A Current of Darkness

By Mike Voss

From CHM #31 January 2023

I flew six hours to Amsterdam, fighting a DMT hangover, to identify a dead man. All because the dead man may have had information about Rachel, my own personal event horizon. An official I didn’t recognize met me at the airfield. He was bedecked in black, half a head taller than me and twice as broad. “I’m Navarro,” he said. “This way, please.” His indifferent tone grew into belligerent silence during the short drive to the scene.

“Where’s Harris?” I asked, getting out of the vehicle.

“Waiting,” Navarro said. “I need to verify your clearance.” I passed my ID to him; his eyes narrowed when he caught a gleam of the platinum wire intagliated around my fingers. “You off-world?” he asked.

 I ignored the question. “The body?”

Navarro grunted, returned my badge. “Come on.” He led me to a land bridge, verdant and overgrown, adjacent to the New Canal in Jordaan. The Westerkerk bell tower was one of the few historical monuments that remained above the water line. Its great brass bells chimed two o’clock. The water amplified the sound and the reverberations seemed to make the whole world tesselate in green and gold.

Harris waited on the far bank under the shade of the canopy. I’d known Harris as cold, fastidious, manipulative. He was also the best boss I ever had. When things ended with Rachel, he gave me the only advice he knew, because it always worked for him: “Go on sabbatical, little monk. Be silent. Be humble. Pray. Get closer to God.”

Harris uncovered the body, splayed and half-hidden within a thicket of lindens. “A group of kids found him floating in the canal a couple hours ago. Recognize him?”

The man’s skin was mottled, ulcerated in various shades of pink and grey. From the angle of his limbs, it seemed the only thing holding the body together was the clothing. I tried to look beyond its present condition and picture the face in ruddier health, and with its jaw re-attached. “Canton?”

Harris nodded. “James Canton.”

“Do you have leads?”

“Yes and no,” Harris shrugged. “Unusual behavior’s begun to manifest in some of the modified Diplomatic Corps. A process takes over where the brain releases a biological signal to self-destruct. Some compulsively engage in self-mutilation; others stop eating and waste away.”

“And the Jeletz?”

“They’re telling us fuck-all.” Harris gestured toward the mangled remains of James Canton. “Rachel was in Canton’s treatment group. I thought you should know.”

* * *

I first met Rachel at a reception hosted by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. In those days, we still used a combination of Virtual Intelligence interpreters and psychotropics to facilitate communication with the Jeletz. I found it nearly impossible to function under the necessary quantity of hallucinogens to even tolerate being in proximity to them. When a Jeletz alpha cornered me, and its orchid shaped face flashed vibrant indigo in benign greeting, the intensity of the contact was more than I could take. I rushed outside and puked behind the lawn art.

Rachel had just arrived at the reception grounds and found me heaving in the hedges. With a smile that seemed to come so easily, she helped me to my feet. She wore a long summer dress, emerald green, to signify her rank as a Diplomat.   

“Is this how you try to impress the new girl?” she asked.

“Just had a bad reaction.” I over-enunciated the words, which made the slurring worse.

“Working with the Jeletz can be a bit much,” she said. I snatched a glass of champagne from a passing server and used the liquid to clear my mouth of the bitter eau de throw up aftertaste. Rachel pointed to my drink. “Especially when you mix in social lubricant. I find building up a tolerance slowly works far better.” She flashed that easy smile again and leaned close. I was soul trapped, helpless behind the gleam in her dilated, coffee-colored eyes.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked.

“You’re very direct,” her smile disappeared, “and way out of line.” She pulled a torn red sash from the remains of the hedge. “Yours?”

“Mine,” I said. “I’m a Consultant.” Everyone in the Ministry knew that ‘Consultant’ was a euphemism for ‘security’, which was a euphemism for ‘underhanded bastards who preferred the dark and strove to prove mathematically that wrong actions equalled right.’

“A Consultant,” Rachel said with exaggerated surprise. “Of course. That would explain your manners.”

I offered my hand. “Alex Bishop.”

“Consultant Bishop,” she placed the sash in my open hand. She turned and walked into the reception hall, but not before sharing one last smile over her shoulder.

“Is that a pity smile?” I called after her.

“Pity?” she shrugged. “Let’s go with that.”

 “I’d prefer animosity.”

“It’s your lucky day. I am feeling especially antagonistic. Well? Are you coming to the party, or not?”  

