Perdition - Mark Clarkson

The man who called himself Kim was three thousand years old, more or less, and for almost all of that time he had been here, aboard the ship he called Urth. He had not always been called Kim, nor had the ship always been called Urth, but three thousand years is a long time.
He dwelt alone, with no companions but Urth and her robots and the dry ghosts of Shakespeare and Mozart and Carlos and Li. For now, they were company enough. The Urth was sailing up, above the plane of the Milky Way, toward intergalactic night. It coasted free, the huge engines quiet now for millennia, for Kim had nowhere to go, and he was immortal.
When he slept, he slept among the stars, within a gossamer bubble of plastic, clear on all sides, floating above his ship or towed by a robot to a point where it was invisible.
He ate only vegetables from his garden, a tract of manufactured soil aerated by tiny machines very much like those that coursed within him, cleansing his body and repairing his cells. In the garden, vegetables and flowers and a few small trees grew amidst modest fountains, under slowly revolving sunlamps. He tended the garden himself, planting and caring for and reaping. It had not always been so -- indeed, the garden itself was barely four hundred years old.
The ship's store of food included meat and eggs and other delicacies. Still, he had not touched it in years. He knew that he might one day change his mind and avail himself of it again, let the ship prepare the meals and recycle the wastes, for eternity is sufficient for a man to change his mind many times. But he doubted it.
When he left Ganymede, he had been John Westlake, a thief and a murderer and worse. He had killed three men to take the ship that was then Matuzek's Star. One of them still lurked in the inky shadows near the ship's cooling fins, helmet shattered, the magnets in the soles of his boots still clinging to the hull, his wide eyes staring in horror at the interstellar void, globules of freeze-dried blood stuck to his ears and nose. Preserved even now as he had been when Westlake killed him. Through the centuries, Kim had had many one-sided conversations with the dead man, quite soliloquies and ranting monologues. He had screamed and raved, had even struck the man once, sending out a halo of bloody dust. A thousand times, he had almost pried the man's boots loose and cast him off into space, yet after three thousand years he still stood there. He had never known the man's name and felt disinclined to give him one, but by now, Kim had grown rather fond of him. It seemed appropriate that a ship crewed by an undying murderer and unliving machines should have Death along for the ride.
He had been mad twice, the first time for months, the second time for almost a thousand years. He had sent the ship careening wildly between the stars, skimming much too close to suns and planets, until the ship, in despair, had disconnected her engines and left them to fall up, out of the galaxy. Three times he had killed himself, only to wake up again, mended by the tiny machines -- stolen too -- that swam in his blood. Each time he felt different, calmer, further from the lust and grief that had consumed him. Further from the man who had stolen this starship, whom he now remembered only distantly.
When he awoke the third time, John Westlake seemed scarcely more real than Macbeth. He was a child born anew into the tiny metal world.
He saw a string of different men stretching out behind him, some mad, some drugged, some dead. But none of them seemed to be He. It was hard to remember being them, but when the memory grew too distant, there was always the man on the hull to remind him.

 


 

