Out of Space

A Tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez

Part 1: Going Down

Horlun SoFah reached for the controls of the Finstar F6000 and deftly entered a minor course correction. The ship’s computer pondered that for a moment and promptly suggested a further refinement, noting that Horlun’s new course intersected the core of a star. This didn’t bother Horlun, as it would take several years to reach that star at the small ship’s current speed and the computer would give another warning well before there was any danger of collision, but he accepted the revised course anyway. Why tempt fate?

That largely-theoretical brush with death handled, Horlun leaned back and attempted to relax. He considered himself a fairly unremarkable person: he was average height, perhaps a bit thin, with perfectly normal dark hair and gray eyes. People often had a hard time picking him out of group photographs. It didn’t help that, like many young people on the planet Foobarh, he dressed mostly in black and dated a political activist.

The ship belonged to his girlfriend’s father, who had become obscenely wealthy through some highly-complex process that Horlun had never been able to understand. Since Anme seemed to take her father’s wealth as a personal affront, he didn’t ask about it much. He, Anme, and his cousin Orliss had borrowed the Finstar with the intention of visiting Barbados, Planet of Physical Delights. Instead, they had run across a band of aliens from the planet Earth and gotten sidetracked. After getting involved in a civil war or two, Orliss noted that his vacation had ended and he needed to get back to Interstellar University before he fell behind in his courses. Since they had transportation, Horlun offered to drop his cousin off at school and then return to Foobarh with Anme.

That would have worked out fine, except that Orliss had made friends among the Terrans and had invited two of them along to check out the Space Hero program at Interstellar University. That wasn’t a problem by itself—they were nice people and Horlun enjoyed their company. The problem was that Anme and the male, Roy Gaelen, couldn’t seem to go for five minutes without breaking into a shouting match over some philosophical point or another. It was both annoying and tedious, and Horlun tried to stay as far away from it as he could. This meant he spent a lot of time on the control deck trying to think of things to do, such as making pedantic course corrections.

If he concentrated, he could make out their voices even now. He tried not to, leaving him with the humming of the air circulators, the soft beeps and clicks of the navigation systems, and the odd scratching noises the iced behin dispenser occasionally produced. After a few hours, he could detect an odd rhythm. Later still, he could pick out a simple melody in the beeps, clicks, hums, and so forth. Soon, he would be adding lyrics.

“That’s it,” Horlun declared. “I’m taking a break.” His mother had warned him about hearing songs in white noise.

He unstrapped his harness and stretched, momentarily forgetting that he was weightless in a cramped compartment. The sound of fingers accidentally striking a control pad quickly brought him back to reality, but to his relief he had only activated the beverage dispenser. Grabbing his squeezebulb of iced behin, Horlun launched himself down the access tube towards the common area. He was going to end that fight, or get annoyed and leave. One or the other. He was certain of it. Taking a deep breath and straightening his goatee, he entered the fray.

“—which is exactly the sort of argument I’d expect from my idiot father!” Anme was saying.

“He must be an idiot,” Roy agreed, “to lend an interstellar starship to an ungrateful parasite like you.”

“How dare you speak about my father that way!”

Horlun cleared his throat. “If I may interrupt—”

Anme didn’t seem to hear him. “He may reap the benefits of the working class’s labor, but at least he’s not a paramilitary thug.”

“Yeah, I can see how it would be better to exploit the people than to protect them.”

Horlun tried again. “Do you think we could—”

“My father provides useful services to society at large!” Anme shouted. Her face was starting to turn red with anger. “Your precious fighter squadrons sit around consuming resources and waiting for an enemy to kill!”

Roy bristled, giving Horlun a chance to interject.

“Will you two shut up!?”

Anme and Roy broke off their argument to stare at Horlun, as if he had swung a club around and shouted “Graah!” at them. (He had tried that in a similar situation once; it hadn’t proven very effective.) Anme recovered first.

“I’m sorry Horlun. This wouldn’t happen if someone would keep his mouth shut.” She glared at Roy.

“You’re right,” agreed the Terran, “and that someone is you.” He snorted derisively. “Mike better than Joel, indeed.”

“He is!” Anme insisted. “In terms of acting talent alone—”

“Give it a rest! The show isn’t about ‘good acting’—”

Stop it!” Horlun shouted. The others jumped back in surprise, and then spent a few moments trying to regain their grip on the floor. Horlun took a breath and continued more calmly. “I don’t know what you’re arguing about—I don’t even want to know. Just don’t bring it up anymore, okay?” He paused, and looked them both in the eyes (sequentially). “This is a very small ship, and you’re making things difficult for everyone.”

Roy had the grace to look embarrassed. Anme just sniffed and crossed her arms. Had she been a few years younger, she might have stuck out her tongue. Like Horlun, she was dressed mostly in black, with a deep red shirt under her vest for variety. Depending on which part of her social circle you talked to, that was either a regrettable concession to traditional esthetics or a daring break from the conformity of the rebel set. She had similar coloring as well, although her dark hair had a subtle highlight which was absolutely not the result of a dye, so don’t even ask about it.