                                                                 * * *

Rachel’s first posting was as a liaison between colonists and the Jeletz delegation stationed on Europa. The Jeletz used chromatophore communication and, to reduce the need for the colonists to continually ingest high octane drugs, the Ministry felt it would be beneficial to deep dive into parsing the complex Jeletz color patterns by creating the equivalent of human translators. Rachel volunteered.

The Ministry called them treatments; a euphemism meant to sooth failed subjects’ surviving relatives. Rachel’s treatment began with ocular implants that allowed her to regulate input of visible and near UV light. Finally, a symbiotic implant, a Jeletz embryo, was surgically grafted onto the base of her spine. It swapped DNA with her cells and grew tendrils along her nerves to stimulate melanocortin receptors. V.I. tutors instructed her in fifteen-hour sessions, impressing upon her the language of color.

The day before her departure, she broke her quarantine protocol and asked to see me. When I arrived at her place, she was in the closet, standing between two mirrors. She was craning her neck, attempting to inspect the implant. “It’s pretty noticeable,” she said, “isn’t it?”

“Are you going to name it?”

“I should, shouldn’t I?” She cocked her head and considered for a moment before deciding. “Grigori,”

“Why ‘Grigori’?”

“Read your classics.”

“How does it eat?”

“It doesn’t”

“That’s good, because my next question was going to be, ‘what do you do when it takes a crap?’”

She punched my arm and flashed neon orange. “You’re such a child.” I kissed the back of her neck and waves of gold-vermillion flowed horizontally down the length of her body. She sighed and said, “I shall run before him, arcing cloths besprinkled with colors small as fish eggs…” She looked at me through the mirror “Are you going to forget me?”

“How could I?”

She turned to face me and rested her arms on my shoulders. Her skin glowed deeply. “How do I look now?”

“Like a sunset.”

After we were through, we lay together in silence, trying not to sully the moment with empty platitudes. I don’t remember which of us started the conversation, but we ended up discussing the inevitable.

“You’re already older than dirt,” she said.

“Why thank you,” I said. “Explain how thirty-five…”

“I go into cold pack. I arrive and thaw out, I’m still thirty. I do my tour, repeat the process, and I return, gaining one year to your five. You’ll be forty.”

“You can add me to your collection of antiques,” I said, gesturing to an ancient map she had hung on the wall. It was a star chart, illustrated with imaginary animals settled in a border of deep blue. Little did the mapmaker know that indeed, here be monsters as well. “Seal me in a temperature-controlled box,” I said. “I might just last forever.”

“And you might also become too fragile for me to play with anymore,” Rachel said. She pointed to the lower left corner of the map. “I’ve been there. And there. And there. And I’m going…” she paused. “I don’t think Europa is on there.”

“It’s an old map,” I said, “it’s not worth more than the paper it’s printed on.”

“Vellum. It’s not paper.” She leaned on her elbow and looked down at me. “Now, when I gaze up into the dark of the night sky, I see it as the same brilliant blue on that map.” She paused and her tone changed. “They can survive in the vacuum of space.”

“The Jeletz?” 

She nodded. “It’s one of the things I learned. One of their secrets I shouldn’t be telling you. When they first began to explore, they’d take to the sky and let their bodies drift along the dark currents, colonizing as they went.” Her skin flashed coral, pink, white and her expression changed.

“What else shouldn’t I know?”

“I’m dreaming in color.  I think in color.” Then, as if to stop herself from revealing something I couldn’t be privy to, she turned on me, saying, “just go. Please. Now.”  I replayed that night over and over in my mind, thinking about what I should have said, or could have done. But each revisit ended the same way: I left without looking back.

                                                            * * *

Harris was kind enough to provide me with a list of former staff that the dead man, Canton, may have been in contact with when he arrived on world. The names were familiar and entirely useless, leading me away from Rachel. I knew that if I wanted real information, I’d need to start with a thorough scan of Canton’s hotel room.

The multi room suite was lush for someone on an Ambassador’s income. The foyer and bathrooms were covered with polished pink marble flecked with gold. Canton’s open luggage sat on the wide bed, still neatly packed. The room was too pristine. I dug through his clothing, unzipped hidden compartments and was able to turn up the manifest for his flight. Rachel was listed along with Canton. Both travelled in stasis, both revived upon landing.

“What time did Canton leave his room?” I asked the suite’s V.I.

“Ambassador Canton left at 2:45 this morning”, the V.I. said.

“Who else has been here?” I asked.