He had long ago discovered how the ship had disabled herself, but he was content for now to drift and to observe the slow unfolding of the galaxy beneath him. To tend his garden and to think.
Sometimes one of the robots would make sonnets for him and recite in its rich contralto as he sat in his garden beneath a tree or dangling his feet into the small pool at its center.
He was sitting by the pool, the robot called Leaves singing softly to him, when the ship announced the approach of two objects, one firing at the other with beams of anti-matter. Two ships, crawling through empty space toward Kim. It was almost a shock, almost a relief, as if, all along, he had been waiting for something -- for this. He remained cross-legged on the ground at the pool's edge and, after a while, he gestured and Leaves began again to sing.
A long time ago -- three thousand years, more or less -- a man named John Westlake had renounced humanity, his own humanity, the race of Man. That loss was symbolized in three brutal murders -- or was it more than that? It no longer seemed to matter much. For centuries he and his metal womb had drifted up, away from the Milky Way galaxy and its hundreds of settled worlds, from Man and all of His works, and that had been fine. For, quite some time ago, Kim had ceased to be, in his own mind, a man. He had become simply Kim. Falling above the galaxy of blurred stars, it scarcely seemed to matter. There were no men; there was only Kim. Kim and the machines that surrounded him, pervaded him. And, of course, Death on the hull.
But the ships would mean people. Men. Women. There were no others who flew between the stars. At least, there hadn't been three thousand years ago.
Now, Man and His works appeared to be coming here, to this tiniest speck of occupied space out above the galactic plane. In retrospect, it seemed inevitable to him, given the fullness of time. If this moment had not come in this millennium, it would have come in the next, or the next. And still Kim would have been here.
He looked down into the glass-still water of the pond. Beneath the interface flowed bright fish, like fat damsels in long trains. They turned their bulging eyes upward, regarding him through his reflection, their jutting mouths gaping. Kim reached out a spread hand and touched the surface of the water, sending ripples of interference racing away in all directions, scattering the image of his face.
The fish rose to investigate, hoping for food, but Kim had none to offer. He removed his hand and they swam away.
Leaves finished its song and began another. Still Kim did not move; Urth fell through space toward the path of the other ships.
One of the fish that had investigated Kim's hand earlier returned and rose to the surface, its membranous mouth stretching out into the air, making a tiny 'o'. Kim smiled down at it.
He stood, unfolding easily, and brushed lightly at the dirt that clung to his naked skin. The robot called Leaves finished its song and stood silent, awaiting Kim's command. Kim was through with songs for the moment and when he left the chamber, Leaves, sensing this, did not follow.

 


 

The ship that was Kim's home was layered like a set of Chinese balls, shell within shell, the engines that drove her through space twined around the outside like thick coils of rope. His garden and his modest rooms were within the capacious outer layer that consisted mainly of cargo bays. Now he went down, level after level, deeper within the ship than he had been for decades, the corridors becoming better lit, more dimly remembered. It felt as though he was shedding himself as he walked, an inch of flesh with every step, to become someone new yet again -- or perhaps someone he had been once before. Walking toward and walking away.
He went down into the center of the ship, past workshops and laboratories and a ring of thousands of cold-sleep coffins, to a door he had not opened since ... since he had been Kim. It whisked away into the wall in blurred silence. Beyond it waited Urth's control room, a sphere of steady lights and dark screens staring inward at the three black couches. Alive, pulsing, waiting, inviting him to enter. He did, and the door slid shut behind him. The faint snick as it socketed home echoed in his mind like the hollow boom of a great stone door. For a moment he felt embarrassed at his simple nakedness in this room of plastic and electricity, then he smiled and lay down in the center couch. The leather was cold against his skin; it creaked and grabbed at him when he moved.
"Kim." The ship's voice was just behind his ear, a gentle, patient whisper.
"Show me the ships."
A cloud of bright powder hung in the air before him: a million million stars. Three ruby wires of light intersected in the space between the stars and the couch.
"I can't see them."
"I am sorry." The voice in his ear was sad. There was a moment's silence, then: "They are there."
"How far?"
"Three seventeen point oh oh seven light hours."
Pause.
"How long?"
"The other ships will reach their closest approach to us in forty three point oh nine hours. There is a wavefront of anti-particles which will precede the ships by several seconds." The voice in his ear paused. There was a series of almost inaudible pops: one-two-three.
"Kim, I am receiving a transmission from one of the ships."
"Show me."
The powder of stars winked out and a flat screen above him came hesitantly to life, blinking like a sleepy eye. A roar like a running faucet filled the control room. The screen was awash in static; colored lightning bolts played up and down through the picture.
Through it Kim recognized the face of a woman, a beautiful face, though in a past life he would not have thought so. She looked out at him past the sleet of colored snow, offering tantalizing glimpses of eyelid and lip and nose through the interference. The picture jumped and twisted, vanished completely in a storm of white, laboriously crawled back down the screen. The audio chirped and sang, and then there came what must surely have been a word, or part of a word. Something like 'er'.
Kim lay transfixed upon the couch, straining to pull another utterance from the white noise, to catch the shape of an ear.
"Can you get it any ... cleaner?"
"Not in real-time. The interference from the anti-matter residue is severe. Perhaps later with additional processing."
Kim was silent, watching, listening.
Another sound through the static: "eer (*hiss*) muh"
"And she's talking to me?"
"The transmission is aimed directly at us."
"From which ship?"
"I cannot say with certainty. Probably the first."
"The one that's running away."
The ship didn't answer.
"Can you contact her?" Kim asked.
"Not at this distance, through the interference from the weapons discharge."
The image on the screen collapsed. Kim waited long minutes but the transmission did not resume. He got up from the couch and left the control room. When the door closed behind him, he didn't hear it.

