Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Program Orange

by Dale Carothers


With the last gasp of Dr. Wendell Corboen's breath, Jadie was out of a job--the easiest and best paying job she'd ever had. Dr. Corboen, noted xenobiologist, passed away on a starship on the way to the planet that bore his name. He'd wanted to spend his final days on the planet, but now it would only be his tomb. Jadie stroked his gnarled fingers.

When most men looked at Jadie, they saw their mother. She had a caregiver's face. She supposed it was that quality and the answer to his question at the interview that got her the job.

"You ever had your ass wiped by a machine?" Corboen's body was frail and dotted with liver spots, but his eyes shone as blue as the ocean under the bright tropical sun. "I wouldn't recommend it."

She'd taken his hands in hers so he could feel their softness. "I come with a gentle service guarantee."

Buzzing and chirping brought Jadie out of her reverie. The machines that were integrated into Dr. Corboen's bed detected his death and summoned a medical team. Jadie was glad that he'd closed his eyes as he died. She wanted to remember that spark of intelligence, and not the inanimate doll-eyes of death. She took a step back, out of the wood paneled alcove, to make room for the medics. Dr. Corboen enjoyed being surrounded by wood; he felt that metal walls were too cold and impersonal.

"Why didn't you call someone?" A medic asked as he pushed past Jadie.

She flinched when the medic grabbed Dr. Corboen's wrist. "You're being too rough. He's delicate."

"Lady, I don't have time for delicate. He's a very important man. I'm sure he wouldn't mind a few bruises if I can save his life."

Jadie backed away. She knew that she shouldn't take the medic's hostility personally. He was in crisis mode. Jadie turned away from him and rubbed the tears from her green eyes.

Jadie dug her fingernails into her scalp, scratching at a sudden itch until her short, russet hair stuck out in all directions. Someone laid a hand on Jadie's forearm, and a team of medics wheeled equipment past her. She looked up at a medic with soft eyes and a calming smile.

"Let's get you something to drink," the medic said, gently ushering her towards the door.

"I don't want anything."

Vedic met Jadie a few minutes later in the hallway. She fell into his arms and cried. "What the am I supposed to do now?"

####

Later that evening Jadie lay face to face with Vedic; the blankets of her bed wrapped loosely about them. She ran her fingers along his jaw and stroked his ear. Vedic tensed, as he always did when she got too close to his implants. He had a cluster of what looked like spiny silver dreadlocks sprouting from the back of his head near the base of his skull.

"I can't believe he's gone," Jadie said. Vedic raised his thin eyebrows and sniffed. He had sharp Arabic features and shiny black hair.

"I know he was old, but he was always so nice to me."

Vedic raised himself up on an elbow. "Just last week we were in this very same bed talking about how he drove you crazy." Vedic imitated Jadie's voice. "I can't stand that man. If I have to hear another lecture on xenobiology I'm going to puke." Vedic mimed gagging.

Jadie rolled onto her back and fumed. Sure, Dr. Corboen's lectures bored her to tears but after a few weeks she realized that he only gave the lectures while she was bathing him or wiping his backside. He needed to occupy his mind during the intimate, embarrassing times.

Vedic leaned in and kissed her cheek. "He had to have been better than that last guy; the Accidental Groper."

Jadie shivered with disgust. "Yeah, he was a lot better."

####

The next morning Jadie and Vedic walked side by side down the gargantuan oval corridor that served as the main thoroughfare for the navigation deck.

"Why can't you just tell me?" Jadie asked.

Vedic shook his head, rattling the spiny metal dreadlocks. "I haven't been given permission."

"Whose permission do you need?"

"The Crabs'."

Jadie stepped in front of Vedic, stopping him. "This is just stupid. We've shared a lot on this voyage. By now you should be able to tell me anything."

"They take this stuff pretty seriously. I've been given a direct order not to say anything about it."

"I guess we're not as close as I thought we were."

"That's not fair. There's stuff you can't tell me about Dr. Corboen because of the privacy bylaws that your service agency adheres to."

Jadie bit her lower lip. Now she was angry. She'd broken the bylaws by insulting Dr. Corboen behind his back, and he'd just called her on it. And he was still keeping something from her.

Vedic had known Jadie long enough to recognize that face. He grabbed her shoulders. "You told me that you needed the money. And now you don't have a job." He paused for a second. "Is there a clause in your contract about patient death? Are you still going to be paid for this voyage?"

"I didn't read it all the way through."

Vedic sucked air in through his teeth. "Maybe your work will be prorated for time served."

He pulled her into a hug. Jadie buried her nose in his chest. His clothes were damp with sweat, but she liked the smell. She made a quick mental note to steal one of his shirts before their life paths diverged.

"Now that I've met you, I'm beginning to rethink my decision to devote my life to the Crabs," Vedic said.

Jadie pulled out of his embrace and gave him a playful jab in the stomach. "Liar, you're just making sure that you can screw me again later."

"I'd lie to my own mother for the privilege."

"Gross."

Both of them knew that their relationship was temporary. But that didn't stop them from making empty promises. With Vedic's life working for the Crabs and Jadie's wanderlust, there was little chance of a long-term relationship.

"Here we are," Vedic said.

"Are these you rooms?" They'd always met in Jadie's small room near Dr. Corboen's quarters. She'd never seen his place.

"No, this is just a meeting room. Please wait here," Vedic said, entering the room.