Horlun heard movement behind him, and turned to see Jen Kadar’s head peeking out of the shaft leading down to the personal quarters below the common area. She and Orliss had avoided the Argument by hanging out below and discussing hero stuff. Horlun had joined them in the beginning, but he could only hear so many stories about Buzz Williams or Mark Hyperthrust or Crunch Rockslab before they all started to blend together.

It had been a while before Horlun could look at Jen without staring. It wasn’t merely that blonde hair and blue eyes were so rare on Foobarh that most people interpreted them as signs of God’s disfavor (creating a small but loyal market for colored contact lenses). Jen was, quite simply, the tallest person Horlun had ever met. Even Orliss had to stand on his toes to match her, and he was about 190 centimeters. Horlun had wondered how she ended up a fighter pilot instead of a supermodel, but Roy explained that Terran supermodels were generally so thin they could accidently fall through sewer grates (presumably humor, although one could never be certain with aliens), whereas Jen was more athletically proportioned.

While she and Orliss propelled themselves into the room, Horlun concentrated on trying to end the current feud. It wouldn’t be easy. It didn’t take much to set Roy and Anme against each other, and neither was likely to back off or admit defeat. He needed a way to end things without hurting their pride. It would take some careful thought.

While Horlun thought, Orliss pushed his way towards the duelling pair and clapped a hand onto each of their shoulders. “How about you two shake hands and make up?” he asked cheerfully.

Horlun smacked his forehead so hard he saw stars. Anme and Roy stared in disbelief. Jen was smiling hopefully, but looked ready to bolt should things suddenly turn ugly. Orliss just waited patiently. Horlun vaguely remembered his cousin talking about a heroic conflict resolution class he had taken and wondered if Orliss had learned this technique in class or had just pieced it together from other students’ notes.

Finally, Roy stuck out his hand and grinned ruefully. Anme looked at it with distaste before gingerly offering her own. The two shook and agreed not to provoke each other further. The other three sighed in relief. Despite its crudeness, Orliss’s plan appeared to have worked. At last, peace had come to their ship.

Then the universe exploded.

Horlun revised that assessment when he regained consciousness, reasoning that he probably would not have survived the universe exploding, and his head hurt too much for him to be dead. His eyes were closed, but he could tell the lights in the common room were off. The quiet background noise of the ventilation system was gone, leaving behind an eerie silence. That could only mean the power had failed. They were floating dead in space. Metaphorically for now, but literally too, once the air ran out.

He could hear movement. Probably the others , trying to determine what had happened. Horlun kept quiet and tried not to move. His head ached, and he wanted to spend a few moments floating in the darkness before he admitted being awake. It couldn’t last. Without him, the others would turn to Orliss to attempt repairs, and Horlun was not confident about his cousin’s chances. He wasn’t confident about his own chances, either, but at least he knew enough to recognize the truly dangerous equipment.

Not that it mattered, if the situation was as bad as he feared. There was a remote possibility that he could restore power to the ship. There was no possibility that he could repair an overly-hyped drive. It simply wasn’t designed for field repair. After all, it had been engineered never to fail—all the marketing said so.

I’m taking this rather well, he thought. Acceptance of impending death had never been a strong point of his. Anme’s friends would occasionally tell him he would never make a good revolutionary unless he could calmly take action knowing it would lead to his death. For her sake, he refrained from noting that (a) he had no interest in being a revolutionary, and (b) he didn’t see any of them taking potentially-fatal action, either. But now, faced with either starvation or asphyxiation in the depths of space, he wasn’t panicking at all.

The others were being awfully quiet, too, now that he thought of it. He could hear motion, but no one was talking. It didn’t make sense. How did they keep from smashing into things?

“Ow!” said a voice Horlun didn’t recognize.

He opened his eyes, then blinked a few times to make sure they were open. It was really dark.

“Is that everyone?” asked another voice. Like the first, it was female and unfamiliar, but perhaps a bit more professional. Horlun tried not to move. He certainly couldn’t see in the dark, but there was no sense in taking chances. Who were these people? Had the ship been attacked by pirates?

Statistically, this was unlikely. Horlun’s space piloting class had taught him two things about space pirates. The first was that space is very big, thus making the odds of an individual ship encountering a pirate astronomically low. In their case, these odds were enhanced by the overly-hyped drive, which provided considerable protection to a ship in transit, although less than its initial marketing had claimed. The second was that if his ship did get attacked, it was probably best to give in to any demands the pirates made, as there is very little an unarmed ship can do against a horde of desperate criminals.

A sudden grip on his shoulder startled Horlun into crying out. “Hey,” said the first voice, whose owner had apparently been able to see Horlun despite the dark and his black wardrobe, “this one’s already awake.”

“You know what to do,” replied her companion. “Is that the last one?”

“I think so. It’s kinda dark in here.”