 

When he emerged again into the upper layer, it seemed somehow changed, somehow smaller, like a vision of childhood colored by time, shrunken when confronted again. The ceilings and walls pressed closer. The stone paths he had laid with his own hands felt rough and cold beneath his bare feet, and he had the momentary urge to put on shoes.
Leaves was gone from the garden; instead the robot called Mu stood beside the pool, still as a statue. The robots seemed to sense his moods, the appropriate ones always appeared just before he thought to call them, went away without dismissal. No doubt, among other things, they watched his every move about the ship --had watched him just now in the control room. The violation of his privacy bothered him not at all; privacy was a thing he had more than enough of here, above the galaxy.
At least until now.
He took a small handful of meal from a stone bowl upon a pedestal and went to sit at the pond's edge. When the fish appeared at the surface, he tossed the meal over the water and watched as they greedily devoured it, jostling each other in a melee of diaphanous fins. He had bred the fish for a thousand generations, from small and white and agile to comically bloated and splashed with color. Like the grasses and the flowers and the trees, like every living thing aboard the ship aside from Kim, they had come from seed stored frozen in the cargo vaults. He had stolen a well-stocked ship, with just the things he needed to set up a little world of his own. Had it been luck, or had he known that when he stole it? He no longer remembered.
A pulsing artificial breeze pulled at the grass around the pool, at Kim's hair. Behind him trees rattled.
In the dart of color beneath the water, he saw the woman's face. The face of a living human being.
"So. Who are they and what shall we do about them?" he mused out loud.

" - a man wonders
- after lifetimes of nothing
- what? why? "

Kim did not turn to face the robot called Mu. "Are you trying to be amusing or do you have something to say?"

" - why are we put here
- to suffer
- and die? "

Kim smiled, then laughed. It seemed like a long time since he had laughed.
Kim raised his hand in unnecessary gesture. "Make it rain," he said, and it was so. A drizzle of blood-warm water fell from somewhere in the high ceiling. The surface of the pond dissolved into a broken brown web.
"Colder." The temperature of the water plunged down and down until it bit and stung at his flesh. The fish dove deep into the middle of the pool, seeking warmth.
"Enough." The rain cut off like a switch. The artificial wind that played across him was desert-hot, dry as sand.
Kim stood and walked across the wet, spongy ground to the door, shivering slightly, then turned back toward the garden. The robot called Mu looked out across the flowers and fountains, glass eyes unblinking.
The moment stretched.
"Well?" Kim asked.
The robot did not look toward him.

" - why are we put here?
- to suffer
- and die. "

Kim laughed again and went to restart the engines.

 

