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Author: Madeleine Roux
Publisher: Ace Books, 2019

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Rosalyn Devar is on the run from her famous family, the bioengineering job she's come to hate, and her messed-up life. She's run all the way to outer space, where she's taken a position as a "space janitor," cleaning up ill-fated research expeditions. But no matter how far she goes, Rosalyn can't escape herself. After too many mistakes on the job, she's given one last chance: take care of salvaging the Brigantine, a research vessel that has gone dark, with all crew aboard thought dead.

But the Brigantine's crew are very much alive--if not entirely human. Now Rosalyn is trapped on board, alone with a crew infected by a mysterious parasitic alien. The captain, Edison Aries, seems to still maintain some control over himself and the crew, but he won't be able to keep fighting much longer. Rosalyn and Edison must find a way to stop the parasite's onslaught... or it may take over the entire human race.



Rosalyn had endured disappointing birthdays before, but never one in ankle-deep corpse sludge.

She shifted her boots out of the reddish muck, swallowing hard as her feet suctioned to the floor. The job got more familiar but not easier. Never easier. And this was way beyond skin slippage, this was putrefaction on a level she had never seen before in person. Digital images just didn't capture it, really. The microscopic bacteria on the bodies were having a field day, turning once soft but decidedly human humans into a soup as dark and hideous as black gut blood, the kind of blood one never wanted to see squirt out of anything. But now she had to look at it.

Now it was her job.

Witnessing autopsies paled in comparison. Rosalyn closed her eyes tightly, feeling an unwelcome roiling in her stomach. The first time she saw a corpse cut open, she had excused herself from the cold, sterile lab to vomit. At private school, during dissection week, she had ducked out of the lab and away from the fetal pig on a tray and into the lavatory, swiping a bit of perfume under her nose; the smell of formaldehyde made her sick. She had to train herself to forget that sour taste in her mouth, to refocus away from the disgusting reality of decomposition, and turn instead toward one simple fact.

These had all been people once, people with families, and those families deserved answers and some small remnant of the deceased to bury. Dignity, somehow, would be fished out of this... this... Rosalyn opened her eyes but decided not to finish her thought.

The heavy vacuum canister on her back was already full, and she made her way along the edge of the ship's cargo hold toward the giant containment crate labeled HAZARDOUS, with its bright yellow plastic and two dozen warning stickers.

She turned down the environmental volume on her sealed suit, desperate not to hear the sound of her own boots sloshing through the remains of ten dead crew. Her coworkers. Distantly. She didn't know any of them, not really, but she recognized a few of the names on the manifest, people she had heard called over the intercom back at the Merchantia Solutions campus. Tate Alonso, Adey Tyrol, Ji Gimble...

"At least they caught the bastard."

"What?" Rosalyn shouted back. She adjusted the volume on her helmet with the LED panel attached to her suit's wrist, and spun to find her living coworker, Owen Cardew, staring back at her with wide eyes. Tapping the side of her head, she frowned. "Sorry, I went silent."

Owen nodded and joined her in the cargo hold, wading into the horror seeping across the corrugated floor. "They caught him. He's in custody. Sick fuck jacked the heat all the way up after he dumped the bodies in here."

"Yeah. That explains a lot," Rosalyn muttered. The raw truth of a body could be horrible. It could be beautiful, too, she thought, but lately she was just seeing the horrible parts. She had accepted the crew and ship salvaging job so abruptly that it took a while for the reality of the assignment to really sink in. Now it was sinking in, and hard. She closed her eyes again for a moment, then drew in a long, shaky breath and detached the vac from her suit, transferring the remains into the yellow containment bin. With hours of work ahead of them, she felt the creep of exhaustion start in her limbs. Irritating little lights twinkled in front of her eyes, a headache brewing, the cruel reminders that she was a ship ride and an hour-long shower away from a stiff drink.

It could be worse, she insisted, it could be like her second assignment, when a research vessel employee foolishly brought their cat aboard, and the thing had hidden in a vent until it died. After the ship returned, it had been Rosalyn's job to crawl into the narrow space and clean out the carcass. Her coworkers insisted it wasn't hazing, but they all had a good chuckle while she crammed her body into the vent.

