substrate phantoms - prologue

Termagenti Station


            Esker dreamed of space-floating, the cold smear of distant stars on his faceplate, his own breath in his ears, weightless in the endless of space. The deep-suit chafed slightly at his knees.

            He woke when station link chimed with a summons. The blanket was pulled about his knees and trapped in the twist of Darshun’s limbs beside him. All he could see of her was a head of wooly hair.

            “Through,” he said, giving voice permission for station mind to play the message.

“Esker. We’re getting strange readings from a Zebulon tube—Zeb 12,” the tube team supervisor’s voice came through link, brief, dry. “Need a team in there soonest. Team four was next on rotation, but Song Joli’s gone sick and I don’t want to send them in without their cyber-relay.”

            “Received.” Esker coughed, his voice rough.

            There were groans from all around quarters.

“Sorrow take it.” Beside him, Darshun spoke muffle-voiced into her pillow.

            Esker and his team were one of five tube teams on Termagenti Station. Esker’s team was all House Kiyr, though of diverse family association: Kiyr Esker James, Kiyr Darshun Park, Kiyr Tomas Oolambai, Kiyr Sara Mehet, and their ward, Kiyr Jhinsei—no family association. They were sometimes referred to as the Doom Crew. The name stuck after a stunt in a Yang tube. They’d simultaneously saved support on two decks while fragging three other tube systems and putting all of Echoria deck on life systems flicker for three full cycles.

The current groaning was because they’d all drunk heavily and late into the previous cycle in celebration of their ward’s nineteenth birthday. Esker vaguely remembered Jhinsei, said ward, taking on all of Tube Team One in a dare fest, Tomas dancing on the rec center bar, Sara dicing with another tube team, winning, then losing. Darshun had whispered stories to him, esoteric lore out of humanity’s long ago. Her breath had been warm and tasted of vaact, an expensive liquor imported from outsystem, when her lips met his. They’d all been hella luced.

Esker listened to them grousing now, knowing what each one was doing and picturing it as he lay with his back to the room: across quarters, Tomas stretched, dark limbs graceful even in post-revel stiffness. Sara, their cyber-relay, sat on the edge of her bunk, pinching between her eyes with finger and thumb, eyes closed over a headache, while her cybered brain connected to station mind to suss the specs on the job. Jhinsei was up and at the heatleaf making coffee.

The bitter-warm smell of the speciated beans grown down on the planet Ash confirmed this, and finally made Esker open his eyes. He rubbed at them blearily and sat up. His crew were scattered about the large, airy quarters rated by tube teams in much the disposition he’d imagined. Tomas was folded in half in a position that made Esker’s back ache to see, Sara sat pale and pinched and not pleased, and Jhinsei’s hair was stuck up in a ruffled thatch, though otherwise he seemed mostly recovered from last night’s debauch as he puttered, warming coffee on the heatleaf’s thin, filament-veined disk, while yawning and rubbing a hand over his chest.

            “Jhinsei, sweet angel,” Esker said.

            Kiyr Jhinsei—the almost-orphan, Sara had dubbed him—grinned at his team leader, turned back to the heatleaf and asked of quarters at large, “Isn’t Zeb 12 near the bay where House Tiyo stashed the derelict they found?”

            “Hoping for a sighting of the alien ghost ship, Jhinsei?” Tomas asked, stretching out into human shape, then diving back to his toes.

            Sara came out of info-fugue and massaged her fingers around her eyes, where shadows smudged her pale skin. She looked hagged. “Tiyo has thoroughly debugged, dissected, and filed the derelict—”

            “Much to the petite chagrin of House Toveshi’s SciTech,” Tomas said from between his feet.

“—as a hunk of space debris,” Sara finished. “Though at least House Kiyr’s SciTech got in on the action.”

Esker grunted. “It’s the use of Khat makes House Tiyo kind to House Kiyr.” Khat was Kiyr House Authority, station’s security force, which had been under House Kiyr’s control since station’s founding by the original Kiyr, Song, Tiyo, and Toveshi.

Sara grunted in agreement, and then leveled a severe look at Jhinsei. “That thing is of unknown origin, Jhinsei. Okay? Unknown. I don’t want to hear any prattling about alien hauntings. You spend too much time listening to tales on Revelation deck. As of this morning, dear almost-orphan, you are a full standard year past majority.”