After a few minutes he came back and let her in.

A balustrade led to a wide staircase and then down to a lounge furnished with overstuffed red chairs, motley carpets, and potted trees. A line of Crabs in elaborate power armor stood near a wall-sized window. The Crabs controlled their armor from within fluid-filled glass cockpits. Two of them had tall bipedal armor, one had armor shaped like a spiny globe that floated on a white beam of energy, and another crawled along the floor in a two-meter long metal nautilus.

"If you'll join us, we can proceed," Vedic said; his voice was different, high-pitched. His face was slack, and his eyelids drooped.Jadie looked at him in surprise. He continued in the new voice.

"Please, we have several other candidates to interview. I am Senior Administrator Kinek. It is a pleasure to meet you."

Jadie, confused, stuck out her hand; waiting for Vedic to shake it. Servos whined above her; a Crab in spider-shaped power armor scuttled along the ceiling. She stepped back.

"I think I have sense enough not to fall on you," Kinek said.

Jadie noticed tiny lights blinking on Vedic's hardware when Kinek spoke. "Why do you speak through Vedic?"

"We learned long ago that you can't stand looking at us, but try to do so out of politeness. If we wanted commerce to succeed between our races, we needed a face that you could talk to. So we use a human proxy."

Jadie understood. She could barely bring herself to look at them; all those eyestalks, twitching antennae, and claws made her uneasy. The Crabs were essentially cat-sized, sentient hermit crab analogues from a planet far out on the spiral arm of the galaxy. She had a quick and frightening fantasy about Vedic speaking in his Crab voices while they were in bed.

"Please, we'd like to begin the meeting." Kinek said crawling down the sloped ceiling towards the window. When she neared her comrades near the window, she dropped, flipped, and then landed with a clang on the floor.

Vedic gestured to the stairs and Kinek said. "After you."

Jadie descended the stairs, wondering if the Crabs could see through Vedic's eyes, and if so, what had they seen? Jadie shivered.

"Please sit," Kinek said. "I will conduct the interview, asking you questions compiled by our team." Vedic motioned to the bar and Kinek said. "Would you like something to drink? We requested a room with a fully stocked bar."

"No thank you, I'm fine." Jadie sank into a chair and looked over at the Crabs. "Are you going to join us?"

"We prefer it this way," Kinek said.

"So we could do this anywhere?"

"The range is limited to ten meters."

Jadie was glad to hear that. Even though she didn't know if the Crabs could see though Vedic's eyes or not, she knew that her quarters were far out of range.

"Do you have any educational or vocational, formal or informal, background in electrical engineering, robotics, cybernetics or any other mechanical discipline?"

Jadie sat forward in her seat. "What is this all about?"

"Answer the question please," Kinek said.

"I know how to use machines but I don't know how they work or how to fix them, I didn't learn about that stuff. My education focused on social services."

"Do you have any ties to military, para-military, aggressive memetic, or mercenary organizations?

"No."

"Do you mind if we verify your statements with Central Information?" Kinek asked.

"Go ahead."

"Please standby."

The interview went on, examining Jadie's susceptibility to disease, and her athletic ability. After an hour, Jadie got tired of saying no to convoluted questions that sounded the same to her. "How much longer is this going to take?"

"You have completed the verbal interview. We are waiting for confirmation from Central Information," Kinek said. "You may move about freely while we confer."

"Thanks," Jadie said. Why did Vedic think that she was even qualified for this job? She lacked any of the qualities that they were looking for. She got up and stretched her legs.

Vedic's head drooped and then snapped back up, his eyes blinking. "Have they made a decision yet?"

"I don't see why this is taking so long," Jadie said. "I'm not what they're looking for."

Vedic's voice changed as Kinek took over. "Yes you are. Your lack of mechanical aptitude and interest makes you perfect for this job. We are prepared to offer you ten times your contract rate to complete this mission."

"What mission?"

"Honored Soldier Chelik grew old and confused," it said. "When the time came for her armor to be passed to the next Initiate, Chelik took a voyage to Corboen's World to see the ruins left behind by the extinct indigenous beings of that planet, the Getabines. They were a proud warrior culture, much like our own, with a skill for creating enormous and rather striking sculptures of their greatest warriors. Chelik spoke of going to Corboen's World to see the sculptures, but we never thought that she'd take the armor. We haven't heard from Chelik, but we know from passenger manifests that she reached Corboen's World. We need you to find her."

"Why can't you do it?"

"Our proxy reports that you spent the voyage with Dr. Corboen himself," Kinek said. "And that Dr. Corboen subjected you to long lectures about the nature of the planet."

"Yes, he talked a lot about his work." Jadie wondered if Vedic told the Crabs everything she'd ever said, or if the Crabs kept a spy within range of the implants. Either way she didn't like it. She thought for a second. "The viruses!"

"Exactly. We haven't heard from Chelik, and efforts to reach her via the colony on the planet have been unsuccessful. We can only assume that either she has disabled her communicator and her transponder or that the viruses have breached her suit. The most interesting ruins are in a region with the most complex combination of viruses."

Jadie didn't like the sound of that. "What about my safety?"

"We will guarantee your survival," Kinek said. "We have a solid plan in place."

