When a voice from the past warns you that something bad is going to happen, it isn’t usually cause for concern. Except this dead friend’s warning was clear: the Persia was doomed.
Read chapter one of this stunning sci-fi horror below…
You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out it was a hoax. Anybody with half a brain would have realised that. But Dezza still found himself staring at the screen with a mix of curiosity and anger. Over the next two hours he made himself a coffee, drank it, started to shave and gave up before the lather had even touched his face. Each thing he did could not shift the image of the message from his mind.
Dead men can’t talk, he told himself. Dead men tell no tales. That’s what the salvagers always said about the more unusual salvage jobs in the aftermath of accidents that no-one could quite figure out. In the game you ignored the human cost and got on with the pure unadulterated rigours of what was just a job.
But Tubs had been more than just someone he had known. Quite apart from a tour across the reaches of space aboard the tugship Solitude, Tubs had been someone he had truly opened up to and could almost say had been a friend. Those were few and far between these days.
The message had been from Tubs. Short, clear and to the point. The trouble was, Tubs was dead.
He flicked the screen back on and brought up the message again. Reading the words, he felt his stomach knot at the memories. He really was dead, wasn’t he? The seeds of doubt were there; he almost wanted to believe that he had been mistaken all those years ago and that Tubs was still out there, somewhere.
He shook his head and scrunched the empty Styrofoam coffee cup. Dribbles of dark liquid stained his fingers as he threw the crumpled mess into the waist disposal chute. It had to be a hoax – someone’s idea of a sick joke.
A name flicked into his mind and he reached for the screen controls. He had to call somebody, so he called the only person he thought he could talk it over with. He hadn’t had reason to call, not since the tribunal. But sometimes the past likes to come back around and make an unwelcome courtesy call. Needs must when the Devil shits on you and all that, he thought.
Some telephone numbers etch themselves onto the consciousness. Like old girlfriends and that sweet sixteen-year-old he knew at school but never had the guts to ring and ask out. He had bribed her friend for that number. What a waste that had been, but the number was still there in his memory, just like this one.
The line clicked live and the phone rang at the other end. It wasn’t the most modern way to make contact after all these years, but if truth were told, it was the only way he had. So he let it ring, counting those annoying buzzes off in his mind as they came.
Just fifteen rings, he told himself, fifteen then we hang up, delete the message, and pretend this all never happened. Fifteen rings to turn his back once more on the past.
It got to fourteen before the call was picked up at the other end. With a pang of regret Dezza wondered if he ought to have hung up before now. But it was too late; if he hung up now they would have his number and call him back.
“Hey. Who is this?” came a gruff voice; “It’s three in the goddamn morning for Christ sakes!”
Despite the reasons for him calling, a grin flickered momentarily on Dezza’s face.
“Toze, you military pen-pushing prick. It’s Dezza.”
A sigh drifted down the line. “Dezza? Shit. I should have known I recognised the number. Same shit holds though: why are you calling me at this hour?”
“I got a message. It’s kind of weird.” Suddenly he felt stupid for calling. Just how do you broach the subject that you think a ghost is sending you a message?
“Message? What kind of message?” said Toze, suddenly taking more of an interest.
Dezza felt there was something Toze was holding out on. Not sure what, he threw caution to the wind and went for broke. If you were going to say something that could book you a one way ticket to the loony bin, he figured, you might as well tell it first to someone who wasn’t going to call the men with white coats.
“It says it’s from Tubs,” he blurted. There – it was out now. Let Toze make of that what he would.
There was a pause before the reply came. “Tubs you say?” Toze mulled the idea. Strangely he seemed to take it in his stride. No laughing, no questioning. There was just plain acceptance in his voice.
“You aren’t surprised?” Dezza found himself asking. Well, it was a valid question, wasn’t it?
“Sort of. Yes and no,” was the reply. “If the message is what I think it is, then I got one just the same yesterday.”
Dezza was taken aback. So Toze wasn’t the hoaxer. “Who do you think sent them?” he asked.
“Who do you have in mind?” came the retort.
He thought for a moment then came clean. “Shit, Toze. I thought it was you.”
Toze laughed. “You doubting son-of-a-bitch. Well, this time it wasn’t. There are some things that make a man not want to turn it on its head and make a joke of it, and what I went through with you was one of those things.”