"Once we can move again, what are you planning to do?" The voice of the ship followed him down the narrow glass corridor, always just behind one ear, bouncing from side to side like an anxious child. The unaccustomed pants he wore, though loose, chafed at his legs and crotch.
"I don't know yet."
He came to the end of the corridor and put out his hand to touch the cold glass before him. It moved inward, clicked, then swung outward again as he removed his hand, exposing the vast array of tiny ceramic shapes which lay behind, like a miniature city turned up on its side.
He pulled one of the blocks loose from its place. It was discolored on one corner, displaying a rainbow of grays and blues. He turned it over in his left hand, then dropped it into one of the pockets in his pants. From another pocket he extracted its replacement, slid it into place. He closed the glass door and stepped back. Nothing changed. The light was steady; the only sound was his breathing and the faint rustle of cloth as he shifted his stance.
"I can burn that out again," the ship said in his ear.
"I know."
"Or I can burn something else, something more difficult to find."
"I know. The time for that has passed." He pushed his hands down into his pockets. The left hand found the burned component and he rubbed it between finger and thumb. "Can you restart the engines now?"
There was a pause, not quite long enough to sound hesitant, then: "Yes."
Kim turned and started back up the corridor, still fingering the little ceramic block. "Do it."
The ship's reply came in the form of an almost inaudible hum, a feeling of power which seemed to pass up through the rubber floor into Kim's bare feet. Her voice was silent.
Kim made his way back to the control room, through bending corridors and vertical lifts that were becoming more and more familiar, better remembered. As he stepped from a lift into the innermost floor, Urth's voice came to him.
"I am receiving another transmission."
"From the same woman?"
"No. I believe this transmission is from the pursuing ship. It may be in response to the restarting of my engines. It began a few seconds afterward. It is quite clear."
Kim quickened his pace.
The control room door stood open for him. He entered and stood behind the couches, looking up at the live screens. There were three this time. On the right was what appeared to be the transmission he had seen earlier, a melting whorl of static shot through with tantalizing bits of clarity.
In the center was ... she. The woman's face, frozen -- no, changing in slow jerks from one fixed expression to another: lips parted, lips closed, blink. Her skull was tall and shining and hairless, with only the barest hint of fuzzy eyebrow above her wide, wide eyes. Her skin was white as paper, with darker pigment wrapping around from behind like a hood over her scalp and cheeks. Her lips and tongue were bright red; she showed no signs of teeth.
She was beautiful beyond compare.
On the left-most screen was something defying description. The colors looked false, cartoonish, too brilliant and sharp.
"Is that a face?"
"I do not know."
"This is the transmission you are receiving now?"
"Yes."
"Is there any audio?"
"Nothing which I can decipher as such. Perhaps it is encoded as text. There are several parts of the transmission which are not involved in this image. I am working to interpret them."
"Are you sure this is even a picture?"
"Reasonably sure."
Kim watched the almost-face for several seconds, then gestured up at the center screen.
"And this is her? From the first ship?"
"Yes. I have built up several composite frames from the video portion of her transmission."
"What about audio?"
"Only very small segments. They correspond to no spoken language I know."
"We've been away a very long time -- things are bound to change."
The ship made no comment. The ... face? ...glared at him. A black pit that might have been a mouth seemed to babel and howl at him in silence.
"Things can't have changed that much, can they?"
"Yes, they can have."
Kim wanted to deny that. The thing was wrong in a way that he felt in his bowels. Humanity could not have become that.
"It could be another race," he said.
"One may have been discovered," conceded the ship.
On the screen before him, the woman's face shifted slowly from one awkward expression to another, her long head rocking a few degrees from side to side.
"She is human," he said at last.
"That is probably true." The ship seemed to guess his next question: "Some factions are bound to be more conservative than others." Then, "It has been three thousand seventeen years."
"That long?"
"Yes."
Kim shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "I have not changed that much."
"It has been a long time. We have all changed. You have changed more than perhaps you realize."
"I'm still human."
"That is probably true," said the ship.


The bent, spidery cog of the Milky way was above and behind Kim as he emerged. Around him, the shapes on the hull were merest hints in the faint, delicate light of the hundred billion suns. But his eyes had gotten more sensitive over the centuries; he did not turn on the suit lights. He set his feet on the hull and magnets in his soles gently clung to the shipmetal.
The dead man's head was tilted back, looking up, over Kim's shoulder toward the lens of the galaxy -- toward the two approaching ships. Uncannily toward the ships.
The fingers curved like hooks, clutching at the vacuum -- the eyes and mouth open in a scream of horror. For a moment, Kim couldn't remember what horror it was the man had seen.
He turned, following the frozen stare of the dead eyes. He saw something that might have been the ships, or it might have been simply a scratch on his helmet; a mirage. The looming disk of the Milky Way evoked memories -- swirls and bands of bright color. Memories of other ships, other people.
"It was me, wasn't it?"
Memories.