It sounded like an easy job to Jadie. Find the lost elder and collect a big paycheck. Ten times her contract rate would fund the next few years of her vagabond lifestyle. The Crabs were probably being over-cautious, not going themselves. Maybe they were extra-susceptible to the viruses of Corboen's World. She hoped that she wasn't.

"I'll do it," Jadie said.

The Crabs closed on Jadie and encircled her. She fell into her chair and closed her eyes in fear.

"Please pay attention," Kinek said.

Jadie opened her eyes. The Crabs edged in closer, their claws and maxillipeds working at the complex and delicate controls of their armor. Vedic's voice came out in a garbled mess, as if all of them were trying to speak through him at once. "You must promise not to examine or otherwise tamper with Chelik's armor. It is of paramount importance that it be passed to her rightful heir in ritual fashion.

####

Jadie helped Vedic back to his room. He was always tired after the Crabs used him.

"Why are they so nervous about anyone getting close to their armor?" Jadie asked.

Vedic's head lolled. "It's a religious thing. Their armor is sacred, and they guard their technological secrets fiercely. They even have hardware that prevents tech scans and blurs photographs." Vedic slumped against the wall. "Can we talk about after I get some sleep?"

"Sure. I'll see you later," Jadie said as she walked away.

Later, while she was washing her face, Jadie realized that she hadn't asked how they were going to guarantee her safety. I can always back out, she thought, and then got into bed.

Jadie couldn't fall asleep. She needed Vedic's smell and familiar weight at the other side of the bed. And after today, she needed to hear him talk with his own voice and use his own facial expressions. She got out of bed, pulled on some clothes, and took the twenty minute walk to Vedic's room. Jadie paced outside his door for a few minutes before knocking.

"Jadie," Vedic said, "come in."

A giant terrarium took up most of the room. There was a narrow pathway between the wall and the four foot high glass side of the terrarium that led to Vedic's quarters. Crabs crawled in the dirt and swam in the water. Several stunted fruit trees--mango, coconut, and apple--hung out over the terrarium. The Crabs clustered around the fallen fruit and chittered to each other.

The Crabs looked so vulnerable outside their armor. Jadie was embarrassed for letting them intimidate her after the meeting. "I couldn't sleep, so I wondered if I could, y'know…"

"I'd like that," Vedic said.

A tapping on the inches-thick glass drew Vedic's attention. One of the smaller Crabs waved its claws at Vedic.

"Jadie, this is Honored Soldier Chelik's broodson Kikuru. He is the Initiate who is next in the line of succession for her armor."

"It's nice to meet you," Jadie said. She turned to Vedic. "Listen, I'm pretty tired. I have to go."

"I thought that you were going to stay."

Jadie looked at the Crabs, who were crossing the terrarium toward her to see what was going on. "I can't."

"Do you want me to come back with you?"

"I'm just so fidgety, I'd only keep you awake."

Outside in the hall, Jadie shivered. It would be a while before she'd be able to be with Vedic again--too many eyestalks watching. It would be easier if she just asked him if they could see and hear through him, but if he said yes, it would be unbearable.

####

"We're going to make five clones of you, each with a different program of antivirals. The one who finds Chelik will set off her transponder, and we'll know which program to give the Crabs so that they can reclaim their armor and complete their ritual of passing," Senior Lab Tech Whitling said.

"Won't each antiviral program interact with my body chemistry differently?" Jadie asked. She sat on an examination table, ready to have tissue samples taken.

"That is the point."

"How about the Crabs, won't the winning program react differently with them than it will with me?"

"We will fill the piloting capsules of the rescue party with a gelatinized substrate based on your genetic material and mix it with the 'winning program'."

Jadie winced at the thought of Jadie gelatin. "Is the procedure dangerous?"

Whitling put his hands in the pockets of his lab coat and pursed his lips.

"Well?" Jadie asked.

"I've read studies about erratic behavior in a small percentage of clones."

Jadie's eyes widened, but before she could speak Whitling continued.

"I made several improvements on the original procedure. In fact, I could've helped the developers at the beginning. There wouldn't have been so many problems if I had been part of the project from its inception."

"You're sure about this?"

Whitling thought about it for a second, and then nodded. "Sure. If I didn't have complete faith in my abilities, you wouldn't be going. They told you not to touch her, didn't they?"

"Yes."

"They asked me to remind you."

"I won't forget."

Kinek was in the room, as a witness to the proceedings. She wondered why the Crab didn't remind Jadie herself. And where was Vedic? He probably didn't want to see her after she'd refused him.

"What happens if we all make it?" Jadie was still convinced that they were being overcautious.

"Not likely," Whitling said. "The constantly mutating viruses on the planet will take care of that. If more than one of you makes it, you'll split the money and go your separate ways. The galaxy is big enough to accommodate more than one of you."

Jadie jumped off of the table. "Suddenly this doesn't sound like much fun. I think you'd better find somebody else."

Kinek stepped forward. A display flickered to life on the glass of her pilot module.

It took her a moment to recognize her account number. Jadie's mouth dropped open. So many numbers standing in a beautiful line and all of them hers, she almost asked if they could give the clones a handicap, as her generosity took a sudden nosedive. "I'd hate to die before I had a chance to enjoy it. What if all the clones die?"

"We're going to keep a scan of you here for safety reasons," Whitling said, "I've been given instructions to inform you that if you don't make it your pay will be significantly lower."

The amount in Jadie's account decreased to a frighteningly low amount, compared to what it had been. "Don't worry, I'll make it."