“…which doesn’t matter, since we have infrared gear.”

Horlun felt the woman holding him shrug, then something pricked him in the neck. His vision started to blur, which was an interesting experience, since he couldn’t see anything anyway. He briefly considered struggling against the arms holding him, but it seemed less and less important. He could struggle later, after he took a nap.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t just use flashlights,” the first woman was saying as she dragged Horlun towards the airlock.

“Honestly,” said a third voice, “you have no sense of style.”

The conversation may have continued beyond that, but Horlun wasn’t conscious enough to hear it.

He awoke to find a woman leaning over him. He was in a bed of some sort in a gravity field, and she was holding something he couldn’t make out. For a moment, he thought it was Anme, but he changed his mind once his vision cleared. She was tall, dark-haired, and wore a khaki uniform with more pockets than seemed strictly necessary.

“Am I dead?” he asked groggily.

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” she demanded, grabbing his collar and pulling him into a seated position. Blood rushed into his skull, protesting the sudden movement. “I may not be a doctor, but I took a very good first-aid course and I have never lost a patient.” She let go, and Horlun dropped back onto the bed. “If everyone’s just going to criticize, I don’t know why I should bother. I mean, beyond saving lives and stuff. That’s kinda the point and all. You know?”

Horlun contemplated the ceiling. It was pretty generic panelling, like in a business office.

“Are you listening to me?”

“Not really. I seem to be incredibly dizzy.”

The dark-haired nurse nodded. “Don’t worry. That’s probably a side-effect of, uh, whatever it was that knocked you out.” She toyed with the vaguely-medicinal tool in her hand. It made a soft, whirring noise. “My name is Marjoram, by the way. Your friends should be here soon. I’ll explain what happened then.”

“What did happen? Who are you people?”

“I just said we’d explain when your friends arrived. Did you suffer some kind of brain damage or something?”

There was a moment’s warning—running in the hall, the swish of the door, a voice calling his name—then Horlun abruptly found himself lying on the floor next to his bed, his girlfriend clinging to his side.

“You’re awake!” Anme said happily. He noticed she was wearing the heavy silver-and-navy jacket the security chief on the Anonymous had given her, which was odd. She hadn’t been wearing it before.

“He won’t be awake too long, if you keep tackling him,” Marjoram said acidly.

The others trickled in while Anme was helping him to his feet. They were accompanied by another khaki-uniformed woman with short, green-tinted hair. Her shirt was sleeveless, possibly to show off the abstract tattoo on her shoulder. At least, Horlun assumed it was abstract. You never could tell, with aliens.

“It’s good to see you’ve rejoined us,” Orliss was saying. “Without you, we’d have no one to pilot the Finstar.” He paused, perhaps sensing how mercenary that sounded. “Also, you’re a decent fellow and we enjoy your company.”

“Likewise,” said Horlun.

Marjoram and the other stranger watched from a distance while the five caught up on their experiences. As Horlun was the last to recover by several hours, his was the shorter story. Apparently, their ship had failed somehow, knocking them unconscious. When they woke up, they were here. Their hosts, employees of the Sonar Men, had promised to explain what had happened as best they could, but wanted to wait until everyone was awake. In the meantime, they had visited the ship to grab a change of clothes. Anme sensed Horlun’s curious glance at her jacket and whispered that she would explain later.

“So,” she said, addressing their hosts, “now that we’re all awake, how about that explanation you promised us? What happened to our ship?”

“Oh,” said Marjoram, “we’re not sure about that. We were doing some testing in deep space and we think it interfered with your engines. Luckily, we noticed and brought you back here for recovery.” She smiled reassuringly. “We’ll pay for damages, of course. The Sonar Men always make up for their mistakes.”

Anme frowned. “That’s it? Why couldn’t you tell us that before Horlun woke up?”

“I don’t like repeating myself.” She turned to her quiet coworker. According to Horlun’s friends, she was named Oregano. “Why don’t you show them back to their rooms for now? We still have some time before dinner.” She glanced back. “I do hope you’ll come. The head of research is so looking forward to meeting you.”

“Why do we need a guard?” Anme asked suspiciously.

Marjoram smiled again. “This is a research facility. It’s not our policy to let guests wander around unescorted.”

Once they were alone, Horlun asked Anme about her jacket. Truthfully, he was only mildly curious, but her reluctance to discuss it intrigued him. She was probably just embarrassed: she had spent a considerable time berating Roy for his membership in the Anonymous’s security forces, and now she was wearing part of their uniform.

Instead of answering, she was wandering around their room, peeking under the chairs and lampshades. Their rooms were considerably nicer than Horlun had expected, with soft lighting, lacquered wooden furniture, and a lovely view overlooking a native forest. Even the ceiling panels were tastefully painted. Anme had claimed the bedroom for them while he was still recovering; Orliss, Jen, and Roy had set out cots in the parlor. Horlun felt a bit guilty about that, but Orliss claimed it was all for the best: a space hero had to get by in situations far worse than this. Some day, they might face lodging that would make a cot in a guest suite parlor look positively opulent in comparison. Some toughening up would do them good. Besides, it wasn’t as if they would be staying on this planet any great length of time.