 

Matuzek's Star tumbled away from the bright crescent of Jupiter like a tiny, fleeing moon, dark and quiet. Behind it, invisible with distance, the cops gave chase like a pack of hounds without a scent. On the hull, Westlake and prey, going slow circles.
Westlake's air was turned down until his head swam and his body ran with cold sweat. He smiled as he drew in the thin air, straining his chest against the inside of the suit. There was no compelling need to cough, no sharp tickle of pain. No sign of cancer.
The gasping of his breath was like laughter.
He moved quickly, easily, through the field of jumbled shapes and shadows, swimming through the weightless vacuum with practiced shoves and tugs, helmet lamp turned off. He had been this way before, several times. The game of hide and seek had been under way for twenty-three hours; he moved through the shadows now with utter confidence. He had taken the magnets off of his boots ... somewhere ... taken them off and placed them side by side on the hull, left and right. Now he depended on the sure grip of his gloved fingers.
The gun dangled from his belt on a short line, like a tail, bumping periodically into the backs of his knees.
The sharp outlines of the cooling fins appeared, rising above the low curve of the ship's horizon. Westlake grinned -- almost there. He had come the long way around, moving away from the other man, in the opposite direction, circling three-quarters of the tiny globe to be here first. He checked the helmet clock and knew that he had made it in time. He was moving fast; the other man clung tightly to the hull, creeping warily through the dark, afraid. Westlake had spotted him, had trailed him for a time as he moved slowly from concealment to concealment, long enough to guess his destination.
He slowed now, taking inventory of the possible hiding places beneath the tall blades of the cooling fins, choosing one. He slid in amongst a forrest of thick cables and was still.
Half hidden in the knife-edged shadow of a cooling fin was an access hatch. Westlake had found the small door sunken into the hull earlier, before he'd turned his air down, before he'd jammed the main hatches and begun the long game. It was a game he was reluctant to end, but the mass of Jupiter was almost far enough away now. Soon, he would have to be inside to start the main engines. The helmet clock told him he had another twenty minutes. He was confident that it would take the cops at least that long to find him -- but not much longer.
There were a million cops sniffing the system for his spore, and since the minor carnage at the lab which had netted him his little molecular saviors, half of the military. Not to mention the ten million skin-headed apostles of Elisa Matuzek, who wanted their ship back.
Once the main engines pulled the ship out of normal space, they would all be powerless to find him. The ship below him was built to colonize worlds; it would supply the needs of a single, average- sized man, indefinitely.
Two fins towered above Westlake in his hiding place, cutting off all the sky but a slice. The crescent of Jupiter inched into view between them, spanned the gap, slowly disappeared again. The shadows crawled visibly across the hull, concealing the hatch in darkness. Two pinpoints of light, green and red, shown out from the recess like the mismatched eyes of a cat.
Breathing was easier, but he continued pulling in huge volumes of the thin air, stretching his lungs taunt against his ribs. He could almost see them, pink and elastic and new like a baby's. He felt the urge to turn down the air just a little further, to test their limits, to see how well the tiny viral machines had wrought.
The thought of billions of little mechanical things crawling around inside of his cells still made him uneasy, but not like coughing up bits of lung. He'd get used to it; soon he'd have plenty of time. He wasn't sure what the experimental bastards were doing in there, but he was feeling better and better. Who knows, maybe they'd even fix his flat feet.
It had taken a year -- six months longer than the doctors had given him -- to steal his new health, to come to Ganymede, to get this ship and its robots and its stores. A number of people had died, one way or another. Others were dying without the machine cure Westlake had stolen. He had a saying for that: better you than me.
One last man in the way.
A dark shape moved quickly against the stars, dropped again below the horizon, and Westlake unconsciously caught his breath as though the other man might hear him. Not turning his head, barely moving, he reached behind him and found the gun, took it from its cord and squeezed the grip through his glove.
He watched the jagged pool of black around the hatch. Slowly, ever so slowly, he brought the gun up in front of him.
The miniature face of Jupiter appeared in the blackness near the hatchway, reflected in a silvered helmet as the other man's head raised out of shadow. Westlake's lips pressed together hard and pulled uncontrollably into a grin. He put the Red Spot in the 'v' of the sights and carefully squeezed the trigger back.
The muzzle flashed like the sun. The shock ran up his arms, driving his shoulders back into the cable housings, but there was no noise. The image of Jupiter popped in silence like a fog-filled balloon.
He felt a tingle, like the thrill of health, and imagined that it was a billion tiny machines within his cells, meticulously undoing the ravages of age and disease. He felt strong and good. He laughed out loud, and when it didn't hurt, he did it again.
Jupiter climbed into view again and the shadows over the hatch crept aside. The other man was twisting back and forth like a tree in high wind, the soles of his feet clamped securely to the hull. His hands flexed like grasping claws.
Westlake returned the gun to its cord and pushed out from his cover, moving slowly now to the hatch. The other man shuddered and was still. The face within the shattered helmet was as pale as wax, indistinct through a fuzz of white and red-black frost. The mouth hung like a wound. The bullet had not touched flesh, but he was dead just the same.
Westlake looked back toward the crescent of Jupiter as it rose above the curve of Matuzek's Star. There were no telltale streaks of violet light to show a hard-charging police ship bearing down on him.
He was going to make it.
He cycled through the lock at the dead man's feet and went into the ship. No longer safe on any world, Westlake was taking his world with him.

