Voidstalker, page 1
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Copyright © 2017 John Graham
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
e-book formatting by bookow.com
To my parents, on whose dining room table I typed this story (without their knowledge).
Table of Contents
About the Author
Real nightmares are rooted in memory, and this nightmare was no different. The door to the depressurised chamber opened and he felt a spike of adrenaline pierce his heart as he was ejected into the cold and lonely void. Twisting and spinning through space with his sense of direction thrown into confusion, he felt like he was suffocating as he hyperventilated from sheer panic.
He had to force himself to slow his breathing, taking shallower and shallower gulps of air until his pulse had settled and he was no longer panicking; then he extended his limbs and relaxed. Without an EVA jetpack, there was nothing else he could do, and by the time he had calmed down, the vessel that had carried him there was already gone.
The darkness that surrounded him was so thick he could almost touch it. Save for the countless tiny points of light that dotted the background, the distance between himself and the stars was a never-ending expanse of pure emptiness, extending in all directions. The sheer immensity of space made him feel like a grain of sand in a vast ocean, or a speck of dust floating in a planetary atmosphere.
Worse still was the sheer nothingness of it all. At least in the ocean or the atmosphere you could feel the currents making their presence known and their power felt, buffeting you back and forth, reminding you constantly that it surrounded you. In the vacuum of space, there truly was nothing, not even gravity. The eternal abyss exerted no push or pull, no awesome reminder of its infinite power, because there was nothing there to exert such power. To be trapped in space was to be just another particle drifting forever.
But perhaps worst of all was the total loss of orientation. There was no direction in the omnidirectional void. No up or down, no left or right, no forwards or backwards; even the points of light were too indistinct to provide a sense of direction. Nor did his spacesuit have any sort of navigation equipment installed, leaving him with absolutely no sense of direction. All he could do was float and stare out into the abyss, and the longer he stared, the more the abyss seemed to swallow him.
The panic returned.
His pulse began to race and his breathing began to accelerate, as if sucking up more of his precious oxygen would soothe the maddening sense of nothingness. Flailing in the dark, he felt himself sinking further and further into the blackness, and even the barely visible stars seemed to fade beyond vision, like tiny gems submerging into a tar pit. The sheer absence of anything, the infinite abyss of pure nihilism was slowly devouring his mind...
* * *
Gabriel awoke with a start.
Another nightmare. At least, he knew that most people would call that a nightmare; and yet he felt none of the physical signs that a nightmare ought to bring. He felt no cold sweat, he wasn’t gasping for air, and his heartbeat rapidly subsided to normal. Nor did he feel any horrible sense of panic that he might fall back into the nightmare. Whatever feeling of terror he might have had evaporated almost as soon as it came.
Now, he felt only clinical acknowledgement of the fact that he was awake.
Gabriel lay his head back on the pillow and tried to return to sleep. But he was no longer tired enough to close his eyes and just doze off, and after staring at the ceiling for a while, he headed to the bathroom. The light-strip atop the mirror awoke at his presence, and he splashed some water on his face, the icy cold liquid refreshing the nerves under his skin and washing away any remaining traces of drowsiness.
Gabriel looked up at the mirror, and his reflection looked back with minimal expression. His face was clean-shaven, with an angular jaw, and a head of short dark hair. He was naked from the waist up, the toned, powerful musculature of his chest and arms resembling chiselled marble. Though barely visible under the light, the slightly pale skin across his body was covered with faint scar tissue, their precise, symmetrical patterns giving them away as the marks of numerous surgical enhancements.
Most distinctive of all were his eyes. The irises were a shimmering, emerald green, almost luminescent under the light. Many people assumed they were bionic implants, or garish contact lenses; but they were definitely his actual eyes, staring back at him with hard, emotionless authority. That was the way he usually looked to the world: cold and stern.
He cracked a well-practiced smile in the mirror. It looked sincere and convincing enough, but it felt unnatural, like putting on a clever disguise that was uncomfortable to wear. It was fake, and he stopped from embarrassment. That well-practiced smile was only something he showed to those closest to him, to reassure them that he wasn’t a sociopath.
The soft sound of footsteps entering the bathroom reached his ears, and a petite pair of hands slid across his body, pulling him into an embrace.
“It’s hard to sleep when you can’t.” Aster said, her voice weighed down by tiredness.
“I can sleep.” Gabriel reassured her, reciprocating the embrace with one arm, “I just need less of it than the average person.”
“Thanks to the people who put this thing here.” Aster said, reaching up as she spoke.
She pressed her thumb against the back of Gabriel’s neck and traced it across the skin. The action caused a symbol to appear: a capital S intertwined, serpent-like, with a capital V.
“Is there something wrong with it?” Gabriel asked as the symbol faded from view.
“Is there something wrong with the fact that you have a glorified cattle brand on the back of your neck?” Aster asked rhetorically, a note of tension creeping into her voice.