Whitling rolled a small metal table of tissue collecting tech to a padded exam chair. "If you'll just have a seat, we can begin."

Jadie sat down, wild fantasies of opulent galaxy-wide travel, without the boring stints of work, ran through her mind. Her fantasy crumbled when she thought about splitting the money. Why should she have to share her money with a bunch of copies? Jadie hung her head with guilt. Her clones would be like twin sisters to her, and she knew how they'd feel if they were deceived.

Whitling picked up a syringe, jabbed it into Jadie's skin and drew some blood. "You'll have to go into a coma-like sleep while we grow the clones so that we can fully map your body and mind and pass them on."

"How long?"

"Thirty-one days."

"Fine," Jadie would have enough money to have life-extending treatments. She'd trade thirty-one days for a few years. No problem.

Whitling took what looked like a glass spider out of a case on the table and approached her.

"What's that?" Jadie asked.

"A scanner," he said as he secured it to Jadie's scalp. He got out a pair of goggles and a set of ear buds and synchronized them to the scanner. "We are going to induce a hypnotic state and then subject you to a guided test. Don't try to direct it. Let your subconscious take over. We'll get the most accurate neural map that way. Are you ready?"

"Yes."

Jadie woke briefly some hours later when they slid her into the body scanner.

####

The first thing that Jadie did when she came out of stasis, after a long stint in the bathroom, was ask a question. "Which one am I?"

Whitling, Vedic, and Kinek stood in a semi-circle around her. She wanted Vedic to touch her, she wanted to smell him.

Whitling stepped forward. "You are Program Orange."

"That explains the clothes," Jadie said. It was unnerving to wake up in different clothing than she'd fallen asleep wearing. She took comfort in the knowledge that she'd seen female lab techs. She wore bright orange suit: jacket, slacks and a plain white undershirt. Even the boots were orange. "What I asked is which one am I. Am I number one?"

"We haven't assigned you numbers," Whitling said.

"Why not?"

"It just wouldn't work that way," Whitling said.

Jadie looked at Vedic. He nodded. Is he saying that I am number one? A nod was hardly a confirmation.

"We have arrived at Corboen's World and are ready for the mission to begin," Whitling said. "We put together a small supply kit for you. So if you'll just…" Whitling gestured to the door.

They waited for her to take the lead and followed her out of the room. Jadie confused several people as they walked down the hall, surreptitiously holding up a finger and then pointing at herself with it. Nobody seemed to know what she was trying to communicate to them. An old man did it back at her, and then Vedic fell into line with her.

"Nobody knows," he said. "There are hundreds of research projects on this ship. Or they do know and have been instructed not to tell you."

"Why the hell not?" Jadie whispered. "Just tell me."

"Whitling and the Crabs feel like it would be difficult, for, you know..."

"No, I don't know."

"We'll, just for argument's sake, what if I told you that you were number three."

Jadie's heart jumped. "You're not are you?"

"Can you just listen please? Let's say, I was to tell you that you are number three. When you get to the surface you'll spend all of your time trying to figure out who number one is and then what that means for you as number three."

That was too much for Jadie. "Okay, I get it. Can you hold my hand until we get there?"

"Sure," Vedic said, taking her hand.

When they got to the cramped space of the drop pod bay, Jadie froze. Three of the pod doors were closed already. Three stood open. The pod looked like a metal flower half in bloom. She squeezed Vedic's hand.

"You were brought here in random order," Vedic said.

"So I'm not number four?"

"We discussed this already."

Whitling stepped up to a table with three equipment laden belts on it. "We've got your basic equipment pack here; clean water, compressed rations, knife, antibiotic inhaler and topical spray, mask and goggles."

"Why do I need a flashlight?" Jadie said, picking it up. "And is that a gun?"

"We don't know where in the ruins Chelik is. Some of the structures built by the indigenes are still standing, so we gave you a flashlight. The gun sprays antibiotics at a high velocity for up to twenty meters."

"So you gave me a squirt-gun? Am I going to be fighting off giant virus monsters?" Jadie shook her head.

"Maybe," Whitling said. "The flora and the fauna of Corboen's World evolve unpredictably. The varied hosts of viruses on the planet work quickly, and a surprising number of the mutations are beneficial enough for the mutants to survive. The Institute," Whitling said, referring to the research facility that Dr. Corboen built on the planet, "is tracing the lines of evolution back to the original species, before the viruses came. Sadly, the only sentient race on the planet was wiped out, as indicated by their pictographic records."

"Where did the viruses come from?" Jadie asked.

Whitling smiled. "The prevailing theory, supported by geological scans indicating a giant impact crater and the distribution of fossil evidence, is that a meteoroid carrying the viruses crashed on the planet some time ago."

"Enough talk, it is time to go," Kinek said, stepping forward. "This is your transponder. It is set to go off when you touch it to Chelik's armor."

Jadie took the device. "Wait a second." Jadie had no idea why she hadn't asked this earlier. "Why can't you just put a guy in a pressure suit and send him down?"

"The viruses always get through the seals. Besides," Whitling said, smiling, "I improved the cloning tech and this will be a good chance to test it."

"I'll help you get strapped in," Vedic said. He led her by the hand to the drop pod.