The continuing silence from Anme was becoming worrisome. She got very defensive when her views were challenged, and few things set her off like a suggestion of hypocrisy. He had expected a denial, or at least a request that he help her find whatever it was she was looking for.


She pulled her head out from under the bed and held a finger to her lips.

Horlun watched her start examining the bureau drawers, confused. Is she looking for bugs? Anme was no fan of spies or intelligence agencies, but she did see a lot of espionage movies, which she claimed were filled with harsh social criticism. Horlun accepted that without comment, as it meant she didn’t challenge his claims about the commentaries on science and art contained within the Giant Monster branch of the cinema.

Evidently satisfied that the room was clean, Anme stood and motioned Horlun to come closer. “I don’t trust these people,” she said quietly.

“I guessed.”

“I mean it! I’ve heard about the Sonar Men. They’re arms dealers of the most detestable sort. They supply tyrants and terrorists all throughout this area. I don’t believe they had an accident which just happened to disable our engines, and I’m not looking forward to learning what they have planned for us.” She hesitated, looking a little self-conscious. “And that’s why I’m wearing this. Aside from any unfortunate symbolism, it’s a good defence against blaster fire.”

“Unless they shoot you in the head.”

“Well… yeah. But they could do that anyway.” She walked over to the window, adding quietly, “You probably think I’m being paranoid.”

Horlun joined her by the window and looked out. The research center was apparently located on the side of a mountain, and extended downward in a series of connected terraces. Beyond that was largely unbroken forest extending as far as he could see. Nearby, a small copse of trees grew on the roof of a lower section of the center. They were pretty unremarkable, as trees went, vaguely palm-like. Horlun wasn’t sure if they had been planted or if that section was in severe disrepair. Strangely, there seemed to be crumpled wads of white paper clustered in the tree, like some cheap holiday decoration.

“I notice you’re being rather quiet,” Anme observed.

“I don’t particularly trust the Sonar Men either,” Horlun evaded. It was true; their story rang false, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Hopefully, the ship would be repaired soon and the question would become academic. “Shall we join the others? We still have some time before dinner.”

From the look on Anme’s face, she suspected that the upcoming meal might well be their last, in which case she might as well have some fun. “All right, but I am not playing that idiot card game.”

Horlun shrugged. “Orliss probably left it on the ship.” As the two of them turned to join the others, a sudden movement caught Horlun’s eye. The paper wads had unfolded into angular, bird-like shapes and were launching themselves into the aqua-colored sky.

He watched them disappear before following Anme into the anteroom.

Oregano came to take them to dinner during the fifth round of Space Cards. Orliss, as usual, was winning handily—despite his protests that he was holding back in deference to Jen and Roy, who had never played before. Anme and Jen decided that they should “freshen up” before dinner, and while they were gone Horlun asked their host about the birds he had seen.

“They aren’t actually birds,” Oregano told him. “It’s a local species here with the ability to fold its body into various configurations, like the bird form you saw. In their relaxed state, they’re a flat sheet.”

“It is always humbling to be exposed to the awesome variety of space,” Orliss commented.

“Actually, part of the reason we formed this research center was to study them. The locals call them ‘origami’.”

Orliss smiled. “And what other wonders does this planet hold?”

“None that I’m aware of.”


By the time everyone had freshened up to his or her satisfaction, Oregano was tapping her foot impatiently and looking a little agitated. It didn’t help that Anme kept remembering little things they had forgotten to do. “Are we ready?” she asked, once the activity quieted down. “The Director is probably wondering where we are.”

“Is this a formal dinner?” Anme asked suddenly. She turned to Horlun. “You should probably comb your hair.”

“He’s fine,” insisted Oregano. “We’re a very informal bunch.” She slid the door open and stepped outside, beckoning them to follow. “Shall we go?”

As before, the halls were strangely empty. It occurred to Horlun that so far he had only seen two actual employees at this research center, even though it had obviously been designed to hold far more. The complex stretched out in all directions, but only the halls they walked in were lit. The rest were dark, either to conserve power or to keep visitors from wandering off on their own. All the place needed was a layer of dust to look abandoned.

He slowed down a bit, letting the others get ahead of him and Anme. “I know you don’t trust these people,” he said quietly, “but if you could avoid actively trying to annoy them…”

“Sorry.” She didn’t look very sorry, but Horlun didn’t feel like pressing the issue.

They sped up a bit to rejoin the others, Horlun keeping an eye on the darkened cross-corridors. It was crazy, but he couldn’t shake the idea that unseen eyes in the shadows were watching him. Anme had that effect on people sometimes.

“Do you hear something ahead?” she asked.