“Director Harris. Ambassador McCourt.”

“Repeat,” I said.

“Ambassador Rachel McCourt.”

“When?”

“Ambassador McCourt left with Ambassador Canton at 2:45 this morning.”

I scanned the list of names on the manifest but didn’t recognize any others as Ministry or from Rachel’s treatment group. I moved on to the crew and thought it best to start at the top with the captain.

 Lucas Farrington was a pilot who’d developed a reputation for confounding timetables while under the influence of mountains of drugs. After making a few calls into the Ministry’s navy, I tracked Farrington down to the top floor of a half-submerged hotel near the city’s shipyards, skulking through his downtime.

Farrington didn’t look too surprised to see me, just disappointed. We climbed to the roof with a bottle of scotch between us. In the shipyard below, a small craft, a caravel, was being readied for launch. We drank and watched as the platform holding the caravel was raised. Its engines growled and it took off with a hiss as the force of its jets hit the water below.

“Ambassador James Canton was found dead this morning,” I said. “He was a passenger on your most recent flight.”

Farrington shrugged. “I’m a pilot. I shuttle a lot of personnel between here and the colonies.”

“Another passenger was Rachel McCourt.”

Farrington looked up from underneath his thick eyelids and smiled. He refilled his glass and sat back. “Why should I be talking to you?”

I shook my head and told him truthfully, “there’s no reason.” I walked to the balcony and traced the trajectory of the contrail left by the caravel, a magenta streak against the ultramarine sky. “We have a history, Rachel and I.”

“But no future,” he ventured. “The two ambassadors de-boarded together. If there was something,” he searched for the word. “Something off with either of them, I couldn’t tell.”   

“Can you be sure?”

Farrington’s eyes shot waves of impatience. “Son, how old do I look to you?”

“Old enough to be addled and attaining your second childhood.”

“Nice try, smart ass. I’ve been piloting ships since I was twenty-five. I’ve been serving on them since I was sixteen.”

“You look fifty. If I say fifty, will you answer my fucking question?”

Farrington smirked. “Add a hundred more and you’ll be getting close. Having to go into cold pack adds a lifetime or two. I am old enough to remember reports about initial attempts at contact with our new neighbors, how the first volunteers were never quite right afterwards. I remember the first iteration of the Ministry. And how wrong headed it was even then.” He gestured for me to sit back down. He refilled my glass and slid it forward. “I’ve had to clean up more bad deaths than I care to count.”

“Like Canton.”

Farrington nodded. “Like Canton. Did you know that when Jeletz reached maturity, they were genetically predispositioned to mate and die? Well, the males died. The females killed and ate them. They stopped, of course, once they reached a certain level of social and scientific development, but primal instincts are universal.”

“Fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fucking.”

“Very good,” Farrington beamed. “But not always in that order. Every treatment was a game of roulette. The volunteers knew that.”

“There has to be a way to help her.”

“Short of a cold pack nap in a stasis module? No.” He leaned forward. “How long since you’ve seen her?”

“Five years.”

Farrington nodded. “Five years of exchanging genetic material with an exotic, off-world lifeform.”

“She was in cold pack most of that time. You said stasis stops the change.”

“Slows, not stops. She’s not the same person you remember. Her thoughts are different. Her priorities are different. If I were you, I’d stay very far away from her.”

I left Farrington and walked along the quay, watching the ships entering and leaving the port. The smell coming off the water had a surprising sweetness to it, which was undercut by the sour smell of heated metal from the ships cooling after re-entry. The scotch helped quiet my nerves and made the anticipation of confronting her more bearable, if I could believe what Farrington was telling me.

As I walked back to my hotel, the sun sank to the horizon in an uncomfortably hot copper glow. I entered the foyer and climbed the three flights to my room. Once there, I peeled off my jacket and fell back on my bed, kicking up dust motes that swirled in shafts of dying daylight. I imagined myself drifting among them, on the contrails of an almost happy dream until a noise startled me to wakefulness. “Hello Bishop.”

It was Rachel. Her face and hands flashed indigo and she faded into the shadows once again.  I had no idea how long I’d been asleep, or how long she had been there watching me. In the dark.

“I can’t see you,” I said to her silhouette, black against a deeper black.

“I can see you just fine. Give me a moment.” Her bioluminescence lit up the room in bands of red, gold, and orange. “Is that better?” she asked and approached the bed. Her voice was strained, artificial.

“That’s better,” I agreed. “The Ministry is looking for you.”