“You get it when you join.” Gabriel reminded her, ignoring the slightly barbed tone of her voice, “And you join for life.”
“I get that much, and I can accept that much,” Aster replied, resting her chin on his chest, “but the nightmares are a different story.”
She gazed up at him with her light brown, puppy dog eyes. Gabriel placed a hand behind her head, stroking the shoulder length brunette curls with their blonde highlights. But the gaze had a question in them, demanding an answer.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Why not?” Aster demanded, slipping into her native colonial accent.
“They’re classified.” Gabriel replied matter-of-factly.
“How the fuck can your nightmares be classified?” Aster shot back angrily.
“Keep your voice down,” Gabriel hissed angrily, “the children are sleeping.”
“I know that,” Aster hissed back in an angry stage whisper, “what I don’t know is why you can’t tell your own wife about the nightmares you have every week, or why the fuck they make you put that thing on your head before you go to
Gabriel gingerly touched the skin-coloured gel-strip adhering to his forehead, causing the invisible circuitry to light up in response. It seemed like a silly question when the answer was so obvious: to monitor his neural activity when he was asleep.
But, of course, what she really wanted to know was what was done with the data. Even he didn’t know that, and even if he did he couldn’t tell her. The data collected by the gel-strip, and the uses to which it was put, were classified.
Aster knew all of that, and she showed what she thought of that by reaching up and giving the gel-strip an irreverent flick.
“Don’t touch it.” Gabriel warned her, flinching in irritation.
Aster replied by defiantly flicking the gel-strip again.
“I said don’t touch it.” Gabriel’s tone hardened, “you might damage it.”
“It’s a wireless electroencephalographic monitoring strip, not an egg-shell,” Aster retorted, making clear that she knew more about the technology than he did, “your lords and masters will still get their pristine data feeds.”
She emphasised the point by giving the strip another sharp jab.
A rush of anger swept through Gabriel’s chest, and he angrily seized Aster’s wrists and pinned her against the wall, not tolerating her provocations any longer. Aster inhaled sharply, taken aback by his outburst of aggression.
“Which part of ‘don’t touch it’ do you not understand?” Gabriel hissed angrily, piercing her eyes with his own as he spoke.
He was hissing at Aster through gritted teeth to suppress the volume of his voice, but inadvertently ended up with a menacing, wolf-like snarl on his face.
Aster didn’t respond, but the emotion in her eyes wasn’t fear. They were chest to chest, their lips only inches away from each other. Gabriel’s gaze drift down from her eyes to her button nose and slightly open lips, then down across the soft skin of her neck, converging downwards into a V-shape. He could feel the warmth of her body against his own, and the closeness of their bodies caused another feeling to stir in his chest, quenching his anger.
As Gabriel’s anger subsided, he realised he was physically pinning his wife to the wall. Self-consciously, he relinquished his grip on her wrists and took an apologetic step backwards. Aster used her now free hands to pull his head back towards her own. Their lips connected, and she held him there for a long moment before breaking the kiss.
“Don’t pull away.” She whispered to him.
Aster pulled him in for another kiss, this time allowing his tongue entrance. As they continued to lock lips, Aster ran her fingers through his raven black hair and wrapped her arms around his neck. Gabriel’s own hands slid down her back towards her butt, cupping her cheeks in his palms. Then he reach down further and placed his hands behind her knees, hoisting her effortlessly into the air. Her body felt warm and exciting, and she wrapped her legs around his waist in response, hugging him close.
“We should get back to bed.” She whispered into his ear.
* * *
Even after their nocturnal exercise session, Gabriel still wasn’t tired enough to fall asleep, and he lay awake for the rest of the night, spread-eagled on his back, staring at the ceiling in the dark. His stare was blank, but his mind was abuzz with thoughts.
Revealing details of past operations, let alone present ones, was strictly forbidden, even if those details were filtered through dreams and nightmares. Secrecy was central to what he did. Aster hated the secrecy, and it was a constant source of tension between them. But it was nothing that couldn’t be defused in the bedroom.
Aster was lying face down on top of him, curled up around his chest for comfort. Her skin felt so soft and warm against his own; just feeling her body warmth was enough to rekindle his arousal. Gabriel planted his hand on her shoulder and ran his palm down the curve of her back to her butt, cupping the cheek in his palm.
“Someone’s seems ready for round two.” Aster murmured with a smile.
She lifted her knee a little higher and slid her body up closer to him. From her rear, he reached down a little further to the place below.
Gabriel’s smartphone chimed suddenly, interrupting his ministrations. Gritting his teeth in annoyance at the interruption, he reached over and plucked the device off the bedside table, finding a single message in danger red, block capitals displayed on the holographic screen: ‘REPORT TO DGNI’S OFFICE, 9AM’.
