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The Last Rites of Juliette Andromeda Mao

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***

Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about a stupid girl who thought she could fight a monster and live.

***

Dave was dead. Before I go any further, I want the record to show that I know that. Five weeks before, I’d heard him begging them on the other side of the storage locker where they’d stored me. He was a big, loud man, my ship’s mechanic — he’d collected old cartoon clips of lucky birds and rolled with deep, belly-aching laughter at his own jokes. But when I heard him that last time, he sounded small.

No, please no, please don’t. No. Please no. Please don’t.

They spaced him out the airlock.

Only a thin, metal skin separated the airlock from my storage locker. The ship designer never thought a storage locker needed to be soundproof. In those first four days after they dragged us from The Scopuli and onto their own ship, I heard a lot of my friends beg. The sequence becomes predictable and almost tolerable: a familiar voice now broken, the meaty thud of a body, the hydraulics and locks bolting shut, the hiss of shredding air.

They always waited until all the hydraulics and bolts on the airlock reset before they walked away. They killed all of my friends that way, except for Captain Darren. They were real professionals about murder. None of my friends ever came back.

So, let me repeat: Dave was dead.

I can hear you over there thinking, And what about you? Poor, little rich girl, what did you do when they were hurting and killing your friends? Why didn’t you do something, say something? You in your secure little storage locker.

Look, we’re getting off topic here, but — after I threw one of them into the wall and before they threw me into storage, they told each other, Shoot her if she makes a noise.

They had a flatness to their voice that I recognized. Growing up, I heard it often from my father when he faced me across the dinner table. It was a voice that said you were no longer a human-being but a problem.

My father also never made a threat he wasn’t willing to carry out.

When they said they would kill me, I believed them.

I chose to live. Stupid girl. For seven whole days, I chose to live.

*

But the point is, I knew Dave was dead.

I still followed him out the shuttle when I got to Eros.

***

When I was six, my father moved our family from a bunker on Luna to that sprawling monstrosity on Earth. He didn’t bring Auntie with us.

I call her Auntie, but we don't share any blood. She was from the Belt and taller than most us Lunar citizens. When she walked, she had to stoop in order to stop her head from touching the ceiling of the tunnels that crisscrossed under the surface of Luna. Her back was permanently bowed; it was the gravity, she said. She always said she was luckier than most to have found me and my family.

Each night, she tucked me into my bed and sang me stories of Belters who flew for years and years in the space beyond Mars and never met another living soul. Auntie never sang where my father could hear.

My sister Claire is six years younger then me. Claire was never cradled in those arms, never heard those songs, never stared up at a tiny Earth, separated from the aching vacuum of space by only a thin sheet of plasti-glass. She was born under a blue sky.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s what made the difference between me and her, if I would have been her and she me, but for the different women who’d raised and, maybe, loved us.

I remember the day I learned Auntie wasn’t coming with us. I raged, I cried. I ran away into the domed park and climbed the tallest tree. I slept on the branches, cushioned my head on leaves. I watched as the crescent Earth rose slowly over the ash-gray horizon.

The Earth was high in the sky when I woke to see Auntie standing below me under the tree branches. She was so tall, when she raised her arms to me, her fingers brushed the leaves beside me. I jumped into her arms so fast, I scraped my shins on the tree bark.

Auntie held me close, kissed my scrape, and told me she wasn’t coming with me. She had her own child and her own place on Luna. The gravity on Earth was too much for a Belter’s bones. She told me she’d only be one video call away. Then she gave me the number to her home terminal, which she’d never given me before.

I made my mother video call Auntie before our family boarded our shuttle to Earth. That was when I met her son. He was a thin boy with her wide nose and dark curls. He smiled at me when I said goodbye to him and his mother.

It took three days to reach Earth. The hour I arrived on Earth, I called her home terminal again. The number had been disconnected.

I’ve looked since then. Never found a thing until I got older. And then only the fact that you can buy burner numbers on the cheap no matter where you are and that in certain places no one gives their real names.

I was angry for a long while after. I was the angriest little girl I ever met.

My father thinks it was college and the OPA that changed me. He hasn’t been paying attention.

One thing in her stories always stuck with me: We do not leave behind those we love.

