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Dead Space

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Dead Space

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Author: Kali Wallace
Publisher: Berkley Books, 2021

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Military SF
Space Opera
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Hester Marley used to have a plan for her life. But when a catastrophic attack left her injured, indebted, and stranded far from home, she was forced to take a dead-end security job with a powerful mining company in the asteroid belt. Now she spends her days investigating petty crimes to help her employer maximize its profits. She's surprised to hear from an old friend and fellow victim of the terrorist attack that ruined her life--and that surprise quickly turns to suspicion when he claims to have discovered something shocking about their shared history and the tragedy that neither of them can leave behind.

Before Hester can learn more, her friend is violently murdered at a remote asteroid mine. Hester joins the investigation to find the truth, both about her friend's death and the information he believed he had uncovered. But catching a killer is only the beginning of Hester's worries, and she soon realizes that everything she learns about her friend, his fellow miners, and the outpost they call home brings her closer to revealing secrets that very powerful and very dangerous people would rather keep hidden in the depths of space.



The kid was bleeding from his eyes, but he hadn't noticed yet. He sat on the edge of the narrow lower bunk, hunched over and swaying slightly, as though every one of Jackson's questions was a gust of wind he could not withstand.

"Where'd you get it? Who did the work?" Jackson leaned her shoulder against the upper bunk, made a face, thought better of it, and pulled away. Everything in the room was filthy. The air was filthy. "Just give us a fucking name and we'll be gone."

The kid didn't answer. He wasn't looking at her, wasn't looking at me, wasn't looking at anything at all. Scabs and pus had crusted around the wounds where the black market augment was drilled into his head. His artificial eye was already glitching like hell; the muscles of his face, from his eyebrows down to his chin, twitched with waves of tremulous spasms. He was completely naked but for his tattoos, which showcased a brief, angry history of joining just about every outer systems political group that had ever gathered in a grubby station canteen to rail against one thing or another.

The lack of clothes also gave us a good look at the freshly sealed surgical scar that snaked down his spine. Whoever had done the surgery was worse than a hack. The kid would be lucky if he knew his own name after the doctors got the tech out of his brain. Every time he blinked, another droplet of blood squeezed from his tear ducts and rolled down his cheek.

"Can't have been cheap," Jackson said. "You sure as shit don't have the money for that. Who paid? Who sent you here?"

I read through his file while she worked through the script. The kid was a contractor, one of several brought to Hygiea for a six-month stint upgrading the industrial water filtration system. His anticorporate tendencies were more boastful talk than meaningful action, and mostly subsided now that he was making good money. He had a weakness for sexy new tech. As far as I could tell, four or five days ago he'd paid somebody to give him an illegal neural augment and ocular prosthetic. Stupid and dangerous, but not exactly unusual among contractors with too much money and too few brains.

"For fuck's sake." Jackson raised her hand like she wanted to smack the kid, but she changed her mind. "This is useless. Take what you need and get the medics in here."

That was directed at me with an impatient scowl. We'd been called out from HQ at the very end of the shift, and Jackson had a wife and family waiting with supper on the table. I had no supper ahead of me except standard-issue canteen slop and nobody waiting in my single quarters three levels down, but I wanted out of that room too. I got to it. Sterile gloves, evidence box, and a deep breath of the relatively fresh corridor air before ducking into the room.

"Hey." Jackson snapped her fingers in front of the kid's face. "Hey. Listen. Parthenope Enterprises Security Protocol 17, Sections G through K, gives us the authority to confiscate and investigate your personal devices. Do you understand?"

The kid blinked. Swayed. Blinked.

"Your PDs will be returned to you after we've verified that you have not used them for any activities in violation of Parthenope regulations while residing on Hygiea. If you have any questions about Parthenope's investigation process, refer to your residential contract or contact your company representative. Okay?"

I stepped gingerly through the messy room. There were three devices, one on the table and two on the floor, all smudged and unpleasantly sticky. I slid them into the evidence pouch and looked around to make sure I'd found them all. I didn't look too closely. My contractual commitment to ensuring the safety and security of Parthenope Enterprises and its facilities, operations, and employees did not extend to searching through fluid-stained sheets beneath the bare ass of a twentysomething kid reckless enough to think that paying somebody to drill into his head was a good idea.

Jackson saw me glancing around. "You done, Marley?"

"I'm done." I was already making for the door. I could feel the stench of the room clinging to my uniform. I would have to use a week's worth of water rations to scrub it off. "I'll get the analysis to you in an hour or two."

"And I won't look at it until morning," she said. "As soon as this fucker's out of my hands, I'm off the clock. You should be too."

Which told me she wasn't actually worried the kid was a terrorist or spy. I silently removed several items from my action plan for digging into this kid's questionable life choices. When it came to low-level criminals and cranks, we didn't get overtime for pretending to be especially eager Operational Security officers.