"Happy birthday to me," she murmured, turning back to the job.

"You're not serious." Owen snorted and then sagged, pausing with the suction nozzle on his vacuum just above the pool of decomposed bodies. "Oh God, you are serious. It's your birthday? And you're here? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I'm newish on campus, don't really have many friends yet. Didn't want to just sit around in the canteen being lonely, you know? Seemed sad."

"Sadder than this?" Owen turned away with a shake of his head. "If you don't win employee of the month, I'll bloody call for a strike."

"Thanks," Rosalyn said. It was mostly true, the no friends. The fear of being alone. Alone with her thoughts, or alone with a bottle of booze and then shortly thereafter passed out, deep asleep and far away from her waking thoughts.

"Any big plans after this?" he asked. "For the birthday, I mean."

"Oh. No. Just a hot shower, I think. A really, really long one. Never do much on my birthday, anyway. It's right next to Christmas, so usually it just got rolled over into the holidays."

"Bullshit. You should get double gifts. Your friends are cheap." Owen snorted.

Rosalyn managed a flimsy laugh but said nothing else. It wasn't her friends that insisted on the combination birthday and Christmas, but her family. The only person that ever paid much attention to her birthday was her best friend and best workmate, Angela Kerwin, who insisted on taking her out each year. They shared a birthday, though Angela was several years older. And they shared an addiction to work, though they relaxed their strict schedules on that one day a year, when they celebrated their birthday together. The Faubourg Sky Tower with its rooftop bar. They would sip lemon drops and watch the ships departing Earth, flashing toward the stars in tiny red blinks. Angela always stopped her before the night spiraled out into dancing or karaoke.

"Thanks, Mom," Rosalyn would tease, and then they would walk downtown to look at all the dazzling Christmas lights. Angela's last message had arrived a month ago. "I'm going to keep sending these until you ping me back," it said. "I know you're angry, but at me, too? Come on, Rozzy, I miss you. I want to tell you about everything I'm doing out here. It's wild. These samples... Your head would spin if you saw them. If we're right, we're going to change medicine forever. Okay, okay, I love you. Reach out."

"Well," Owen sighed. "Captain Murder Ship certainly isn't going to win employee of the month anytime soon." His vacuum whirred, then jammed, and he leaned down to pry a chunk of femur out of the hose. She couldn't help but watch him do it, so casual, like picking a booger, flicking it away. Not that she would do any differently, but still, it made her freeze. "Can you believe it? He just snapped. Went completely mental and did in his entire crew... They found him in a titty bar on Tokyo Bliss Station. Said he had no idea who he was or what he had done. Yeah. I'll fucking bet. Loser."

"Nobody just snaps," Rosalyn replied. She pretended to fuss with her vacuum, no longer so keen on doing the work. No, nobody snapped. There were always signs. A short temper here. A barked insult there. A strange, dark blankness in the eyes, colder than the black void of space. Shark eyes. Inhuman eyes. Blame and shame, but always soothed with an apology. Tearful I love yous after the rage.

"Dunno, he had a squeaky-clean record," Owen continued. That didn't matter either, Rosalyn knew. He lifted the barrel of the vacuum hose up to his curved, clear visor and looked down it with one eye closed. His was a face for smirking, and the smile lines carved around his mouth and wrinkling at his eyes aged him. Certainly the work aged him, too. Rosalyn had spied more than one gray hair in the mirror since starting with Merchantia.

"I looked into it. Couldn't help it, really. Morbidly fascinating, that stuff, don't you think? Makes you wonder... could I do that? Could I kill ten people and then go on holiday?"

"Let's hope not, Owen, we are alone on this ship."

"Right. Yes. Purely hypothetical, Devar. I'm one of the good ones, nothing like this psycho..."