Jadie wondered if he'd given all of her clones the same amount of attention. Was he tired of saying goodbye to her by now? She stole a quick kiss and then climbed up into the seat. Vedic stepped up onto the ladder and secured her straps. "I'll see you when you…," his voice was cut short by Kinek's. "Remember not to tamper with the armor. We'll know if you do." Vedic's voice returned to normal and he finished his sentence, "…get back."

Vedic stepped back onto the floor.

"Closing drop pod door," Whitling said. "Better get back Vedic."

"Am I number one?" Jadie quickly whispered as the door descended.

Vedic nodded and then began to cry.

Jadie knew that he was crying because he wanted this version, the original version, of her to make it. She regretted not being with him one last time before going into stasis. She fantasized about the tryst that they would have when she got back as she waited for the drop pod to launch. She went stiff, gripped the straps that crossed her chest, and closed her eyes. She didn't know what to expect. And then she remembered that there were still two more clones and two open doors.

When the drop pod launched, Jadie's stomach lurched. She heard muffled screaming as the pod passed through the atmosphere. She looked at the wall between her chamber and the one to her left. She wondered what she looked like when she screamed. Landing rockets fired as they neared the surface of Corboen's World, slowing them to a gentle touchdown.

Jadie slapped the belt release on her chest and got ready to jump out of the pod. She wanted to get a good lead on her other selves, though she didn't know if she would run in the right direction. Her door didn't open. There was no obvious internal release mechanism. She counted the noises of the other five doors opening. Shit, she'd wanted the lead and now she'd be last. She'd have less time to figure out which way to go. After an interminable wait, her door opened. Jadie fumbled for her pistol, but no enemy presented itself.

Her nose wrinkled, she wondered what that stench was. Jadie climbed out into the bright amber sunlight, following the stink. Jadie walked around the drop pod. A suppurating corpse sat in the seat two doors to her right. Her skin had turned yellow and her eyes had turned black and popped. Jadie was suddenly glad that she hadn't been Program Yellow. She'd lived with her face for 27 years, but she didn't recognize this woman. Jadie cried, and made a promise to bury a picture of herself for each one of her clones that didn't make it.

A rustling sounded behind her, so Jadie drew her gun and spun. A carpet of bubbling purple nodes crept along the mossy jungle floor. Angry silver grass speared into the nodes from the twisted vine trees above, puncturing the nodes and releasing sweet-smelling spores. Jadie covered her face, squirted the mass and ran around the drop pod to get away.

Getabine ruins dotted the hills in the distance. Jadie took a step forward and then pointed her gun at one of her clones.

Gray stepped out of a row of wispy bushes. Jadie didn't like the way she looked in gray, it made her look pale.

"Don't shoot," Gray said. "I don't know if it'll affect me but I don't want to find out."

"What do you want?" Jadie said.

"Blue and Green have formed an alliance. They thought that if they worked together to beat the rest of us that they would have an advantage. They asked me to join and when I didn't respond right away they left me."

"What about Red?" Jadie asked.

"She ran off into the jungle."

Jadie lowered her gun. "What does any of this have to do with us?"

"If they catch up with Red and convince her to join, that'll be three against one for either of us. If we team up we'll have better odds."

"Only one of us can live our life when we get back."

"That's not true," Gray said. "The galaxy is enormous, and there is enough money for both of us to live comfortably for a long time. Whitling said so."

Jadie thought about it for a moment. Gray must've recognized the set of her face and the way that her entire body tightened.

"Don't think that I don't know what that means." Gray started to cry. "That's the way I act when I don't like something and I'm trying not to show it. Please, help me. I'm really scared and I don't think I can do this."

Gray ran into Jadie's arms. It was strange to experience her own shuddering and sobbing from the other side of a hug, and Jadie knew that she'd have a tiny wet spot on her shoulder from Gray's runny nose.

Jadie pushed Gray out to arm's length. "We'd better get moving if we want to catch up."

Halfway up the hill, at the base of a Getabine statue, they found Red's body.

Jadie took one of Red's shoulders and rolled her onto her back. She recoiled in horror and then her hands flew to her chest but didn't find the stab wound that had killed Red. "Looks like Blue and Green evened the odds for us." Jadie bit her knuckles hard to punish herself for being so callous.

Gray dropped to her knees and puked on the mossy ground.

"Sorry," Jadie said kneeling down next to Gray and patting her back. "I shouldn't have said that."

"Roll her over, please. I can't look at that face," Gray said. She hacked and spit several times.

Jadie flipped Red onto her stomach.

Gray stood and started pulling at the tall weeds that grew at the base of the statue. "We need to bury her."

"We don't have the time!"

"I'm not going to leave her like this," Gray said. "Please help me bury her. If we don't, I'll have nightmares about being ripped apart by scavengers."

You'll only have nightmares if you survive, Jadie thought. She agreed with Gray in principle, but she didn't want Blue and Green to win. Nightmares about being food for carrion creatures didn't disturb Jadie as much as the knowledge that she, or at least one version of her, was capable of murder.

Jadie examined the statue while Gray covered Red with weeds. The base of the statue was a perfect cube covered with geometric patterns. The statue was of a stocky Getabine warrior wielding a giant club and screaming through its over-wide mouth at the sky. Its clothing consisted of a kilt and several wide belts wrapped about its arms, chest, and legs. Getabines' had tiny eyes and two-toed feet. Jadie wondered if the statue depicted a Getabine howling in victory or raising its voice against invaders from the sky.

"Finished," Gray said.