"Right. Yeah. Morning, then," I said.

I had one foot out of that fetid chamber when the kid on the bunk made a sound.

It sounded like a choking cough, like he was swallowing his tongue--and wouldn't that be the perfect end to the day--but he hacked wetly, then groaned out something that sounded like a word.

"What's that?" Jackson said warily. "You have something to say?"

"Wait," said the kid. His voice was so rough he could have been rolling nuts and bolts around in his mouth. The blood on his face was drying into twin crusted lines that stretched down his nose, over his lips, to the bottom of his chin. "Silver lady. Wait. Wait and tell me, tell me how--"

He broke off coughing; blood-pinked spittle flew from his lips. When the coughs subsided, he lifted his head, and for the first time since we'd come into the room, his bloodshot natural eye focused on something.

That something was me.

"Silver lady," he said. "It's time. It's time. Tell me how."

"Fuck this. Let's get him--"

Before Jackson could finish, the kid lunged from the bed to throw himself at my feet. He scuttled toward me, reaching with both hands. I jerked back and bumped into the doorframe. The kid's fingers, slick with his own blood, slid over the smooth surface of my boot. I kicked his hand away.

"Tell me how, it's time, I'm ready, I'm so ready, tell me how, tell me how," he was saying, over and over again, the words slurring together as they tumbled from his mouth.

"Don't move." Jackson had her stun weapon at the kid's back, pressed into the nape of his neck. Electroshock weapons weren't meant to be lethal--corporate security was subject to the disarmament treaty like everybody else--but I wasn't sure this kid could survive the jolt. "Do you hear me? You don't move a centimeter. Marley, get the hell out of here before this piece of shit gives himself an aneurysm."

I was already backing out of the room. I squeezed past the medics in the corridor and ignored their snickers, their raised eyebrows, their questions. I felt the prickle of their attention as I strode away, heard the murmur of their voices as I turned the corner at the end of the hall. Whatever they were saying about me, I had heard it all before. I didn't take an easy breath until I was on the lift and on my way up to HQ. I leaned against the wall for balance. I closed my eyes.

Hygiea was a loosely consolidated, carbonaceous chunk of rock and ice well out in the ass-end of the belt, with a diameter of over four hundred kilometers. Nowhere on the surface was the gravity any higher than one-tenth of Earth's, which was a drag for lifelong belters, but for people like me, born and raised on Earth, it was light and strange and required constant adjustment. Even with gecko soles on my boots keeping me anchored to the floor, I felt unstable, unsteady, convinced the wrong move or the wrong step would send me hurtling toward the ceiling. The feeling got worse at the end of the day, when the joint where my prosthetic leg attached to my hip was aching and I was trying to favor it, because my ancient animal instinct was telling me there was more weight than what physics actually provided, and my gait turned into an awkward, stilted limp that did nothing to convince me or my doctors that I was well on my way to being fully healed.

I was used to the stares: hungry and envious from a nauseating few, horrified and fearful from everybody else. I was used to the invasive questions: what does it feel like, does it hurt, can you still feel this, did you let them change your brain, why did you let them do that? Yes, it hurt. Yes, I could feel it. No, they hadn't altered my brain, only my body, and I never had a choice. I was used to it. At least they hadn't fucked me up in the process.

I had been working for Parthenope's Operational Security Department for just over a year, one of the so-called Safety Officers whose job it was to make criminals, malcontents, and all manner of other inconveniences vanish before any of them had a chance to impact the company's profits. There were a few hundred security officers on Hygiea, a small enough community that I had grown accustomed to being the one with all the metal parts, the security analyst who was half tech herself, the unlucky disaster survivor who'd been pieced back together. Nobody talked about it to my face anymore, but neither did they ever bother to disguise how glad they were not to be me. I kept my head down and did my job and stayed away from people like that kid with the bleeding eyes and festering wounds in his head.

I was used to all that. But I never got used to being touched. Strangers grabbing my hand, jabbing their fingers at my eye, slapping my shoulder to feel the metal beneath my clothes. I could not get used to that.

My prosthetics--left arm, left leg, left ear and eye, a scattering of partial organs--took signals from my brain, which was still a squishy, whole, purely human brain. Together they functioned as a close approximation to how a human body was supposed to function, most of the time. This was my body now. Nothing more, nothing less, and never what the biohackers and transhumanists and weird fetishists wanted to hear.

That didn't stop people from looking at me and seeing only the metal.