Horlun was about to say no when a large shadow rolled into the hallway ahead of them. Anme gave an involuntary cry of alarm and ducked behind him. It was taller than either of them and produced a steady mechanical rumble from its wide base. Towards the top, a glowing red eye mounted on a thick cylinder swivelled to face them. It stopped, and they looked at each other for a moment. Horlun’s brain began to interpret what his eyes were showing him and he realized it was a large, black robot on treads. On one side was a sturdy claw holding what looked to be a sophisticated feather duster. While Horlun pondered that, the behemoth returned its attention to the corridor before it and rumbled out of their way.

“What was that?” asked Anme, once it had passed.

“A cleaning robot,” answered Oregano, who was standing with the others a short distance ahead and looking a bit annoyed. “Could we try to stick together?”

They made it to dinner without further incident, which must have been a relief for Oregano, who had been keeping a very close eye on Anme after the dusterbot incident. Fortunately, Anme had followed Horlun’s request to tone down her campaign to annoy their hosts. Now all they had to do was get through a meal with them without a food fight breaking out.

The dining room was elegantly furnished and could probably hold two dozen or more. Like everything outside their guest suite, it was not filled to capacity. There were the five of them, Oregano, Marjoram, a third khaki-uniformed woman, and a man who introduced himself as Vreetz Rentacar, Director of the Tangerine Research Center. He was an unathletic-looking fellow in a green and white costume that existed somewhere between aristocratic uniforms and space suits on the great continuum of fashion. It included epaulets, a cape, and a square control panel on the chest, its dials and indicators serving no obvious purpose other than to match the antennae and other technological doodads on the helmet he carried. He seemed friendly enough, welcoming them with a warm smile and hoping that their stay would be pleasant, despite its involuntary nature.

Anme did not look convinced of his sincerity.

Possibly to spite her, Roy sat next to the Director and the two struck up a casual conversation on a wide range of topics, including the repair efforts for their ship (proceeding slowly, as Finstar parts were hard to come by on isolated research posts), the wilderness outdoors (nice, if one avoided the origami), and the nature of the research performed here (too secret to say, but assuredly very interesting). They might have gone on for some time if Jen hadn’t pointed out the lack of food on the table. This caused some confusion.

“I thought Marjoram was bringing in the food,” said Vreetz.

“Me? I’m a highly skilled worker. Why would I bring in the food?” When no one seemed impressed by that excuse, she added, “Besides, no one asked me.”

The Director considered that, silently making some calculations on his fingers. “How very strange,” he said at last. “We knew that food needed to be brought here before we could eat, and yet no one was assigned to do it. I just can’t understand, unless….” He turned to the quiet woman beside him. “We haven’t recently acquired any robot servants which could perform such tasks with an efficiency you or I could only dream of, have we?”

“We have not,” she replied. “Until then, Marjoram can do it.”

“But Sage—” protested the dark-haired medic. She didn’t bother completing the sentence, evidently deciding it would do no good. Oregano snickered, and Horlun suddenly had the feeling he had heard these women’s voices before. Which he probably had when he was unconscious, come to think of it.

It didn’t take too long for Marjoram to retrieve dinner, and at Sage’s silent prompting she began to serve with an expression that could be termed cheerful, if one was not overly concerned with accuracy.

“If you keep making that expression, your face will freeze like that,” Vreetz noted helpfully. Marjoram compliantly shifted her expression to one that might be called a smile, but probably shouldn’t. Horlun heard her mutter something about renegotiating her contract.

The food was an odd mixture, comprising a few artfully-arranged vegetables and an amorphous gray mush that lacked any discernible scent. Horlun poked at it uncertainly with his most spoon-like utensil. It had a disturbingly variable cohesion: it flowed like a liquid, but when he poured a spoonful onto his plate it formed a narrow gray spike sticking upwards.

Anme leaned over and whispered, “Be careful. It may be dangerous. Like poison, or something worse.”

“If they wanted to kill us, they had plenty of opportunities before now,” Horlun quietly reminded her.

“Maybe it didn’t occur to them before now, or they changed their minds, or they want zombie slaves, or—”

“Enough.” Anme was never much fun when she was being paranoid, but it was even worse when she didn’t have a firm grounding for her fears and started speculating. Once, when she couldn’t find the remote control for her home video unit, she listed two hundred and forty-eight theories about who had taken it and what nefarious scheme they needed it for. That, at least, had ended when she found it behind the couch. This had the potential to go on for days.

“I’ll bet it’s a parasitic lifeform,” Anme whispered. “Or a mass of nanomachinery that’ll rebuild your body from the inside out.”

“Then how come they’re eating it?” He and Anme were the only ones not eating, and as far as he could tell no one at the table had abruptly died or had their will enslaved.

“They’re immune, or they didn’t give themselves the same stuff—”

“Never mind.” He took a spoonful of the gray stuff and tried it. It managed to be appealing despite tasting like wet paper, which was something Horlun had never previously considered possible.

“How is it?”

He shrugged. “Not bad. The personality reprogramming is actually pretty painless.”

