St. John didn’t know why she was there, in that brightly lit place. She was naked, laid out flat on her back on the freezing exam table like a corpse prepped for an autopsy.
Her vision blurred and brightened, and blurred again. She blinked furiously trying to clear the fog. Her right side throbbed, matching the cadence of her hammering heart. She tried moving her right arm, seeking out the place where it hurt.
Pain lanced through her as her fingers stumbled upon a crudely stitched wound. She tried to remember.how that happened but her memories were all jumbled.
Flame and smoke engulfing the med bay. Choking on the smell of proto-materia leaking out of the cracks in a containment cylinder.
Someone screaming, “Shoot it! Shoot it now!”
She squeezed her eyes shut, banishing the unsteady, seasick feeling that came with the fragmented remembering. Lurching sideways, she swung her legs over the exam table. She tried to stand and bit back a ragged cry as her knees gave out, the wound in her side tore open, and warm, wet blood came gushing out.
“Shit!” She screeched.
Why did their human creators ever even decide that Orphans should also be made of flesh and blood, and feel pain, to begin with?
On her knees and trembling, she whimpered. Her eyes were stinging. Tears sprang forth. The floor was cold. Terribly cold.
Other stimuli started to register, piercing through the haze of pain. A thick, noxious odor blanketing the air. Listless air vents sighing. She heard other sounds. Ship sounds. The heavy groans of monstrous machinery trying thread through space.
From somewhere not far away, she heard a voice.
Someone was chanting. A sing-song sort of mantra. A deep baritone she only dimly recognized.
“Help!” St. John tried to shout but only a hoarse whisper came out.
She tried again, to get to her feet. Her legs gave out once more.
She crawled on hands and knees toward the voice.
It took forever.
She was slipping and sliding in her own slick blood along the way. She finally came to a stop in front of a metal door. As she neared the door, it slid open with a whoosh. She crept into the room.
Vision clearing, her eyes settled on the back of a heavyset figure standing in front of an exam table. Even though the air vents in here were on full blast, the smell of strong chemicals mixed with rotting flesh slammed into St. John so hard she started retching.
The guy turned at the sound of her heaving.
He was burly and gray-skinned. An Orphan. Mechanical Engineer. Omega model. Judging by the extra pair of arms.
He wore goggles that made him like some sort of alien bug, a white coat, and black galoshes. His blood-spattered smock might have once been white but had since aged to a pukey shade of ick. His two upper arms were equipped with buzzing electrical saws. A throbbing puff of flesh was splayed across the exam table before him.
The saws halted.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” he began.
St. John’s glance skittered from the unweildy mass of flesh to the bloody implements.
“No. Wait. It is.” Goggles guffawed. “It’s exactly what it looks like.”
St. John’s focus shifted back to the red and green mass of flesh on the exam table. It took her a few seconds to realize that she was looking at a tentacle, a huge tentacle with massive thorns. Steam and wet vermilion bubbled up out of a gaping wound in its midsection.
Goggles spared her a cursory bob of the head before turning back to the table and resuming his sawing. Globs of red and green flew into the air, splattering all over the exam table and floor.
St John’s belly heaved.
Sour, acrid bile came streaming up into her throat, spewing from her mouth. Neon moths came fluttering in and out of her line of vision. She was vaguely aware of Goggles bending over her body and reaching for his earpiece.
“Doc?” His gravelly voice grew distant as darkness swooped down. “Your girl’s awake and she’s making a mess of my–
St. John woke up in bed. She didn’t know whose. She didn’t recognize the colorful poster-strewn gray walls or the funky purple mushroom lamp on the console next to the bed emitting a pale pink glow.
Flashes of sound, scent, and imagery flitted through her consciousness.
A monstrous high-pitched screeching. Emergency lights flashing. A fire siren sounding. Glass shattering. The captain was yelling and somewhere nearby, someone human was screaming. The air, heavy with a bloody-metallic smell so strong she could taste it.
She bit her lower lip and tried to sit upright. The shock of pain she anticipated never came.
She only felt a twinge in her side. The inside of her mouth was cottony and tasted bitter. Someone had cleaned her up, re-done her stitches, and bandaged her torso. They’d also put a pair of panties on her. Utilitarian. White.
Odd display of consideration to an Orphan. She thought.
Her head felt weird. It was a full and itchy sort of feeling. Like there was something thorny at the fringes of her temple trying to claw its way inside.
She turned at the soft sound of the door sliding open. The tension went out of her at the sight of a familiar face.
“Nadia,” she breathed.