The lift let me out at Operational Security HQ. I skirted around the edge of the central office, smiles and nods and see-you-laters doled out where necessary. When some colleagues invited me down to the canteen for a beer, I made my excuses. A few gave me sideways glances, looks that hinted at questions they weren't asking, and I wondered how word of the biohacked kid could have spread so quickly. I retreated to my cubicle. They weren't bad people, my colleagues. The older officers were mostly ex-military, shuffled into private contracts when it became apparent nobody was starting a fresh war anytime soon; the younger ones were all career corporate types who wore the uniform as though it actually meant something. They all knew I was on Hygiea for exactly as long as it took to pay down my medical bills and get out of there. Mostly they didn't hold it against me. Normally I would have accepted the invitations, eager for any reason to get out of HQ, desperate to talk about anything except shitty days and petty crimes.

I only realized the questioning glances had nothing to do with the biohacked kid when I saw the evening news scrolls.

Terrorist Leader Sentenced to Life

Black Halo Mastermind Heads to Hellas Prison

Symposium Victims React to Sentencing

The headlines blurred together as I read. Every news feed was covering it, naturally, not as the top story but five or six items down the list. A rhythmic tapping set my teeth on edge--I was doing it myself, drumming my fingers on my desk. I stilled both hands and pressed them flat. Left hand, metal hand. Right hand, flesh hand.

Two years ago, the spaceship Symposium had been on its way to Titan with two hundred people aboard. One hundred seventy-five of those people, the passengers, made up the full complement of the Titan Research Project. I was one of them. We were some of the finest scientists and engineers in existence, experts in every field, people who had devoted their entire lives to advancing the frontiers of human knowledge. We were going to establish the first permanent human settlement near Saturn and the outermost in the solar system. It was to be a research colony, dedicated to scientific exploration and discovery.

We never made it. The antiexpansion terrorist group called Black Halo infiltrated the passengers and crew of Symposium before we left Earth's orbit. They waited until we were several months into our journey before enacting their plan: to disrupt the mission with a catastrophic series of explosions in the ship's fuel systems. Symposium was destroyed and most of the people on board died instantly. My friends, my colleagues, the people with whom I had planned to build a home and a community for the next several years, all reduced to atoms in a flash of fire and noise. Among the dead was my longtime mentor and idol, Sunita Radieh, whose loss I still felt like a physical pain whenever I thought of her. Sometimes I wondered if it might not hurt so much if Vanguard, the AI we had created together, had survived, if some part of her genius, her heart, her courage had survived in the machine we had built. But Vanguard had been destroyed as well. Every piece of it, from its breathtakingly complex mind to its uncountable lifetimes' worth of learned experience to its favorite physical expression, the praying mantis shape we affectionately called Bug, it was all gone. Everything was destroyed.

Parthenope Enterprises cargo ships were the nearest vessels to the Symposium at the time, so it was Parthenope rescue crews who picked us up and Parthenope doctors who patched us back together. There were thirty-one survivors: seventeen crew and fourteen members of the Titan project. Some were relatively unscathed. Six died over the next few months. Me, I got some shiny new limbs to show off. All of us earned a crushing mountain of rescue, transport, and medical bills. With no way to pay our way back to the inner system, no help from the Outer Systems Administration, no employment, and no convenient riches to our names, we were economic refugees, in Parthenope's debt until we worked our way out of it.



I did not know Karl Longo, the man who had ruined my life, killed my friends and colleagues, and destroyed an incomprehensible amount of scientific research and irreplaceable technology. He had been safely on Earth, protected by the high walls of a private compound, when members of his group destroyed Symposium. I had not attended the trial; I had provided my testimony, what little there was of it, via a series of remote recorded interviews and depositions, first from my hospital bed, later from offices on Hygiea.

The people who had actually carried out the attack, the members of Black Halo that Longo had sent to infiltrate Symposium, had all died when their plan spiraled out of control-- including Kristin Herd, who had been a friend and colleague of mine. She had joined our team when another member had to withdraw from the project. I had been on the committee that reviewed her application. None of us had suspected a thing. We had all approved of her research and her enthusiasm. Our vote had been unanimous. She had been planning all the while to murder us.

She was dead. They were all dead, and now Longo would spend his life rotting away in a Martian prison. I supposed that was what he deserved.

Symposium Sentencing: Has Justice Been Served?

Memorial Ceremony to Honor Symposium Victims

I shut off the news feeds. I didn't care. I couldn't care. This was my life now, such as it was. Picking grubby PDs off the floor in personal quarters, trawling through endless data, looking for petty extortionists, for corporate spies, for black market biohackers, even for snakes like Kristin, should they make themselves sufficiently troublesome to Parthenope. This isolated rock in the outer system, this thankless job helping a rich company make itself richer, the pain in my joints where metal met flesh, the medical debt that grew every day, this was it, this was all I had, until I could work my way out.

My heart was still thumping uncomfortably. I could still smell that dank, foul room.

I set up the confiscated PDs for a full data sweep and analysis, and I got out of there. I needed to scrub the bloody fingerprints from my boots.

Copyright © 2021 by Kali Wallace


Dead Space

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Dead Space

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