Jadie fought the urge to tell her that carnivores wouldn't have any trouble getting through the weeds.

"Those weeds were sticky," Gray said, wiping her hands on her jacket. "Damn! That stings." She held out her hands. They were covered in sizzling red welts.

Jadie pulled her topical spray from her belt and doused Gray's hands.

"Shit!" Gray screamed and then ran a quick lap around Jadie, trying to escape the pain. "What did you do that for?"

"Seemed like a good idea."

Gray examined her hands. "The pain is going away now. Next time, warn me."

They made their way up the hill toward the ruins. Jadie sweated in the hot alien sunlight.

The Getabines had used the natural topography to maximum effect. They'd built their structures on the rising slopes of the hills, and even though most of the architecture was obscured by plants, Jadie could see that the buildings to the left and the right were designed to lead the eye towards the temple in the middle. It rose before them like a giant stairway, each stair growing narrower as they ascended. An arched entryway was cut into the front of each stair and a pair of columns framed each opening. Some of the columns had fallen, littering the area with enormous cylindrical sections of stone. A worn stairway led from the ground to the first archway.

"This looks like it would have caught Chelik's eye," Jadie said. "If she was interested in these creatures, I bet she'd start here. And if she succumbed to the viruses she's got to be in there somewhere."

"I'll wager that Blue and Green have already called for the rescue team," Gray said.

Jadie searched the sky. "I think we would have seen or heard something by now. Even if the Crabs came in from a different direction, there would have been engine noise."

"Why wouldn't they just activate the beacon?"

"I don't know," Jadie said, though she did have a guess.

"What are we going to do?" Gray grabbed Jadie's sleeve with a shaking hand. "They're in there waiting to ambush us."

Jadie laughed. "I'm… we're not murderers. I know me well enough to know that."

Gray raised her eyebrows and folded her arms across her chest.

"What happened to Red could have been an accident." Jadie couldn't let herself believe that any version of her was capable of murder.

Tears came to Gray's eyes and she sniffled. "I don't think I can go in."

"We have flashlights." Jadie drew her gun from its holster. "And I'm a crack shot with this thing."

Gray wiped her tears on her sleeve. "You go first then."

Jadie checked the exterior of the temple, hoping to see Blue or Green crouching near one of the archways as a lookout.

"Get your gun out," Jadie said. She had no idea what she was going to do if she ran into Blue or Green. Were they ready to kill her for money? Was she ready to do the same? She knew that she couldn't bring herself to hurt Gray, who was now like a frightened little sister that'd been left in her care. "Follow me."

Jadie ran up a hill to their right and sidled along a leaf-strewn wall, keeping her eyes on the temple. A familiar sweet scent wafted up into her face. She looked down to see a carpet of purple nodes under her orange boots. The angry silver grass speared out of the wall and into her left shoulder.

"Shit! Get back!" Jadie yelped.

Gray hurried her through an open doorway and into a dark room and then wrapped her fingers in the hem of her t-shirt before plucking the silver blades out of Jadie's shoulder.

Shucking her jacket and shirt, Jadie asked, "How does it look?"

"You've got a bunch of little puncture wounds," Gray said. A spray of cold liquid moistened Jadie's shoulder. "Did that sting?"

"No, itches like crazy though."

"Damn, I was hoping for revenge."

"Thanks."

"Should we wait a while?"

"It doesn't seem like they've called in the rescue team yet, but if we take too long they'll assume we're dead, one of them will kill the other and then activate the transponder."

"Why don't we just hide, wait for the rescue team, and then run out when it comes and claim our portion of the reward?" Gray said.

Jadie let out a long breath. "Red was murdered, leading us to the logical conclusion that one of us is going to kill the rest so that she can get the entire reward."

Gray wept, and Jadie held her for a few minutes.

"We'll work as a team," Jadie said, "and split the amount when we make it to Chelik. I promise to protect you."

"And I, you."

Jadie pulled her shirt and jacket back on, wincing in pain. She coughed and spit blood onto the floor. She felt a tickle deep in her lungs.

"Oh no," Gray said.

Pulling the inhaler out of her pocket and taking a hit off of it, Jadie said, "No problem. They'll be able to cure me when we get back to the ship."

They sidled out the door, Jadie in the lead, and ran in a crouch to the foot of the stairs, guns in hand. Jadie turned, and put her finger to her lips, and then crept up the stairs.

Gravel crunched under Jadie's boots. She kept her eyes on the first archway. She knew that she was impatient, and hoped that Blue and Green were equally so. Jadie assumed that they would be waiting on either side of the first doorway.

She heard a scraping from above and then a handful of gravel hit her head. She and Gray screamed in eerie stereo. A column section smashed Gray from above. Jadie sprawled to the stairs and covered her head. Her boot slipped, so she looked down. Blood and brain matter were splattered all over her feet.

"Did we get both of them?"

Jadie froze.

"I don't know. Why don't you check?"

"Just lean over and look, would you? I feel like shit, and I want to get out of here."

More gravel fell around Jadie.

"Wow, look at all of the blood. We definitely got one of them, must've been Gray. Orange is just laying there. She's got a lot of blood on…"

The voice from above was cut short and the sounds of a scuffle followed. Soon there was a scream and then something landed on Jadie.

Jadie crawled out from under the body. Blue's neck was lumpy and canted at a sickening angle. Jadie looked up to see Green peering over the edge of the level above, still holding the stick they'd used to lever the column over the side.

