought the urge to shove my shaking hands inside my pockets. I tried to remember to breathe. If I hadn’t been surrounded by a bunch of officers, I would have cut and run. No fucking question.
“Is this Garrett?” one of the officers asked. He had the stripes of a lieutenant commander on his sleeve, but his arms were crossed over the chest of his plain gray fatigues, and I couldn’t read his name.
In my experience it was never a good thing when a ranking officer asked someone to confirm your name. That was normally the first step to spending a while in the brig. I’d got there twice before in three years, both times for fighting. Six hundred guys, no girls, locked in a tin can in space: everyone spent time in the brig.
“In the flesh,” Doc drawled and clapped me on the shoulder.
“You’re a medic?” the lieutenant commander asked me, drawing his brows together keenly.
I don’t know where I found my voice, or how I tore my gaze away from the Faceless unit.
“Not yet, sir,” I told the lieutenant commander, straightening my shoulders. “I still have three months before I complete my training.”
He waved it away like it didn’t matter, and I wondered again why the hell I was there. Why did they want a medic anyway? I could strap an ankle, I could treat blisters and cuts, and I could, in theory, plug a sucking chest wound well enough to evac a guy back to a medical bay, but what the hell was I doing in a quarantine room looking at some sorry bastard in a Faceless stasis unit? It was way above my level of training. Hell, it was probably way above Doc’s as well.
But nobody told me.
“Take a look, Garrett,” Doc said and pushed me forward.
My stomach clenched and churned.
My skin crawled. I didn’t want to be in the same room with the unit, let alone close enough to touch. I didn’t want to get closer. I wanted to be outside. I wanted to be in my barracks. I wanted to be a million miles away, with the sun at my back and my feet in the dirt. Not here. Not in the black, in the cold, with a nightmare right in front of me.
The unit hummed like a living thing, and I couldn’t shake the idea that if I got too close, it would suddenly attack. One of those mandibles would detach from the sac in a split second and stab me right through the guts. It would be like every horror movie I’d ever seen. Maybe that’s why all those officers wanted me there. I was their test bunny.
I looked back at Doc.
Please. Please don’t make me.
He waved me forward.
I moved closer to the unit, the soles of my boots squeaking on the floor. The unit was inky black. I could see my reflection in it, more or less: a pale face with big, scared eyes and a bad haircut.
Keep it together, Garrett.
I reached out and touched the bug. It was warm underneath my trembling fingers. It was smooth. It even felt like a carapace. I couldn’t see a power source, but I could feel power humming through it, below the seamless outer casing. I ran my palms over it, just to be sure it wouldn’t move. Then I raised myself up onto the toes of my boots and took a look inside at Cameron Rushton.
A pallid face lay close to the surface of the opaque fluid.
It was the most famous face of my generation’s war, a face I’d seen a hundred times on posters and TV. Immersed in that milky fluid, Cameron Rushton’s face was pale, paler than mine, and thin and angular as though the skin was stretched too tight across the bones of his skull. His eyes were closed; dark lashes lay against his cheeks. There was a tiny bubble caught between the lashes of his left eye. I found myself reaching out to wipe it away. I stopped myself before I touched the sac. Shit. My heart raced. What the hell was I thinking?
Cameron Rushton was naked. He looked like a corpse. Were they sure he was alive? How could they be sure?
I turned around, and all the officers were staring at me.
“What do you think, Garrett?” Doc asked me.
“Is he dead, Major?” I asked, my voice wavering. I thought I could see his body moving slightly, rippling almost, but maybe that was the power thrumming through the unit. What the fuck did I know about Faceless technology?
Doc came and stood beside me. “Touch it.”
You fucking touch it.
Doc winked at me. The gesture was so out of place, so fucking absurd when we were standing beside a piece of humming Faceless technology that could be anything
, that could mean we were already dead, that I almost laughed. I caught the laugh before it broke free, smothered it into a cough, and then remembered that this was terrifying.
“Go on,” Doc murmured. “It’s okay, Brady.”
How the hell could he know that? I made a face at him that the other officers couldn’t see and reached out to touch the sac. It was warm. It bowed under my fingertips like a bladder of water, and I pulled back like I’d been stung.
“What is it?” I asked, keeping my voice low. “Is it like, um, amniotic fluid?”
Doc breathed smoke in my face and shrugged. “I’ve got no fucking idea, Brady. Never seen anything like this before.”
I pretended to look at the carapace again and squeezed my eyes shut instead. “Why am I here, Doc?”
“Touch it again,” Doc said. “Put your palm on it.”
Three years in the military had taught me you never get a straight answer.
I pressed my palm against the sac. It pulsed slightly, like it really was amniotic fluid, like there really was a heartbeat echoing through it. And then Cameron Rushton moved.
His hand came up, palm upward, and pressed against mine. Right against it, like he knew it was there even though he hadn’t opened his eyes. The weird rubbery skin of the sac slid between our palms.
“Jesus!” I jumped back again, my heart racing and my throat dry. My guts felt like a pan of water. I wanted to vomit. That was it: that was my horror movie moment.
Doc grabbed my arm. “Watch.”
And holy crap, Moore hadn’t been lying. He glowed. Cameron Rushton glowed
. Writing appeared on his torso, a line of alien characters that went from his ribs down to his hip like they’d been carved deep into his flesh. They glowed silver against his pale skin. Like starlight.
“What is it?” I asked as the characters faded away into nothing.
Doc shrugged. “No idea.”
“Shit, Doc,” I whispered, “why am I here?”
Doc smiled at me grimly. “Because it’s time to wake Sleeping Beauty.”
You never get a straight answer.