 

The catseyes on the hatch had long since gone out. Many, many things had changed.
Kim smiled sadly. "But, Death, you have not changed at all." He reached out a gloved finger and gently touched a frozen cheek. It was like a rock.
After all this time, it did not seem right to displace him.
"Alright, together then, my friend."
For the final time, Kim went back down into the light of the ship, leaving the dead man where he stood.

 

The robot called Mu was in the garden by the pool, exactly as Kim had left him. Perhaps he had not moved, or perhaps he had only returned to stand just so again.
Kim crossed the grass to stand by the pool, his back to the robot, gathering up a handful of grain which he tossed out over the water even before the fish had come to beg.
Surprisingly, the robot spoke first.

" - forever is a long time. "

Kim smiled and brushed his hands together. A fine haze of meal dust fell from between them. "Don't worry, I won't be taking you with me. You have your own task." He turned slowly around, surveying his garden. Even now it calmed him -- the sounds of splashing water from the fountains, the scent of flowers and grasses on the artificial breeze.
He walked around the edge of the pond toward a patch of flowers, blood-red blossoms atop a tangle of leaves and tall stems. They waved side to side in unison, like happy dancers. He reached out and carefully broke one off.
When Kim gestured, the robot came to him.

 

This time he wore clothes, even shoes, and the leather of the control couch did not cling to him. They might have been very like the clothes John Westlake had worn. Then again, they may not.
The control room was a carnival of light, though it did not need to be so. The ship could have flown this last mission by herself. Kim might have waited in the garden -- maybe swimming. Or he could even have gone with Mu. Instead of Mu.
But this place, the control room deep within the Urth, felt more right. The clothes felt right. The festive colors of the lights felt right. Like ... something.
Like Christmas.
Behind him, on the other side of the closed door, all the lights throughout the ship blazed. The circulating fans strained, bawling through the vents. The floors and walls and ceilings thrummed, alive.
The screens wrapped around the ceiling of the control room were filled with shapes and digits and lines that seemed to stand out into the air. Kim made no effort to interpret them, in fact, most of the information meant nothing to him anymore. They were only abstract figures, unintelligible foreign ideograms.
The central screen, the one directly in front of him, held a picture of her. The computer had interpolated thousands of frames by now, and her face had the illusion of true movement. Her eyes blinked, her nostrils flared gently, her lips parted and felt their way over silent words.
"Kim," the ship's voice was behind his right ear. "Ten seconds." A brief tone marked the precise instant.
Kim said nothing. He was silent for most of the ten seconds, then: "How long will the trip last?"
"Twelve point oh five seconds. Would you like a countdown?"
"No." He felt the faintest tug at his stomach. They were moving now.
On the screen in front of him, the woman's mouth pulled up in a thin, beautiful smile.
"Why, thank you," said Kim, surprised.
"You're welcome," said the ship.
The bubble of space/time disturbance surrounding the Urth touched the edge of a dense metal object in space, and both imploded with a flash of low-spectrum radiation.

 

The robot called Mu floated within the tiny bubble that had been Kim's sleeping sphere. When the appropriate amount of time had passed, he began broadcasting a distress signal. There would be only one ship now to hear it.
There was a significant probability that the woman's ship, having escaped her pursuer, would not stop to investigate the beacon, or would not bring the robot inside. If not, he would watch the universe expand beneath him, and think.
He held Kim's message to the woman clutched against his chest. His metal fingers were immune to the thorns.

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