"Shit, she said you were covered in blood, useless bitch," Green said. "I thought you were dead. Wait there while I find a rock to kill you with."

Jadie scrabbled up the stairs and into the building. She knew that she only had seconds to get inside and find cover. It took her eyes a second to adjust to the darkness. She clutched her gun to her chest and held her breath against the cough that rose in her throat as long as she could before letting it out.

"I heard that," Green said. "The viruses are getting to you. Why don't you come up here and help me find Chelik? We can split the money."

Jadie was pretty sure that Green had already found Chelik and was just waiting to eliminate the competition. "Is that the same deal you made with Blue and Red?"

"Yes."

"No deal."

"Fine. Come on up. I'll be waiting for you."

Jadie kept her back to the wall and followed it around to the stairs at the other side of the room. It was austere, like a ritual space. She clicked on her flashlight. She wasn't worried about the light giving her away--there was only one way up, and Green would be waiting.

A simple stone stairway hugged the wall opposite the door and led up to a gap in the ceiling. Jadie shined her light into the darkness above, revealing nothing but stone and plants. She ascended the stairs as slowly as she could, trying to stifle her cough. Her chest tightened, and bloody phlegm filled her mouth. She spit it onto the stairs and took another shot from the inhaler. When her head crested the edge of the gap she quickly pointed her gun in several directions. Green was nowhere to be seen.

Jadie searched the room with painstaking slowness. Her head buzzed with fear and adrenaline. She used the same strategy to go up the next two stairways and to search the next two rooms. Both were empty. Jadie remembered that the temple was four levels high. Green had to be waiting for her on the uppermost level. Each room got smaller as she went up, and the sunlight lit more of the space within. Jadie checked the corners of level three. Dim shadows darkened the corners farthest from the door. Green would have no dark corners to hide in on level four. She'd have to be ready to smash Jadie's head with a rock as soon as it rose above the edge of the gap.

Jadie slid in a crouch along the wall and up the stairs so that Green would have to swing across the entire gap to brain her. Jadie would have more time to react that way. She gagged repeatedly, trying to hold back her cough. Blood stippled her chin. Her jaw was clenched so hard that it shook her whole face and almost blurred her vision. When she got above the gap she scanned the room, her gun at the ready. Green wasn't there, but Chelik was.

Her arthropodic armor lay in the sunlight near the door. Indicator lights blinked feebly, and the shadowy form of Chelik twitched inside her piloting capsule.

Jadie crept towards Chelik, her gun in both hands pointed upwards. She eyed the door. Green must've gone around Chelik and out the door, waiting to toss Jadie over the side like she had with Blue.

The sound of footsteps came from behind. Jadie turned to see Green charging at her with a chunk of stone in her hand. Jadie had just enough time to pull the trigger. The liquid splashed on Green's chin, splattering into her mouth and eyes. Green wiped at her face with one hand and swung the rock with the other. Jadie side-stepped, but Green's wild, blind swing glanced off of her already injured left shoulder.

Jadie howled in pain. Green followed the sound, blinking rapidly, and swinging the rock again.

Jadie squirted her in the face again.

"Stop that, you bitch!"

Green hurled the rock at Jadie, who ducked to the floor, dropping her gun.

Jadie rolled over and fumbled for her knife. Green wiped at her face with her sleeve. Now that Jadie saw her up close and in the light, she noticed angry red welts all over Green's face and neck.

"Why are you killing us?" Jadie asked.

Green brandished her knife. "That money is mine! There isn't enough to go around. You're all disposable copies!"

Raising her knife above her head, Green charged. Jadie rose from her crouch, bringing her knife up and into Green's stomach. Green fell on her in a heap. They struggled in a tangle of arms and legs. Green dragged her knife along Jadie's ribs. Warm blood gushed out all over Jadie's stomach. Jadie smashed her forehead into Green's nose. Green opened her mouth and bit at Jadie, tearing away a mouthful of Jadie's hair.

"It's not as easy to kill you as I thought it was going to be," Green said, backing away. She'd lost her knife in the scuffle, and hadn't been able to pull Jadie's knife from her stomach yet.

Jadie was wracked with a coughing fit; her face tightened, and her eyes closed for a fraction of a second.

Green noticed it and smiled. Blood streamed from Green's nose, and a lock of Jadie's hair was pasted to her chin. Jadie knew that the attack would come when she coughed again. Jadie crinkled-up her face and faked a coughing fit. Green lurched forward, but Jadie kicked the hilt of the knife lodged in Green's stomach. The knife plunged further into Green's abdomen, and she stumbled to the gap and fell into the stairwell.

Jadie cried and coughed blood onto the floor. She shook with horror and scratched at the stone with her fingers. It was time to go home.

Jadie crawled to Chelik, looked into the piloting module, and then coughed blood onto the dome. For a moment Jadie feared that Chelik would hate her. The Crab had witnessed the fight, and the murder. But then she remembered that the Crabs were a warrior culture, and Jadie had likely gained Chelik's respect.

Chelik's indicator lights were dimming and flickering out one by one. The Crab extended a claw and stroked the glass near Jadie's face.

Jadie activated her transponder and touched her side of the glass, near Chelik's tiny claw.

####

"The Crabs are angry with you for coughing blood all over their armor," Vedic said, smiling.