The twelve-foot-tall amazon bowed slightly as she entered the room. She wore a gray, short-sleeved jumper with the planet Earth logo emblazoned on the right collar. Her platinum blond hair was tied back into a tidy ponytail.
Nadia was human. Enhanced. Still, fully human. The kind who could probably trace her own lineage all the way back to the Teutons.
Unlike St. John, the lanky med tech had neither a tungsten skeleton built on a factory assembly line nor synthetic blood, synapses, and lab-grown flesh and skin. She didn’t have a nuclear fusion generator for a heart.
Nadia’s head was bandaged, spots of blood seeping through. She turned her penetrating blue gaze on St. John, assessing.
“How are you feeling?” The med tech asked after a moment.
She tossed a folded jumper to St. John.
“Thanks,” St. John shook out the uniform and started to put it on. “I feel like a train ran me over,” she answered, fussing with the front zipper. “How are you feeling?”
Nadia chuckled, “I’ve had worse knocks.”
St. John’s laugh died in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut as another wave of vertigo crashed down. She plopped back down onto the bed, not trusting her wobbly legs to keep standing.
Nadia leaned over, examining St. John’s eyes more closely.
“Name. Designation. Model.” The med tech prompted, shining a bright light at St. John’s right pupil, then the left.
St. John blinked furiously, the intrusive brilliance and the sudden stinging pain making her eyes tear up.
“St. John. Applegate.” She answered each question in the order asked. “Biochemical Engineer. Zeta.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Exact coordinates… no. I’m aboard the starship Serenity en route to terraforming Phase Three expo-planet, Andromeda Seven,” St John answered mechanically. “We’re in hyperspace–
Her words trailed away. Again, came that feeling. Like a worm writhing around inside her head. She shook her head, trying to banish that seasick feeling. She sat there for a moment in silence and forced herself to focus. Listen. Feel.
“We’re not in hyperspace anymore?”
Nadia shook her head. “No.”
Nadia frowned. “You don’t remember?”
“Only bits and pieces. Nothing makes sense.”
“Come with me,” Nadia said, inclining her head toward the exit. “There’s something you need to see.”
Nadia led St. John back to the morgue. Goggles, the butcher, was nowhere to be found but the massive hunk of toothy flesh was still lying there on his exam table. St. John stared at the throbbing specimen. She was overcome with this inexplicable urge to reach out and touch this strange thing. An odd certainty that it was very much alive.
She turned to Nadia, “what is it?”
“We don’t know.”
The Orphan edged closer to the exam table. “Where did it come from?”
Nadia said nothing for a while.
The med tech chewed on her lower lip for a while before answering.
“We think you got too close to the main organism.” She pointed at St. John’s bandaged side. “We managed to excise it, but not before it invaded your cells and—
“Organism?” St. John’s grimace betrayed her confusion. “What are you talking about?”
Nadia picked up a nearby tablet and swiped at the surface a few times before handing it over to St. John.
“Have a look,” she said. “That’s the med bay. Or it was the med bay. It belongs to that thing now.”
Something massive slithered past the camera. A wall of twisting, tentacled flesh. Whatever was so huge it just kept going and going. St. John shivered, memory jarred.
They’d already been traveking inside hyperspace for three days when something slammed into the Serenity. St. John and several other crew members had been in the med bay at the time. The writhing monstrosity had come barreling through the hull without warning.
St. John’s stomach churned. “Where does that leave us?” She handed the tablet back with a shaky hand.
Nadia snorted derisively. “Serenity’s dead in the water, so to speak. Half the crew is terrified witless—guess which half. Captain’s trying to figure out how to kill this thing before it kills us all.”
St. John eyed her skeptically. “You have other ideas?”
Nadia shoved the tablet toward St. John again. She’d brought up the scanner imagery of St. John’s body.
“This is from right after we excised the foreign—er, flesh from your side. What do you see?”
The Orphan became uneasy as she stared at the imagery.
“It’s still inside me,” she whispered.
“Look at this energy signature,” Nadia’s finger traced the path, from point of entry in St. John’s side to her brain stem, on the tablet. “It’s infected you with some kind of virus but,” she brought up imagery of St. John’s mechanical brain. “Look at the path of the infection.”
St. John contemplated the scanner imagery, her finger tracing the signature path from her torso to her brain stem.
“It was an accident,” she said after a while, her voice soundingstrangely wooden and dreamy. “You’re the ones who crashed into me.”
Nadia’s fingers shook, curling around the sides of the tablet.
“What does that mean?”
St. John’s brow puckered. “What does what mean?”
“You just said—
“I didn’t say anything.”