Children’s stories. I didn’t try to grow up. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.

Guess this doesn’t matter anymore either, but when I was picking out my team for this last hell of a mission, I decided on Dave even before Captain Darren confirmed he was a good mechanic. Dave had the same wide nose and dark curls as Auntie’s son.

So, in a way, you can say I killed him.

Not the same way I killed Captain Darren though.

*

Help me, the Captain’s head had said.

I had a blow torch in my hand. What do you think I did?

***

I was locked away by myself for a total of eight days: I sat motionless for the first two, silent for four, ran out of water by the seventh, and everything had gone entirely still on the sixth.

The low, vibrating roar of the reactor and the drive faded away so slowly, I didn’t feel it while it was happening, only when everything went still. When the drive stopped, so did gravity.

Eight days after they dragged us from The Scopuli and onto their ship, I kicked down the storage door and grabbed a pipe wrench from an EVA kit. I floated down the corridors of their dark, silent ship. I hunted for them and I was prepared to crack open at least one of their heads with the wrench before they shot me.

But deck after deck, room after room, I found no one. There was breathable air and atmospheric pressure, but no power. All the consoles were empty, all screens powered down and locked. Like they’d all just left for dock.

The final hatch lead to the engineering deck. It didn’t open automatically. Unsecured tools floated around it, but no weapons. There was blood. But no bodies. The red light on the hatch said it’d been locked from the inside.

It took me two hours with a discarded blow torch to cut through it all. When I pulled open the hatch, I finally found the bodies.

Or rather, the flesh of one massive body.

Its entire pulsating mass wrapped around the cathedral-spire of the fusion reactor. And at its foot, as small to the rest of it as that hangnail on your little finger is to you — a head.

Help me, the Captain’s head said.

I had a blow torch in my hand. Again, what do you think I did?

The head was alive, but it was not the Captain.

And for the record, that blow torch wasn’t enough - It took a wrench to finish the job.

You should remember that. Might turn out useful.

*

Afterwards, I stayed on the ship for a bit. Left engineering and relocked the hatch. Searched for more info. Tried and failed to scuttle the ship.

So I tethered the ship to an asteroid, stole their shuttle, and set a course for a long-range communications array. Eros was the closest.

Still had a mission to complete, didn't I?

*

It took me three weeks to get to Eros in that shuttle. No Epstein drive. No fusion torch. No comms. Just good old-fashioned combustion, some lucky orbital mechanics, and a lot of inertia.

Not that I was awake for any of it.

I slept through that entire three weeks trip. Didn’t even get up to piss. Praise be to the wandering soul of Epstein for pre-installed flight plans.

Yeah, I sound calm about it now, but believe me I was not nearly this level-headed about it when I first woke up.

I remember thinking, I’m so fucked.

I’d known I had the bug a few hours after I escaped from the ship - the weird glowing veins was a major tip-off - but waking up in the shuttle after that little coma was when I really knew.

The navigation screen showed I was still half a day from Eros. I’d seen how the thing had swallowed everyone on board that ship. I knew I had it. Mission be damned, I knew I needed to stay away from people.

That was when I saw him.

He was sitting just like you are now, in front of me. Unlike you though, he had to squat on the command console and, believe me, he should not have fit.

I was still strapped to the console, the crash couch material holding me in.

At first, I thought I’d finally gotten spacer madness. You know it happens more often than we’d like to think out here in the black. Science and the history of torture say that humans can’t handle isolation for too long. Failure to thrive and all that. Apparently, for some people, the brain’s solution to isolation is to create a person to talk to.

I thought Dave was that person. My imaginary friend. I wasn’t happy about going mad, but I was glad for the company.

I did wonder why Dave and not someone I knew better - but well, how do you argue with the mind of a mad woman?

He had the same generous face. Dave with his curly pony-tail, his half-unbuttoned jumpsuit, the shiny boots, and that shirt he always wore under his jumpsuit, the cartoon one with the lucky blue bird. He didn’t look like a ghost. He looked solid and healthy, the way he’d looked before I’d picked him for The Scopuli.

He leaned in towards me. He was close enough to touch, but I knew better than to try.