“Forget I asked.”

Horlun quickly did so and started on his dinner. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since his last meal, primarily because he had spent a good portion of the intervening time unconscious, which tends to distort one’s time perception. The vegetables were unfamiliar, but nothing so painful as the peperoncini he had sampled on the Anonymous. (After that experience, he made it a point not to accept food if the people offering it were visibly restraining laughter.)

After taking the edge off his hunger, Horlun slowed down and returned some attention to the rest of the table. To his left, Vreetz was regaling Roy with tales of sporting events he had witnessed as a child. Or something. He had missed the beginning of the conversation. To his right, across from Anme, Orliss was chatting with Oregano about his favorite subject: his study of space heroism.

“It does sound like an interesting career,” Oregano was saying, “but rather risky from a financial standpoint.”

Orliss nodded. “Yeah. My grandmother said studying heroism was fine for some, but I should study something with a future, like poetry. That’s how I ended up in comparative literature.”

Horlun couldn’t help but chuckle at Oregano’s surprised reaction. Comparative literature was a lucrative field; people were always surprised that Orliss had beaten the stiff competition to get accepted. Then they were baffled by his insistence on pursuing heroism seemingly at the expense of almost certain financial success. To her credit, Oregano got over it quicker than most.

“You must lead a very interesting life.”

Orliss nodded vigorously. “You got that right! Why, just a week ago, Jen and I were prisoners on Planet Gloom. Right, Jen?”

“Yes,” said Jen evenly. “It was quite a time.”

Not noticing the implied irritation in her tone, Orliss launched into the story of how he helped destroy a Zakavian superweapon. Horlun did notice, though, and he made a mental note to discuss it with her later. It was bad enough having Roy and Anme in close quarters. Bad feelings between Jen and Orliss would make their stay intolerable. He tried to catch her eye, but Anme was between them. While shifting his position, he saw Sage sitting just beyond Oregano, furthest from Vreetz’s position at the head of the table. He already knew she was sitting there, of course. What caught his eye was the way she was looking at Orliss. Like she was trying to absorb all there was to know about him just by staring really hard.

As if she sensed his gaze, she shifted her attention to Horlun, who quickly shook his head as though he had been staring into space. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want her to know he had seen her staring at Orliss. For some reason, the thought made him uneasy.

He felt a wry grin coming on. Anme’s paranoia is starting to rub off on me. He was probably jumping at shadows. Nonetheless, he kept a low profile for the rest of the meal.

Jen had not wanted to talk after dinner. Horlun attributed that to the way Oregano and Orliss kept chatting all the way back to their rooms, and then continued to talk once they arrived. Anme didn’t look too happy about that either, but she already had a reason to dislike the Sonar Men, so Horlun was less concerned.

Finally, Oregano left, citing still-unfinished work. Anme took advantage of that moment to announce her mistrust for their hosts, a revelation which might have gotten more of a reaction had it not already been blindingly obvious. She followed up by suggesting they find out just what their hosts were up to. That got a reaction.

“And just how do you propose we ‘find out’?” asked Roy. “Even if they are up to something, it’s not like we can ask them.”

“Well, duh,” said Anme. “Any idiot can see that. But there are other ways to get information.”

“I’m sure Orliss can extract it from our lovely guard,” Jen observed lightly.

“Maybe,” said Orliss, “but that would take some time.” He seemed oblivious to any hidden meanings in Jen’s suggestion. Horlun needed to have a talk with him; for a man of the galaxy, Orliss could be frustratingly clueless.

“We saw the repairs they’re making on our ship,” Roy pointed out. “It’s insanity to antagonize them now.”

Ignoring Roy’s concerns, Anme laid out her plan: “We’ll just take a look around. Nothing fancy. If they’re up to something unpleasant, we’ll find clues.”

“I suppose it’s possible,” said Orliss. “Oregano said they wouldn’t lock us in, and if they are up to something…” He didn’t sound too certain.

Roy shook his head. “I don’t like this. If they find out we abused their trust, things get a lot less friendly around here.”

“I still don’t like this,” Roy noted for the dozenth time.

“We’re already aware of that,” said Jen. “You don’t need to point it out on every floor.”

Horlun wasn’t sure how tall the research center was—it was apparently built on a mountain slope, which gave their suite a fantastic view but made judging their relative height difficult—but he was pretty sure they were in the basement. They had generally moved downslope as they descended, though, and this region had no windows, so all he could judge by was the décor. Gone were the wall-to-wall carpeting and marble drinking fountains. In some places the ceiling wasn’t even panelled, revealing the network of pipes and cables above. Definitely omens of basementness.

It had taken them some time to decide on this course of action. Despite his misgivings about the Sonar Men, Horlun wasn’t entirely convinced it was wise. Orliss didn’t look very comfortable either, and Roy… well, it was pretty clear how Roy felt. Only Anme and Jen were particularly gung-ho about it, which marked the first time their group had divided along gender lines. (Some obscure part of Horlun’s brain occasionally pointed out trivia like that. It rarely provided much insight.)