Jadie was back on the ship and lying in her bed, groggy from all of the medicines, and emotionally drained.

"They have a whole speech that they want me to give you about taboos…" Vedic paused for a moment, took Jadie's chin and turned her face to his. "Do you want to talk about what happened down there?"

"I'm just glad it was me who made it," Jadie said.

"Of course you are. Who wants to die?"

"You know what I mean."

Vedic let go of her chin. "No I don't."

Jadie sat up quickly in bed and Vedic scooted back. "I know that I'm number one. You told me before I left."

Vedic stood. "I don't think we should talk about this."

"Tell me!"

"You were number one. But Green was the source."

"I'm not the real me?"

"Of course you're real." Vedic leaned in to kiss her.

"Stop!" Jadie screamed. Tears ran down her face. "Get out!"

"Jadie…I-"

"Please get out. I need time to think."

Vedic trailed his fingers down her arm and smiled. "I'll be in my room if you need me."

Jadie rolled over and sobbed into her pillow. It smelled of sweat. It was a familiar smell, but it wasn't her sweat anymore. It was Green's. Jadie got up and threw all of the bedding on the floor. She lay back on the bare mattress and cried herself to sleep.

####

Later that night Jadie opened her door and found Vedic sleeping in the hall. She nudged him with a toe. "What are you doing here?"

Vedic opened his eyes and stretched. "I didn't want to leave you alone. Can I come inside now?"

"You can go in if you want, but I'm leaving."

"Where are you going?"

"I need to see Whitling."

"Can I come with you?"

Jadie shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Vedic followed. Jadie accessed the directory panel that was set into the wall and located Whitling's room. When she got there she knocked and soon Whitling answered.

"What do you want?" Whitling asked. His hair was messy and his eyes were half closed.

"You said that you made a copy of me in case I didn't come back."

"Yes?"

"I need you to do me a favor."

Whitling yawned. "Can we talk about this tomorrow?"

"No. I need to say this now. Before I change my mind."

"Fine. Come in." Whitling stepped aside and motioned them in.

Jadie and Vedic sat on the bed and Whitling pulled up a chair.

"What can I do for you?" Whitling asked.

"I need you to make another clone of me."

"Why?" Whitling asked.

Vedic turned to her. "What's going on?"

"I don't deserve the money," Jadie said. "I'm not even the real Jadie."

"But you're the only one who made it," Whitling said. "You're the only Jadie left. The viruses killed the rest."

"That's not true. You just assumed that they all died due to viruses, because I was the only one who came back." Jadie paused. She didn't know what Vedic would think, but she had to tell them the truth. "I don't deserve the money because I am a murderer."

Jadie told them the story of what had happened on Corboen's World. As she spoke, Vedic edged further and further away on the bed until he was standing.

"You see," Jadie said when she was finished. "I'm a murderer. I can't be rewarded for that." She reached for Vedic's hand.

"Stay away from me!" Vedic pulled away and left the room.

Whitling sat while Jadie cried. When she was done she wiped her nose on her sleeve.

"Why do you want the clone?" Whitling asked.

"I want you to give her the money."

"Why?"

"She's pure. She wasn't involved in what happened on Corboen's World. She isn't a murderer."

"How am I going to explain the money to her? She'll remember making the deal, but she won't remember going on the mission."

"You recorded my memories. Can't you edit the deal out and just tell her that Dr. Corboen left her the money?"

"Are you sure that you want me to do this?"

"Yes."

Jadie left the room and went back to hers. She packed her things and then used her computer to search for another nursing job. She found one a few hours later and then made plans to leave on the first shuttle.

####

Jadie awoke in her room. Vedic stood at the foot of her bed.

Jadie smiled. "Why don't you get in here next to me?"

"I can't stay. I'm just here to deliver a message."

Jadie didn't like the look on his face. Was he mad at her? She thought about the last few days, but didn't come up with anything. "Is there something wrong?"

"No. I'm here to tell you that Dr. Corboen left you a large sum of money. Apparently he liked you more than you liked him."

"I was only joking when I said that stuff. I remember some of the stuff you said about the Crabs, so don't get all-"

"I have to go," Vedic said, going to the door.

"Wait. I don't want to fight. Have breakfast with me. We can work this out."

"We both knew that this was temporary."

"What are you saying?"

"This relationship is over." Vedic slammed the door when he left.

Jadie cried and wondered what had happened. What had she done? How could he go from being the man that she'd made love to yesterday to being the man who just slammed her door? Jadie sat on her bed, confused, until she remembered the money.

She rolled out of bed, logged on to her computer and pulled up her account. Jadie's eyes went wide and for a moment she forgot about Vedic.

####

Jadie stopped Vedic in the hall. "You didn't tell her, did you?"

"No. When are you leaving?"

"My shuttle leaves in about an hour."

"Good. Then this is the last time I have to say goodbye to you." Vedic nodded. "Goodbye."

Jadie watched him leave and then went to catch her shuttle.

THE END


© 2009 Dale Carothers

Bio: Mr. Carothers' s work has been published in AlienSkin Magazine and will soon be published in an upcoming issue of Kaleidotrope. He lives in South Dakota with his wife, Sara, and two fat pets (though his wife prefers to refer to them as voluptuous). Dale helped to found a local science fiction and fantasy writer's group and is working on a novel.

E-mail: Dale Carothers

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