            Jhinsei made a face as Sara snagged her jump and headed for the showers. She ruffled a hand through his hair along the way and Esker watched a blush climb Jhinsei’s cheeks, just light-skinned enough to show it. Two years and he still blushed. Esker figured it was growing up in House Kiyr nursery made him shy. No blood association meant no sibs or cousins or teasing uncles and affectionate aunts to rub the raw off of one’s physical shyness from early on in life. But the unassociated kid who’d bounced around ops like a not-quite adopted puppy had attached to Esker and his team, fitting with them in work and off-time. Like the magic element they’d needed to become fully themselves.

Esker took the bulb of coffee Jhinsei handed him, savoring the warm sting against his palm. Jhinsei’s glance slid after Sara, and then he said, “The problem in Zeb 12 could be related to the derelict, though, yeah? I mean, that ship’s not of human origin, they think, so how do we know?” He grinned again, happy in the possibility, and Esker laughed. Tomas, overhearing, gave a laugh, too, then followed Sara to the showers.

Esker sipped his coffee. “Anything’s possible.”

Satisfied with that, Jhinsei went to start equipment checks.

Esker tugged on a tight, wooly coil of Darshun’s hair. He leaned over to whisper in her ear. “Wake up, sister drift. Work to do.”

            “Don’t call me that,” she muttered into her pillow, then sat up. Her hair stuck up in all directions and her face wore creases from the bed clothes. Even in disarray, she bore remarkable resemblance to the figure of the Drift Witch—also known as Sister Drift—depicted in the mural of the legend that ran the length of the main causeway on Semiramnis deck.

She looked Esker up and down, reached out a pale-palmed, dark hand to touch his cheek and said sweetly, “You look like the wrong side of some heavy gee. No more debauches for you, jefe mio.”

            A short time later they assembled themselves into their tube diving gear. Suit hoods undone, the faceplates dangled on their chests, lozenges of hard light. They tramped out of quarters and took the lift to Zebulon deck. Everyone went quiet on the lift, each in their own heads. Esker yawned repeatedly, and then caught Darshun watching him, an amused expression curving her lips.

            The lift opened on Zebulon deck. Metal surfaces reflected unfiltered collector light up the long curve of corridor. Their breath puffed in the chill. The deep hum of station was louder on systems-access decks, Zebulon loudest of all, the tramp of their boots muffled under it. Smaller access passages snaked left off the main corridor, maintenance bays, with ship docks strictly for the use of station-owned vessels, caverned off to the right.

            They passed the bay where House Tiyo’s derelict sat, the entry guarded by two Khat officers who stood straight from bored slouches as Esker and his team came into view. Then the shorter of the two grinned sheepishly at Esker. A cousin, she was, Kiyr Cecile Kolie-James.

            “Hey Esker.” She tugged on her Khat uniform tunic. Her companion nodded, unsmiling, one hand resting on his sidearm, the usual Khat-issue stinger. Cecile’s smile was uncustomary and very non-regulation, grim humorlessness being a Khat merit course. She glanced at her fellow officer and shook her head just slightly, then gave them all the once-over. “Going diving?” Then she laughed at her own question. “’Course you are. Hey Darshun.”

            “Hey Cecile. Good seeing you, kiddo.”

            Esker surveyed his cousin. “Being Khat agrees with you, little seal. Still think it was a hella choice.”

            “Mine to make,” Cecile chirped, refusing to take offence. She nodded to the rest of them and grinned at Jhinsei, who was craning past Esker’s shoulder for a better look at the derelict.

            “Want to see it?”

            The other Khat officer frowned, hand still on his holstered stinger. “Cecile—”

            “Brinden, it won’t hurt for them to get a visual. SciTech from Kiyr and Tiyo have been taking samples of it, lots and lots of samples and testing. And then there was an accident—something happened with one of the laser cutters; no one’s been down in a few cycles since.”

Jhinsei peered between the Khat officers into the dark bay. “I heard it was like some of the other hauntings—weird reports of visions and unaccountable phenomena.”

Cecile shrugged with a sideways glance at Brinden. “I can’t comment on that; but do you guys want to see it?”