So far, they had found nothing remotely incriminating, unless one counted a massive facility manned by four people as suspicious. Even Anme’s enthusiasm was beginning to flag.

“Perhaps we should consider turning back,” said Orliss. “It’s possible there is simply nothing to find, and if we don’t get enough sleep, we’ll miss that breakfast Oregano mentioned.”

“Yeah,” said Jen. “We wouldn’t want to miss that.”

Anme sighed. “I know we’re all tired, but let’s not give up just yet. We’re bound to find some clues eventually.”

“Clues?” said Roy, sounding amused. “I feel like I’m out with the Scooby gang.”

That meant nothing to Horlun, but Jen apparently caught the reference and asked Roy to elaborate.

“Well, first of all, we’re sneaking around a large, creepy building looking for clues. Then there’s us. Orliss is the heroic leader guy. You’re his beautiful friend—”

“Daphne?” protested Jen. “I feel vaguely offended.”

Roy winced. “It’s not a perfect fit. Please don’t take this as a comment on anyone’s intelligence.”

“I was thinking more of her fashion sense, but go on.”

“Okay. Anme’s the brainy, suspicious one and Horlun’s the scraggly, pseudo-beatnik guy.”

“I suppose,” said Jen. “Of course that leaves you as the dog.”

Anme snickered, but Roy seemed unperturbed. “Well… he was the title character.”

“Wait,” said Horlun, “the title character was a dog?”

“Pretty much.”

“He could talk,” Jen offered. “Not very well, though. It was a weird kinda hybrid barking-speech thing.”

Horlun shook his head. “Your ways are strange to me, Terran.”

As they passed through the endless vaults of office supplies and spare laboratory equipment, Horlun found himself wondering what had happened. The place had been operating with a reduced staff for quite some time, but the efficiency of the dusterbots made it hard to tell how long. Decades, possibly. But why build an enormous research center and then mostly abandon it? Budget cutbacks? A natural disaster? Cannibalism? It was the best sort of mystery: perplexing, but irrelevant enough that it didn’t matter if he never figured it out.

They were deep in the complex by now. Horlun was tempted to think they were at the bottom, but he had made that mistake before. The halls were long and straight now, with heavy doors that might have been very secure had they been shut. By unspoken agreement, they were sticking to the well-lit corridors. It made the search process much faster, and less likely to involve falling down an unexpected staircase.

Ahead of them, Anme gave a sudden cry of victory. “I found it! If there’s anything incriminating here, it’s in this room.”

“And what is it which distinguishes this room from the others we’ve encountered?” asked Orliss wearily.

“It’s locked, it’s seen recent use, and it’s got this sign.” She tapped a finger on a large label which read absolutely no admittance. That alone was unique: it was the first attempt at security they had seen, which pretty much guaranteed a connection with the reportedly interesting but definitely secret work that went on here.

Predictably, Roy did not like it. “Once we open that door, we cross the line between forgivable curiosity and outright trespass,” he warned.

Anme mimed gasping in shock. “What a surprise! Soldier-boy’s too scared to disobey a sign! Want to know what our hosts are up to? Too bad! That would be breaking the rules!”

“Rules are the core of society,” Roy shot back. “We can’t just ignore inconvenient ones—we have to ignore them all equally! …or not at all, which would be closer to what I meant when I started that sentence.”

“Not to mention that the makers of this particular rule are heavily armed and the only people who know we aren’t lost in space,” added Jen.

“All the more reason we should see what they’re up to,” insisted Anme.

“There is also the issue of the lock on the door,” Orliss reminded them. “It looks quite sturdy, and my course on heroic sneaking did not cover ways to defeat electronic security.”

Anme blinked, taken aback by this unexpected obstacle. “Um… maybe they’re so used to being alone they left it unlocked?” She tapped the control hopefully, producing the traditional quiet beeps associated with security access keypads. It didn’t set off any alarms or attempt to electrocute her, which was good, but it also didn’t get the door to open, which was not.

“Well, this was pointless,” said Roy. “Can we go back yet?”

“No,” said Anme, stepping away from the door to confront her Terran nemesis. “We can’t come this far and give up, not when the goal is in sight.”

“Yeah, it might be. Except for the locked door there.”

Anme glared. “So that’s it? We should just trust our lives to the amoral profiteers who supply weapons to any terrorist or dictator with a stable credit line?” She stabbed a finger at Roy. “What makes you so comfortable with them?”

“Okay,” said Horlun, interjecting himself before the situation degenerated further, “let’s keep in mind that we’re all friends.” He glanced at Anme, willing her to let the matter drop.

“If they’re as bad as you say,” Roy noted quietly, “the last thing we want to do is anger them by, say, breaking into a forbidden laboratory.”