Your work is important. The information you have, he told me, is important. You need to finish the mission.

More important than people’s lives? I asked him. Stop talking like my father. If I go to Eros and I spread it there, one and a half million people will die.

He shook his head. Get the info to the right people and it will stop the death of billions. You saw the video logs. That was only one of many samples.

That was true. I had managed to hack one of the ship consoles and I had seen the logs before I’d escaped. There were many more samples. My father had always been ambitious.

Hey, everything will be fine, he told me. You’re not contagious - you’re not bleeding or coughing up anything. You can still get help. You can survive this.

I had sealed myself into an environment suit before escaping into the shuttle. The e-suit that protected me from the coldness of space, would also protect everything else from me. Just gotta keep the suit on.

Send up a flag, get some help, he said. You work for the smartest people in the system.

That’s right, I replied. It was a relief to remember I still had friends who were not dead. It was relief to think I still could be saved. It was a relief to think of you. They’ll figure something out.

No comms on this shuttle, he reminded me.

Eros will, I reminded him.

I thought I was talking to myself.

***

When we docked on Eros, I kept the suit on.

I followed Dave through the casino levels of Eros, past the flashing neon lights, the tired women dancing in g-strings, the show fight areas where men pummeled each other as the crowd roared. Then we got on the tube system and took the train to the bad neighborhood.

It was Dave’s idea.

That should have been my first clue. I’d never been to Eros. If it had been up to me, I would have gotten lost in the casino levels. But Dave seemed to know where everything was.

Just a little further, he coaxed when I wanted to lie on the ground of the moving train. It’s not secure, he warned when I stopped next to the rental communication consoles. Keep away from everyone, he told me when I stared too long at the stop labeled Hospital. You don’t know who’s working for your father.

I wasn’t feeling so hot by then. My imaginary friend seemed to be thinking clearer than I was. So I followed him.

I followed him straight down to the heart of Eros.

The flophouse looked like any other dark, dingy abode for the guilty and people down on their luck. The lobby was unmanned and occupied only by a self check-in desk. A place like this meant there would be no human interaction; a woman could rent a room here and live in it for years, and no one would know she’d died until her credit stopped working or her body started stinking up the corridors, whichever came first. It was perfect.

The room we got was small but serviceable. You saw it when you came in, nothing but the bare essentials: A bed against the wall, LED lights, an old entertainment set, and this bathroom we’re in.

When Dave stepped into the room for the first time, he looked - peaceful. At last, he said. The work begins.

Then he glowed blue and flickered out of existence.

I freaked out.

Fred will have to pay the full replacement fee for the room. Sorry about all the cracked screens and broken lights - but I wanted to be sure I starved it. It feeds on radiation.

I’d offer to pay but you have more credits to your name now than I do. No, that wasn’t a dig - look, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought that up.

I’m glad you’re here. Really.

I’m glad you got my message. That you’re the one who came to get me.

Me too. Of course I do.

Are you sure? The suit is probably the only thing keeping you and everyone else on Eros safe.

Not sure, but that blue glowing goo was everywhere. I must have touched some.

You’re sure you’ll be safe?

Yeah, of course I do. Of course.

You promise?

Alright, give me a moment. No, you’re right, don’t touch me yet, it’s too dangerous.

I’ve forgotten how long I’ve been in this suit. I’ll need your help getting back into it once I’m out.

There.

Ah.

Should have known. Stupid girl.

Fred Johnson wouldn’t have sent someone as essential as you.

And you definitely wouldn’t have left your post.

Not for me, at least.

*

I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was brave. I thought I was willing to give up everything.

Was I lying to myself?

I don’t want to die alone.

***

I must have been brave once.

***

So let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about a stupid girl who thought she could fight a monster and live.

This rented flophouse room is empty but for me, and I speak aloud into silence. It’s been weeks and weeks; they’re not coming. I am starving, but I do not eat. I am feverish, but I do not call for help. I drink and drink. The heat makes it hard to breathe; I only feel like myself again by lying here on the floor of the shower, in a puddle of stale, rationed water and my own filth.

Yesterday, I found something growing on my back.

I am not alone.

And sometimes when the light flickers the way it’s flickering now, I lose myself.