            Brinden’s eyes narrowed, his gaze on Jhinsei. “I don’t think—”

            “Love to,” Esker said, “at least Jhinsei would, clearly—but we have to get to the tube and earn our keep.”

            “Maybe after?” Jhinsei said hopefully, not looking at Brinden.

            Sara snorted.


            “I’d like to see it, too,” Darshun said and Sara snorted again. “Got something up your nose, Sara?”

            “See you after, then,” Cecile called as they moved on. Then she said, “Brinden, take a pill why don’t you? And stop fondling your stinger.”

            “Void’s sake, Cecile, that brat is unassociated. Have sense.”

            Their voices faded. Sara grabbed Jhinsei’s arm and shook him slightly, bringing his head up. “Paying attention to idiots won’t get you anything worth having, eh?”

“Yeah,” Jhinsei muttered and ducked his head, “I know.”

            Further along the curve they came to Zebulon tube 12. Iris entry controls were in a recessed globe at the side, keyed to tube team leaders and seconds—meaning Esker and Darshun in their case. Someone getting in the tubes could cause serious havoc with any number of station’s systems, not least life support and rotation. Esker sealed his face lozenge into place while the rest of the team did likewise. Tubes had atmos, but with a very low oxygen mix, air too thin for sustained activity.

            “Link check, everyone live?”

            They chorused back in sequence, Darshun, Sara, Tomas, Jhinsei, voices separated from bodies.

            Esker pulled off his glove and pressed his sequence into the globe; station mind had to have the sequence plus his particular chemical signature. The globe pressed back, sizzling little gold and blue trails. The lock irised open with a hiss and they tramped in.

            As the tube lock rotated shut behind them and the entry went gravless, Esker assisted his drift with a toe push and bounced lightly. The others followed. The suits were light, just line clamps and life systems. The myriad glowing readouts of station systems ranked down the tube reflected in bent arcs and trails on their faceplates.

            “Darshun, specs?” The tinny flattened sound of his own voice through suit link echoed in Esker’s ears.

Darshun’s voice came back, her faceplate flashing at him briefly as she turned her head from examining the main readouts. “Three anomalous readings, out of sync. One in the collector feedbacks, two in life support. They scaled right off the monitors, like energy surges.”

“No such failures have been reported,” Sara supplied. “Nothing in station mind about the surges either.”

“Localized monitor failure, then?” Darshun sounded dubious.

“That’s mind’s first analysis, unlikely as it seems,” Sara said.

            “Okay, Tomas, power down the relays. Darshun, dive the hole and do recon. Jhinsei, Sara, and I’ll take individual board checks. Tomas, after you cut power to the relays, sit on the main board and monitor it. If there’s some kind of localized surge problem, we can’t trust that the relays are doing their job.”

He fanned his legs and arms and swam. The suit smelled of its last cleaning. His muscles felt stringy, eyes aching, and a tepid sweat made him feel grimy, despite the shower. Getting too old to get luced and be in the tubes so soon after.

            Latching his clamp to a hitch in the curved panels, he slid a reader out of a side suit pocket, and threaded its link until it made connection on the first set of relays.


            “Powered down.”

            “Okay, Jhinsei, Sara, get to it.” He activated the hand reader and studied the link-ups on each individual board. His awareness focused down to the reader and the whereabouts of his team. Sweat rolled down his face, dripped over his eyes as he did the tedious work.

“Darshun, you in the hole?”

            “Yup. Everything looks okay. I’m going to start a scan for energy leaks.”

            “Okay.” The first board checked out. He started on the next. Sara worked from the other end toward him, while Jhinsei, across tube, checked the secondary system boards.

            For a time there was silence and the sound of everyone’s breathing, then Jhinsei said, “There’s a frag on the third filter system board. Cap’s burned out, melted to slag.”

            “Mother hell.” Sara’s voice cut him off. “Esker, you’d better come see this. Caps all down the rotation sequence are fragging over as I watch.”

            Esker registered both Jhinsei’s and Sara’s words as he watched his own reader stutter to a halt: all the readouts blazed, then began to fade, then blazed again. He switched the reader off and tried to disconnect it, but the power kept coursing through it. It wouldn’t budge. The reader fused to the boards—but the heat didn’t radiate past the fusion, the reader still at body temp in his hand.