Orliss nodded in agreement, and even Anme seemed to grudgingly accept Roy’s logic. After painting such a dark picture of their hosts, she couldn’t turn around and argue that they would go easy on trespassers. Almost against his will, hope rose in Horlun’s heart. They would end this quest without finding anything, and whatever evils the Sonar Men were creating would be left for those qualified to handle them. They would leave the planet alive. He knew Anme had their best interests at heart, but her zeal had blinded her to the consequences of her search. Fortunately, while reason had failed to stop her, a simple door lock had succeeded.

He noticed the sound of metal sliding over metal, alarmingly similar to what a shielded door smoothly opening would sound like. Horlun’s newfound hope quavered, and he slowly turned to face the door. It was gone, leaving an entrance to dark spaces unknown in its place. Its control panel was also gone, revealing the wires and circuitry it had hidden. Jen was still there, holding the control panel’s faceplate and looking guilty.

“The door’s open,” said Horlun, always quick on the uptake. He could make out a faint glow in the distant darkness, but he could see nothing in the room clearly except for the patch of floor nearest the entrance. The only thing he would have added, if he was trying to make it really ominous, would be a few buckets of dry ice to make a nice eerie fog.

“I noticed the control layout was like an electronic lock unit Bob showed me back on Planet Gloom,” Jen explained, “so I thought I’d open it up and see if it was the same type.” She pointed to a spot on the circuit board indistinguishable from any other, as far as Horlun could tell. “There’s a way to override the password mechanism for maintenance purposes, and sometimes people forget to reset it, and…” She gestured at the open door.

The implications did not take long to sink in.

“Right,” said Anme. “Let’s do this.” She and Jen stepped into the gloom, followed closely by Orliss. As a trainee space hero, he knew best how to effectively enter a darkened and potentially hazardous laboratory—in theory, at least. Horlun followed at what he hoped was a safe distance.

Roy hesitated at the threshold, clearly torn between curiosity and principle. By the time curiosity won out, Orliss had located the lightswitch. After semi-seriously warning the others to be ready for any light-activated deathtraps, the trainee space hero flipped on the lights.

The lab—for it was pretty clear what it was—did not inspire confidence. It had a certain lazy sterility: the room was free of dust, but clutter collected in odd corners. The disinfectant smell in the air was old and stale. In the lab’s center were three metal tables equipped with shackles and a narrow trough around the edges. Any further hints as to their use had been scrubbed away, save for the damage to the left-most table. Its gouged metal surface and mangled manacles suggested a possible explanation for the center’s reduced headcount, but Horlun stopped his thoughts before they could speculate further.

Along one wall was a row of transparent tubes large enough to hold Orliss or Jen without difficulty. Possibly both at once. They were filled with a green liquid that seemed to cast back more light than it received. They were otherwise empty, which Horlun counted as good fortune.

He was no scientist, nor was he inclined to blindly accept Anme’s theories, but it was pretty clear what sort of thing happened here: creatures were grown in the tubes and then studied on the tables. This was a lair of bio-engineers, brewers of species whose discipline had long ago been banned on Foobarh but was apparently still practiced in space. The sign on the wall, with its stern cartoon mutant warning readers to wash hands before handling genetic material, was merely confirmation.

“…right,” said Orliss. “I propose we return to our suite and decide what to do.” He looked like someone had kicked him in the stomach. Sounded like it, too.

“Decide?” asked Anme. “What is there to decide? We’re going back to the hangar, stealing a ship, and getting out of here.” She paused. “Anyone who wans to risk their lives fighting this,” she gestured at the lab, “is welcome to stay behind.”

Jen and Roy shared a puzzled look. “This is creepy,” Jen agreed, “but I don’t understand the sudden need to escape.”

“Oh?” said Anme. “Think about it. Our engines just happened to be destroyed by a group of bio-engineers who just happened to be out in space doing testing?” She glanced at the green-glowing vats against the wall. “I am not interested in ‘contributing’ to their research. If you get my drift.”

“Not really.”

Anme sighed. “They capture space travellers to use in their experiments. Like us, for instance.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Why would they give us a suite and a fancy dinner if—”

The door opened. That alone wouldn’t have caught their attention, if the object behind the door hadn’t been a large, black, noisy robot. It rolled about half a meter into the room before rumbling to a halt. The door closed behind it. Seeing them, it lowered the vacuum-cleaner nozzle in its gripping claw and stared with its glowing red eye.

“It’s just a cleaning robot,” said Horlun, relieved. “For a moment, I thought we were in real trouble.” The others nervously agreed. If Anme was right, getting discovered would likely get them killed. If she was wrong, well, getting caught would still be embarrassing.

The robot looked back and forth, then backed up slightly. A panel opposite its gripping claw opened and a triple-barrel blaster unfolded. “Intruders detected,” announced the robot, “activating final defence mode.”

Final defence mode?

Can our heroes survive an attack from this deadly robotic maid?

Will Roy’s younger, more irritating cousin show up and save them?

Or will the series be about some other group of people attempting to avenge their deaths?

SFSTORY. Thirteen years and thirteen months.