“Another assignment?” asked Aster, perching her chin on his chest and looking up.
“No comment.” Gabriel replied laconically.
“Of course.” Aster said with a sigh.
Gabriel could sense how weary Aster was of all the secrecy.
“It was a flashback, by the way,” he said, abruptly changing the subject, “they’re all based on memories from past assignments. That’s why I can’t tell you about them.”
That semi-cathartic disclosure wasn’t necessarily wise, even though he hadn’t strictly speaking revealed anything classified.
“Listen, I know you can’t talk about these things,” Aster said hesitantly, “but–”
“The flashback happened during training.” Gabriel uttered suddenly.
“…what happened?” Aster asked, wrong-footed by Gabriel’s sudden confession.
“They leave you in space for 24 hours.” Gabriel replied nonchalantly, “If your sanity is intact by the time they pick you up, you pass.”
“Isn’t zero-g combat part of basic training?”
“It is,” Gabriel confirmed, “but that involves learning how to navigate in space using EVA suits. In the training I underwent, they throw you into the void with just a basic suit and 25 hours’ worth of oxygen, enough to get you through the exercise. But there’s no thruster pack, no safety tether, and no retrieval team for those who want to quit early.”
“That sounds awful.” Aster said horrified.
“Worst of all is the toll on the mind,” Gabriel continued. “The sheer emptiness around you. It’s the worst kind of isolation, and you just have to endure it.”
Aster was silent as she processed his surprise honesty. Gabriel was even more surprised that he had done it. He hadn’t technically revealed anything operational, but that certainly wasn’t something the average civilian needed to know.
“I’m glad you told me that.” She said at length, snuggling closer to him, “I hate that the Masterminds know more about what goes on inside your head than I do.”
“You wouldn’t like what you find in there.” Gabriel warned her.
“Maybe not,” she answered, “but I’d rather know than have you shut me out altogether.”
“Also, would you mind not swearing so much?” Gabriel changed the subject again, “I don’t want the children waking and overhearing it.”
“Oh, do accept my humblest apologies, Mr Gabriel,” Aster replied in a mock, upper class accent, “I would hate to sound like a ‘fleeking’, uncouth colonial.”
Gabriel’s smartphone chimed a second time. The holographic screen displayed a plain message from a different sender: ‘Morning drinks at Ellipsis, booth 39. See you there.’
Gabriel scowled at the message. An invitation to drinks at an elite club for the rich and pampered was one thing; an invitation phrased as an instruction was downright condescending. Then again, it was typical of the sender to do that.
“Another message from work?” Aster asked.
“No, it’s a drinks invitation,” Gabriel said darkly.
“I hope it’s not from a mistress of yours.” Aster poked him playfully.
“I don’t have anyone on the side,” Gabriel replied in complete seriousness. “But I do know the sender. One guess who it is.”
Now it was Aster’s turn to scowl.
“Give her my regards,” she said with barely concealed contempt, “or don’t.”
“Understood.” Gabriel replied.
“And take that fucking thing off your head!” She snapped, reaching over and ripping the gel-strip off his f
* * *
Gabriel preferred the shower cold, the better to hurry up and start the day. Aster, however, insisted on a warm shower so they could take their time. The water ran in soothing rivulets across their bodies, and a cloud of vapour filled the intimate space. There was enough space for two people, though not enough to avoid sharing some skin.
“So what are you doing at work today?” Aster asked as she washed her hair.
“Probably just tests and refresher drills.” Gabriel lied.
Aster responded by sliding a hand down to Gabriel’s crotch. Her grip was gentle enough, but it made him stiffen up in more ways than one.
“Don’t lie to me, dear.” She admonished.
“What makes you think I’m lying?” he asked.
“You always get a message from work before disappearing.” Aster replied as she held him under the water, “they don’t call you in that early in the morning for routine stuff.”
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing at work today,” Gabriel answered, “and my security clearance would prohibit me from saying anything, anyway.”
“Of course, I understand.” Aster said, looking up at him, “besides, all that hazard pay you rake in puts food on the table.”
“Actually, my hazard pay is enough to buy us a small spaceship.” Gabriel replied.
“It’s an expression, idiot.” Aster said, flicking his temple with her finger, “If you’re this slow at work, your hazard pay probably isn’t worth the risks you take.”
“You do know that my hazard pay is on a pro rata basis, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know, the longer you’re on deployment, the more you earn.” Aster answered, “That’s probably the only thing that makes up for you being away so much. Otherwise, my salary is more than enough.”
“I need to get ready for work.” Gabriel said.
* * *
Breakfast consisted of flavoured nutrient juice, with Gabriel downing an entire bottle to the dregs before changing into his midnight-black uniform. Once he was ready, he headed straight for the front door; but before he could leave the house, he was ambushed by three little figures still in their nightclothes.