            “Hella fucking void, what is that?” Tomas’ voice brought Esker’s head up. He looked around.

A shimmer of light played through the darkness of the tube, then disappeared down the hole. Readout lights, power lights, sequence keys—all began flickering on and off in a slow wave pattern, all around them. A shiver crept up from Esker’s gut.

            “Leviathan’s bloody craw,” he whispered.

            “What was that?” Darshun’s voice, startled. “Esker, did you just curse?”

“Darshun, up and out of there, fast as you can. Terminate all system engagement. We’re out of here as of now. Sara, contact station mind, initiate emergency isolation and containment of all Zebulon tube interfaces and inter-station functions. There’s some kind of—something—loose in here.”

            “Esker, what the hell does—Mother Void! What the drift? Esker, can you—”

            The link suddenly bit off in static. “Darshun?” His voice bounced against the faceplate, his own breath loud in his ears. With a push off the side, Esker sailed back toward Tomas. Jhinsei swam from the other side. The play of lights reflected off their face lozenges, obscuring expressions. Esker waved them both toward the lock and changed direction to go for the hole, for Darshun. Jhinsei drifted past him and Esker caught a brief glimpse of his face, perplexed and scared. He gestured once, get out, hurry, and then grabbed the rim of the hole’s access to swing himself in and down the chute—

            —and blinked, resisting the urge to try and rub his eyes through the faceplate.

Shimmer filled the hole: a swarm of motes coalescing and fading in waves. Darshun hung at the center of the hole, head down, arms and legs starfishing. Her hook line, detached, drifted in a loose, snaking coil around her. The shimmer rolled over her and she spasmed, fell still, then spasmed again. The shimmer was moving, in its waves, up the hole toward him, a tide coming in.

            Esker watched the shimmer roll, fade, surge again, gauging seconds between surges. He held to one of the guide rungs, clipped his hook line to it, braced booted feet against the panels. As a surge peaked below him, he dove toward Darshun, just behind the receding edge. Inches from his faceplate the shimmer was a scintillant buzz.

            With one practiced hand he slowed his motion as he reached Darshun, grabbed one of her arms, then hit the take-up for the hook line on his belt. They were hauled up, a sharp tug at his back. He kept one eye on the shimmer as it faded, re-coalesced, began another surge. Darshun flopped limp in his arms.

            The line reeled them to the hatch. He pushed Darshun through it, fumbled at his hook, unclipped, pulled himself through after her, and slammed a hand down on the entry key.

            The hatch didn’t move.

            A surging, shimmering wave rose to within inches of the access rim. He pushed off the hatchway, dragging Darshun with him. The tube system lights still stuttered chaotically, as if systems throughout had become confused, addled. His team clustered by the tube entry, bent over the unit that controlled the lock. One of them glanced up, faceplate flashing, Tomas, by the suit markings. Tomas touched Sara’s shoulder where she bent over the lock controls, then pushed off and came toward Esker.

            Maneuvering was difficult with Darshun in his arms. He drifted awkwardly, relieved when Tomas reached him and took up her other arm. Tomas pivoted neatly, the most graceful of them in zerogee; his momentum carried them the rest of the way.

            At the lock unit, Esker bent over Sara’s shoulder. She was working with a tiny relay pin, trying to bypass the unit and access the override. But the system was fragged, fused.

            They couldn’t get out.

            A glittering reflection on Jhinsei’s faceplate brought Esker swinging around. Shimmer surged up out of the hole and flowed toward them. Sara kept working. Esker pushed Darshun into Tomas’ arms and gestured them, with Jhinsei, to the entry overhang. He turned back to help Sara at the controls.

            It was as if all the links had been fused at a molecular level, rendering the unit a hunk of useless alloy. Sara gave up and pounded at it.

            The wave surged over them, lapping halfway up their suits.

            It felt like warm water at first, gentle, enveloping heat. Then all at once it felt like millions, billions of tiny electrostatic charges, microscopic lightnings moving over his body, lapping over his thighs, thrilling through his groin—immediate erection—up his ribcage, arms, into his chest and heart, up into his throat, a thick, fizzy air filling his mouth with a tang of ozone.