St. John squirmed in her seat. From the bridge, the not-so-distant bellows of the organism spinning and thrashing about in the med bay resounded. The rampaging organism’s cries were the saddest thing she’d ever heard. She fought the urge to cover her ears, cower, and cry hysterically. It was scared and in pain and—
“Answer the prompt.”
St. John tore her focus away from the terrible sounds coming from the med bay.
“I’m sorry,” she said, head lilting as she forced a courteous smile and nod, the kind reserved for those authorized to give her commands. “Say again?”
Captain Bella James, fifteenth-generation African American astronaut and commander of the starship Serenity, eyed St. John with a mixture of wariness and impatience. She had the piercing gaze of a hawk. Combined with her imposing height and stout proportions, her glare was enough to make the average crew member quake in their boots.
“Name,” she repeated sternly, “designation, and model.”
“St. John Applegate,” said the Orphan. “Designation…”
St. John frowned in bewilderment, her words trailing off.
Captain James hefted a sigh and drew away out of earshot of her already nervous bridge crew. She called Nadia over to where she stood with a toss of the head.
Nadia shook her head. “Her systems are functioning optimally. If anything, she’s in better shape than ever.”
“I think,” the med tech whispered, “it’s the virus.”
“How was an Orphan infected in the first place? They’re machines.”
St. John was only vaguely aware of the captain and Nadia furiously whispering back and forth. The cries from the med bay set her teeth on edge. That massive, alien thing in there was frightening. It was angry and confused, and it was hurting. St. John could feel that. An acute pain, as she’d never known, blossomed in the heart region of her chest. It was suffocating. It felt like something inside her was breaking.
She bit down on her trembling lower lip.
Nadia’s voice yanked the Orphan back to the here and now. The med tech’s eyes were wide and full of consternation.
“What’s the matter, Nadia?”
“St. John,” Captain James said after a tense moment. “You’re crying.”
The Orphan chuckled. Rivulets of tears streamed down her face as she drunkenly tilted her head to one side in denial.
“Orphans aren’t designed to cry.”
For the time being, Serenity’s cargo bay was functioning as a makeshift war room. Chaos reigned, as crew members desperately brainstormed ways to rid the ship of the organism trapped in the med bay.
Guns, they’d discovered tragically, had zero effect. As if the imminent threat of its very presence wasn’t enough, with each high-pitched bellow, the organism emitted an energy pulse dampening the hyperdrive’s energy field. They were, despite the ship’s engine’s efforts, essentially dead in space.
Mikael Pasqual, Serenity’s Chief Communications and Tactical Officer, sat at the head of the long conference table scowling over a diagram of the ship’s schematics.
He was a wiry-framed veteran soldier with bushy eyebrows, and a limp from nearly losing his right leg after stepping on a land mine a decade earlier. He possessed a gruff demeanor and an intense dislike for Orphans.
His flinty gaze flicked from the tablet in his hands to the anxious med tech then to the Orphan accompanying her and the captain.
“So, you’re suggesting this virus is sentient?”
“That’s the only explanation I can come up with,” Nadia answered.
“You’re basing that on the delusional rantings of some glorified vending machine?”
“She,” Nadia bit back, “is a fully qualified and functional member of our crew, and right now, whatever’s happening to her correlates directly to that creature in our medical bay.”
The noises from the med bay began to diminish, the pulsating waning in intensity.
“Sir!” called out a junior officer. “The organism’s movements are becoming less erratic.”
“Good,” Harvey grunted. “Maybe now we can finally kill the damned thing.”
“I’m already dying,” St. John suddenly said.
Nadia shot her a quick glance. “What does that mean?”
The Orphan’s eyes rolled back into her head and she stuttered mechanically.
“C-can’t exist. H-here. N-now,” she warbled. “H-hurts.”
“Captain, look at this,” Nadia thrust the tablet displaying St. John’s status at Bella James.
The virus saturated St. John’s core processing unit. It had, in effect, completely melded with her brain.
The captain’s perturbed gaze flew to St. John and Pasqual gawked at the Orphan, eyes alight with newfound consternation.
St. John wasn’t paying attention.
Her eyes were busy scanning the cargo bay. The bright lights. The people. Their breath. Their anxious voices. The noises they made as they rushed about.
Everything was suddenly so much sharper, clearer, and more dazzling than ever before.
It all felt brand new and filled her with a strange sense of wonder.
There was an entire universe waiting to be discovered here, she realized. A vast and chaotic playground right at her fingertips. Hers for the taking. All of it.
“St. John,” Nadia asked. “How are you feeling now?”
St. John’s mouth split into a wide grin, as elation–a whole new emotion–teased at the tip of her tongue.
“I feel wonderful.”