She laughed and I saw a gleam in the dark. She wore a thin metal band around her throat; a locket housing a V.I. interpreter that spoke in her voice. “Why else would you be here?” She cocked her head and the strobing on her skin slowed. The rhythm of her display with its pattern of herringbone parabolas was hypnotic.

“I want to help.”

“Are you playing the white knight for me, Bishop? I don’t need help.” She approached the bed.

“What do you need?”

“Trust. Do you trust me?” She sat beside me.

“Tell me about Canton.”

“Canton.” The V.I.’s tone expressed what seemed to be genuine sadness. “After we’d disembarked, he told me he felt unwell and retired early. I wandered the city, ate a late dinner, and went to check on him before I turned in. He was in an adjoining room. I knocked but there was no answer, so I assumed he was asleep.”  Her skin strobed faster, her color more saturated.

“Sometime after midnight a noise woke me,” she continued. “It came from his room. The door was unlocked. When I saw him, he was on the floor, thrashing, clawing at his throat. His body was communicating the silver-white colorings for distress. He ran out of the room, and I followed him for blocks. When I caught up with him, he was on his knees, his coloring indicated he was in extremis. He was pleading for help, and I knew what to do.”

“What did you do?”

“Words,” she placed her fingers on my lips, “are filler for pure thought which can only be conveyed through color. Canton was drowning on his own vocabulary, so I removed the organs that blocked his true language. I am sorry to say that neither of us could stop the bleeding.” Rachel took my hand in hers, leading my fingers over the smooth skin of her throat, the delicate flesh of her lips, and into the moist warmth of her tongueless mouth. “I removed my unnecessary means of expression long ago. I’ll ask one last time, Bishop. Do you trust me?”

“I want to,” I said, and almost meant it. “I came here for you.”

Rachel considered my answer, her hands and face dappled in pensive blue. “Then follow me. I want to show you my becoming.”

                                                            * * *

We alighted to the shipyard and boarded a vessel she had on standby. On our way, I tried raising Harris but couldn’t get through. I knew I’d need Ministry guidance to get the vessel back down once I’d gotten Rachel safely into stasis. She closed the entry way and began to load coordinates into the navigation system. I brushed passed her and turned down a passageway, looking for the life support cabin.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to take a look at the ship,” I said.

“Let me give you the tour.” She smiled in waves of fuchsia.

I followed her to the galley, the sleeping quarters, and the entertainment room. She ended the tour at the atrium where, amongst the hanging gardens, the stasis modules hung like clinical coffins of steel and glass.

“How far will we travel before we have to go on ice?” I asked.

“You’ve never been in cold pack, have you? Don’t be anxious. It’s like going to sleep. You don’t dream, and there’s no sense of time passing, but you wake up with the worst hangover.” She ran her long fingers over the smooth glass of the unit’s window. “We won’t be using them.”

“So, they aren’t working?”

“They work.” Her fingers slid to the control panel and depressed the button, opening the glass door. Rachel read my intention. She flashed viridian and closed her eyes. I reached up to touch her face and felt tears. She doubled over, sobbing. “I trusted you.”  

Before I could guide her into the pod, Rachel leapt, her face flashing a tiger’s mask of indigo and scarlet. She used my leverage against me, grasping my neck and spinning me backward into the open device.

She raised her arm and heaved the door downward. I tried to push back against the padding behind me but only managed to get my arm between the door and the metal seal of the pod’s frame, pinning it just below the wrist. I shouted to her, begging her to stop, but she only pushed harder. I tried to reason with her. “Rachel. Please. I want to help.”

Rachel pulled her body downward on the pod’s frame and used that anchoring force to thrust her weight against the door. Agony exploded behind my eyes as she made one final lunge, shutting the hatch, and severing tendon, bone, and wire with the sound of a whip cracking. My hand pinwheeled across the floor like a pale crab. I uselessly continued to beat my remaining hand against the door until darkness encroached the edges of my vision. I called her name over and over again.

After what seemed like half a lifetime, Rachel stepped forward and peered through the glass. She relaxed her chromatic cells and her mask of colors fell away. Blood lazily filled the pod. Delicate ruby and garnet spheres splashed like an opaque rain against the module’s window. She stood unmoving, unblinking before me; I saw my reflection captured in her coffee-colored eyes until my blood obscured the view.    

My last selfish thought was a sad hope she’d have the kindness to initiate stasis before I died.

End.

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