She listened absently to his assessment of the captain, and to his wild conjecturing. There were worse people to do a job with. Owen never went too far with the dark jokes, always stopping just short of something truly disgusting, and he had no problem filling the silence with information about his hobbies, his family, his grievances big and small. His wife and little boy lived on Tokyo Bliss Station, but he had put in for a transfer back to Earth, he just needed the money to get them there, and he had a little wrinkle-faced dog called Barry that farted itself awake every night and howled at him over long-distance video calls. The ringtone for his wife on his personal VIT monitor was some hideous new "Sexy Sadie" cover by the Late Nodes. Owen wore a newer model of the Vital Information Transmitter, silvery blue, one released specifically to celebrate Earth's space travel tercentenary. Tokyo Bliss Station marketing reps were pushing a huge retro culture package, rolling out 1960s kitsch by the freighter-load, hoping to drum up some nostalgia for the moon landing. Their new interactive video game deck was all about humanity going to the stars for the first time, a real tercentenary extravaganza. Rosalyn couldn't avoid the ads for it on her VIT, but she did avoid it on the station, even if it coincided with her first trip to the stars when she took the Merchantia job.

The Late Nodes blared through the hold now, interrupting Owen's close inspection of his equipment. He swore under his breath, stumbling back over to the containment bin while giving Rosalyn a sheepish glance.

"Take it," she said. "I won't tell."

The Late Nodes droned on about the world waiting for Sadie. Their take was darker, throatier, leaving behind the upbeat sway of the original.

"Darling, you know I'm at work..."

Rosalyn decided not to fire up her vacuum and interrupt the call, and she gave them privacy, shuffling carefully through the cargo hold toward the opposite end, away from the big bay doors. They had set up a low, temporary barrier to keep the remains from leaking out into the hall any more than they already had. She turned down the volume on her environmental suit again, determined not to hear their sweet, mundane exchange. It reminded her too painfully of things left far behind, on Earth, memories that she kept out of view but never seemed to outrun.

Her mother, Shireen, still called every day. When are you coming home?

On the rare occasions Rosalyn picked up, she'd just say, "Soon" and "I miss you" and "No, don't tell Dad I say hi." Because I don't.

Her ankle bumped something hard floating in the water. The extreme heat and time had all but liquefied the victims, but this thing bobbing in the muck was noticeably intact. Rosalyn squinted down at the small, blue tube in the pool of grayish red and crouched, fishing it out and wiping away the staining fluids.

There was a painful flash in her brain, a feeling like the sun searing across her eyes, and an even worse nagging sense that she knew what she was looking at. Sure, the small canister resembled any number of lab substances she had worked with in her previous life, but this bothered her. Her memory had gotten worse, alarmingly worse, since the drinking started. Maybe that was the point, she had thought in the midst of yet another hangover at Merchantia HQ.

Rosalyn stood and studied the tube, then reluctantly raked her eyes across the covered floor of the cargo hold. Together, she and Owen had put together an audio report of everything they found aboard the science vessel, a record that would later be used for company purposes and the inevitable charges against the rogue captain. The forensics team had already been through, though their stay was brief; this would all be settled out of court, the families hushed up with fuck-you money from Merchantia. Outer space lab work was, naturally, dangerous, and the NDAs they had signed were biblical in length. The murders wouldn't make a blip in the Tokyo Bliss Station or Earth headlines. A small article would be put out in the company newsletter. Just an outlying incident. Nothing to panic over.

During the walk-through, she and Owen had noted that the killer had emptied the cargo hold completely, dragging out the storage and supply crates and piling them in the hall, then sealing his poor murdered crewmates inside. The spare crates had been used to barricade the door, which was nonsense, since the magnetic seal was more than capable of keeping lifeless bodies inside.

She thought again of those heaped boxes. The captain had been alone on the ship with his deeds until the ship neared Tokyo Bliss Station and he could safely jettison in an emergency pod. What must he have felt, left in the cold, dark silence, with nothing but his dead crew and his crimes for company? Even the onboard AI Servitor, a kind of helper robot, had been deactivated and tossed into the hold, as if even lifeless, mechanical eyes were too cruelly accusing.

The boxes. Why push them up against the doors that way? The crew were all certainly dead, but maybe, Rosalyn thought, just maybe, the captain was still afraid and wanted to make sure whatever was in the cargo lock didn't get out. Perhaps he hadn't barricaded them in out of guilt, but fear.

Copyright © 2019 by Madeleine Roux


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