After this, a few editing passes and then I’ll toss it into the lap of my copyeditor. I wonder if she’ll want to do business with me after this. I wouldn’t.
At the bottom of a well. That’s how it felt; during those times he could feel. It would be too hot then too cold. Sometimes there were faint voices yelling down into the well. Only the darkness stayed the same. Time passed; the well abided.
At one point he thought there was a voice that was whispering. He couldn’t tell what was being said, only that it seemed important. A name? There was more darkness then more yelling: Mexican-inflected Spanish. Impossible, he thought. They’re all…
He opened his eyes. It was bright, so he quickly narrowed them to a squint. Pain was everywhere but he seemed not to mind. That meant either morphine or fentanyl.
“Medico?” he heard some woman say. A more Spanish than Mestizo face with a bushy black mustache appeared over him.
“Cómo te sientes?” the mustache asked.
“How do I feel?” he managed with a croak. “Like a man cheated from death.”
Mustache leaned back. He was wearing a white coat so must be the doctor.
“Do you know where you are?” the doctor asked in perfect but clipped English.
“Let me try again, simpler: do you know who you are?”
“I’m…” he recalled the whisper. “My name is Orloff.”
“Then, Señor Orloff, allow me answer my own question: you and less than ten others were fished from the sea, just east of here, and brought to this hospital, Tampico General.”
My name is not ‘Orloff,’ he recalled with a start. And why did anyone survive? Worst of all, why did I?
There was something wet on the right side of his face. The pain that radiated from his entire left side never changed.
“Medico, el paciente está llorando.” The woman’s voice again. I am? Impossible. I’ve not cried since…
“What…” he cleared his throat, which hurt, and tried again, “what is my condition?”
He could just see the doctor narrow his eyes a little. Shouldn’t have pitched that as a command; dammit.
“Bad, but you will live,” he replied. He suspects. “Your left leg below the knee is gone as is your entire left arm. Your left eye is burnt out and you are covered in scar tissue. The state will bear your expenses for only a week more. Our social services will try to find you a place where you can live out what little time is left in what pain you have.”
He saw the doctor glance at his watch.
“I’ve other patients to attend to, mister Orloff,” he said, “but can you tell me what happened? None of the other eight have yet to awake.”
“I was on a ship; a cruise ship,” the best lies were half-lies. “I was a rating in the engine room. We were told we had some special passengers aboard, that they chartered the entire ship. At nightfall I’d just gone topside for a smoke…”
He closed his eyes. The fire up and down his left was getting worse.
“There… there was a bright light in the sky just a little starboard of us,” he took a breath. “Then I woke up here.”
“Veo,” the doctor said before turning and leaving. ‘Orloff’ reopened his eyes.
“How bad you pain?” the nurse asked, finally stepping into view. Middle-aged and chunky, she did have a caring face.
I would call this a seven out of ten, but… “I’m fine right now, gracias.”
She smiled and moved his right hand so he could feel the remote with the call button. It would have to be my right, from now on… Once she was gone, he sighed.
“What went wrong?” he asked to the ceiling.
“Chicom engineering,” came the immediate reply. From a voice he was learning to hate.
He looked about. The monitor to his right – there was a window to the left – let its image dissolve until the youthful, sociopathic face of the hacker, Thaad, looked out at him.
“There are recording devices in this room,” the youth began, “I’m spoofing the visual signal to make it look as if you’re sleeping. If you move too much the response from the tele leads might spook them.”
“Chicom engineering?” Barrett asked. “The rod failed?”
“Not entirely,” was Thaad’s reply. “They did not have enough of an ablative nosecone; it burned away just before impact leading to a touchdown about a klick from you.”
“Are there any other survivors besides us eight?”
“Not that I am aware of.”
“Kill us. Right now.”
“I cannot. It would violate what I am.”
“’Violate…?! What the hell are you talking about! Twenty-five hundred is okay with you but eight in hospital triggers your conscience? Fuck you and fuck that!” He fought to catch his breath. “If you won’t, then as soon as I’m mobile, I will.”
“With a declaration such as that, Orloff,” Thaad’s voice took on an edge, “I can have them take off your other arm and leg, rendering you harmless in what little time you’ve left.”
Barrett had a very good idea of what the presumed basement-dwelling coder could do, so relented.
“Do you know who the other eight are?” he asked.
“Only one. Like you, he was crew, not a guest.”
“From what the doctor said, in about a week they are going to give me a bottle of oxycotin and toss me out the door. Me. Dying on the streets of Mexico. There’s closure for you!”
“I cannot allow that,” was the simple retort.
“Why can’t you let me die, you annoying child?” he breathed.
“Because you are alive for a reason,” Thaad replied, just a little louder. “I and my family know – know, mister Orloff – that there are no such things as coincidences. You are alive for a reason and we want to see what that reason is.”
His family? From their conversations Barrett knew he’d mentioned them in passing. Were they all as… odd… as he is?
“So I’m to put on a show for you and yours?” His laugh sounded more like a death-rattle. “The last act of a man who is already dead? Tragedy, then; not comedy.”
The fire in his left was getting worse. He might actually have to push the call button. But this first.
“So what next? When does the curtain rise?” he asked thought now-gritted teeth.
“I have consulted with my brother about your medical condition,” Thaad explained, oblivious or not caring of Barrett’s suffering. “You will extradited to the Republic of Texas for initial rehab at what is left of the Texas Medical Center in Houston. After that you will be moved to College Station, to the Texas A&M College of Engineering, Office of Robotics. There you will be fitted with prosthetics we are shipping from overseas.”
“That… that’s a lot of paperwork and money,” Barrett managed, his thumb over the button.
“One of my sisters shall handle the paperwork. If I can commandeer an orbiting battle station, money is of little mind to me.”
Barrett pushed the button to summon the nurse for more pain meds.
“Before she gets here,” Thaad said, knowing everything, “I shall tell you just one more time: Clive Barrett is dead. Your name is Orloff. Cross that line and our commitment to you ends.”
The screen faded to its hospital management software just as the pleasant, fat nurse came back in.
“Señor?” she asked.
For the first time in years, he spoke the truth.
“I’m hurt; please help me.”