A rushing sound filled Esker’s ears. Distantly, he noted the shimmer receding, resurging, but the charge it had worked through him stayed, tingling throughout his body. He floated, caught in its lightning flicker against his skin, within him, licking through his brain.

            Out of the incandescence came voices. The voices tasted familiar.

What is it? That was Tomas.

Esker, Sara, do you feel it? That was Darshun—voice, sense, mind, and presence.

Darshun? His own sense echoed. By the feel of the echo, he understood that he was hearing himself as he felt and sounded to the others.

What’s happening? Jhinsei.

The energy, said Sara, whatever it is, it linked us, and the systems, somehow; all the sub routines in the tube are fused—and now us, too.

Close on the sense of Sara came the intertwined metal-cool voice of station mind, always in Sara’s head, part of Sara. Mind’s voice felt different, had a different signature and sense—one not alive. It wailed warning, like an oracle: Evacuate tube, systems critical, evacuate, overload imminent, terminal malfunction, evacuate.

Under station mind, Esker sensed and heard the systems themselves, less vibrant and distinct, murmurs and mutters each with its own minor sound, but not individual: a chorus of gnats. Smudged now, no longer part of a working whole, they had fused into a jumble.

Overload imminent—that was station mind for things going bang.

            Esker sought to move beyond the energy holding him, possessing his body.

He had to get them out.

Then another presence coalesced out of the luminous, echoing fire. As the feel of Darshun, Tomas, Sara, and Jhinsei was more vibrant than those of station mind or the tube systems were, so this presence was more vibrant than his team’s.

Than anything, ever.

            This voice, this presence, was not confused or inchoate, not babbling. It stilled Esker—all of them—in its need, encompassed and overrode all other imperatives.

            Presence, feeding at impossible speed through all senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, memory—into Esker’s brain. Experiences that his brain only barely grasped, his frame of reference too limited for what the presence gave, or what it was.

            Presence. Esker’s mind, all of their minds together, tried to translate the presence into discrete, graspable bits. Taste of sweetness: honey, Esker’s mind said—but not. Shades of color, leaves of light, saturated, illuminant. Warmth of touch. A caress, feathery, touching like dark blue velvet on his skin, on his mind, whispering in the air, a vibration along his eardrum, through every smallest bone in his hands, then—


            A prickle of cool vegetation. The low, singing sound of a voice made of thunder and continuum coming from the shadows and tall red fern-like shapes. A long stretch of dark, translucent sand. Soft between his toes, but—not toes, not sand. Scent of heat and fragrant moistures. Beyond the sand, a deep, primeval wood, trees, but not. Columns of tangible light, living beings floating among the not-tree trunks.

He could taste, touch, hear, see, smell, but none of it was quite what his mind would make it—and all of it had the sense of presence behind and within it, the whole world a being they had been let into.

            Terminal overload imminent, station mind sirened far, far away.

            Like fairyland, he heard Darshun whisper in their minds, something from one of her esoteric stories.

            Light of a harsher spectrum than the sweet illumination around them seared Esker’s eyes as it splashed across his faceplate. The beautiful, haunting landscape broke apart as one curve of tube wall exploded inward. Sound, shock wave, debris, all reached them a beat later. Esker’s eardrum shattered and he screamed, but couldn’t hear himself. Tube panels and scorching hot board sections slammed into him. Broken bones, seared skin. Pain. He was thrown back into the entry, bodies under him, yielding on impact; he felt them, his team, crushed beneath him as he was crushed by a huge section of the tube panels. A rain of fiery debris buried him and Sara beside him in a hot, burning cave.

Immobilized, Esker stared through his scratched faceplate at Sara; her lozenge had cracked. Her eyes stared. Smoke curled out of a bleeding gash at her temple, her cybered brain fragged.

As the force of the explosion expended itself, the debris began to lift away. Esker felt himself float free, felt a distant, wearing pulse of pain. Then, mercifully, it all began to fade.

Through the fire and the smoke and the pain that fed into his brain from every nerve, the last thing Esker saw was a shimmer of energy fading into the ruined tube curve, into the depths of Termagenti Station.

            Then there was nothing. All signals off line.


SUBSTRATE PHANTOMS, out May 16, 2017 from Resurrection House. Get it on Amazon, B&N, Indigo, or ask for it at your favorite bookstore or library.

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