“So if you didn’t, then who did?”
“A dead man? Puh-lease.”
“Tracker saw him again on the Cerberus. At least he said so, right before he died. And Tubs’ body was gone from the elevator.”
“We guessed that was the creature, not Tubs.”
“But the message,” said Dezza earnestly, “The one I got told me things that only he could ever have known; things that never even came up at the tribunal.”
“Me too,” said Toze grimly. He did not sound like a man who was making it up.
Dezza shook his head. How could the same shit happen to the same guy three times? It was like that damn Starliner was a bad penny that was always coming back for more. Except this time the Cerberus was definitely gone – they had both witnessed the meteorite storm pummel that old hulk into nothing. But then, the message never claimed otherwise.
“Listen. Stay where you are. I’ll come on over,” said Toze, “I haven’t seen you since the tribunal, and I’d rather talk in person than over a telephone. You still live at the same dive?”
“Good. See you in a couple of hours. Don’t go running out on me.”
Then before he could say anything else, the line clicked dead and the dialling tone buzzed angrily in Dezza’s ear. He hung up and settled back to wait; he had nothing better to do.
* * * * *
Toze came around five-thirty in the morning. The sun was already beginning to creep over the horizon of the Earth, and night shifted to day below the orbiting city as the terminator tracked slowly around across northern Russia.
Dezza let him through the stained door to the apartment without a word and checked the empty corridor outside before he spoke.
“What did your message say?” he asked.
Toze shrugged. “On the face of it, I’d say pretty much the same as yours.”
Dezza grunted an acknowledgement. He stepped over to the screen and flicked it on. “Come take a look and tell me.”
Toze shuffled closer.
Dezza’s fingers tapped on the touchpad and the text message came up into view. Toze said nothing as he read. Then he leant back and massaged his eyes briefly with the balls of his fists.
“Yeah. That’s it.”
Toze looked to him, fixing him with a look that could have boiled eggs at twenty paces. But Dezza was immune and didn’t react, instead waiting patiently for the answer. Toze relaxed.
“A hoax,” he said finally and threw himself down onto the sofa to brood.
Dezza shook his head. “That’s what I thought at first. But some of the things in there are just impossible for someone pulling a fast one to know. How did they find out about the dead man in the drive chamber for a start? I certainly don’t remember that coming up at the tribunal. Do you?”
Toze shook his head. “No.” He paused. “But how can it be true? Ghosts don’t exist. Do they?”
“I didn’t think so until I stepped foot on the Cerberus. That thing is one huge floating ghost, and the bastard keeps coming back to haunt me.”
“Then you’re going to go?” asked Toze at last. “Go on the cruise and see if this all pans out? That’s one expensive wild goose chase if it doesn’t. And anyway – they left us out to dry at the tribunal. Why do we care anyway? Let the authorities deal with it and send some other bunch of suckers to mop up the mess.”
Dezza crumpled back into his chair. “I don’t know,” he replied, deflated.
“Shit. I thought this was all over.”
“It is. I mean, it was.”
Toze looked him straight in the eye. “Jeez. All this really spooks you. Do me a favour, Dezza. Just one thing – delete that message. Delete it, and pretend it never existed.” He got up from the chair. “I’ll tell you now that someday you’ll thank me for it.”
Toze looked over the room as if he was seeing it for the first time. “Nice place you have here.”
“Quit the bullshit.”
Toze laughed. “Still a tetchy sod after all these years. Well, it was a nice trip over. Good to catch up with old friends and all that. Remember Dezza: no-one gets any prizes for being a burning martyr. Delete that message and get on with your life.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Dezza half-heartedly. But the words sounded false, even to his own ears.
“You just look after yourself, and think about what I’ve said. I’ll see myself out.”
Dezza watched him go, and watched the back of the closed door for another hour after he had gone. All the time his mind burned over the message. Finally he groaned and pulled himself up from the chair. Maybe Toze was right. Maybe he should just get really drunk and just forget about this whole thing.
The screen hooked his attention from the corner of his eye and he groaned again. Some things just wouldn’t leave him alone. Angrily he stormed to the device and pulled the plug.
With an angry beep of electronics the screen went blank. But still the image of the message burned brighter still in his mind’s eye.