Vermin Control

Tim Lees

Illustration by Richard Wagner

She takes the lower access route, down into the belly of the ship, where the lights are kept on half-power and the AC dribbles into little pools that splash and shiver, throwing their reflections on the walls.

Within an hour, the screams will start.

She mustn’t call them that.

Officially, they’re nothing. Just a glitch, a bug in the mechanics; the squeal and grind of moving parts, down deep in the machinery.

To Jenny Xu, they’re screams.

They’re like the whole ship crying out for help, an awful, plaintive sound.

She has an hour, still.

She chose this route deliberately. Part way along, the floor changes to glass, and the stars just drop away below, a spattering of light that falls into the dark, on and on, forever.

Here, at the window’s edge, she sets down her equipment. She stands. She takes a breath, loosens her shoulders, limbers up. Stretches her arms and points her toes, then steps into the void.

One pace. Two. Then sideways, back.

She leaps into the air, arms wide, and lands without a sound.

Here, here – dancing on the face of Heaven.

Dancing with the universe below.

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Her function isn’t advertised. Like the screams, she can’t exist, officially.

Yet here she is.

Lucas greets her, down on level 3. He’s grown his beard again. It’s like a mask for him to hide behind.

His face is pinched and wan.

‘I mean,’ he says, ‘you think: to me, it’s only two months. But to her, it’s like a whole year. Or, you know. Close enough.’

‘Luc,’ she says. ‘I just got here…’

‘Sorry, sorry. I know.’ He looks about, like he’s mislaid something. ‘It’s on my mind a lot, that’s all, I can’t stop thinking—’

Lucas doesn’t trust his wife. He worries with an absolute, obsessive dedication, running through scenarios, trying to picture where she’s been, and who she’s met, and what she’s done – a hundred different ways she might abandon him.

He works down here. Too long alone.

‘You need some therapy,’ she says.

‘You think?’

He leads her in between the big machines, slipping sideways when the path gets narrow. ‘But if I do, then it’s on record.’


‘And somebody—’ he says.

But he doesn’t say the obvious: that it could kill his next promotion, or his next job, or that he needs the money.

Instead, he whispers, ‘Someone could call someone back at home. And tell them how things are.’

His face is deadly serious.

‘And why would anyone do that?’ she says.

‘A man, I mean. I mean a man.’


‘And they could go and see her. He’d say it was official, first off. An official visit. So she’d ask him in. And then…’

He stops walking.

She stops, too.

‘Luc,’ she says. ‘If you don’t trust her, why d’you marry in the first place?’

‘Oh. I—’

He stands a moment, waiting. But the answer doesn’t come.

He indicates the black specks, scattered on the floor. Tiny, dry, each one slightly elongated.

‘Seeds?’ he asks. ‘They look like seeds.’

‘Don’t eat them, Luc.’

‘I wasn’t going to! Just, I thought they looked like seeds…’

‘You do eat here though, don’t you? Lunches, snacks?’

It’s not a designated eating place.

‘Um. Maybe…’

‘And store food, too?’ She adds, ‘I won’t report it.’


She grins at him. ‘You got mice, Luc. Mice, that’s all.’

‘Space mice?’

‘No. Just mice.’

She opens up her carrier.

His face falls: disappointed now.

So ordinary, so mundane.

‘You know,’ she says, ‘they reckon it’s the ancient Greeks brought cockroaches from Africa to Europe. On sailing ships. If they did that, just think what we’re moving around, huh?’

She sorts through her supplies.

‘Poison or traps? Lethal?’

‘What do you recommend?’

‘I don’t know. You want thirty, forty pet mice?’



‘Well, anyway,’ he says.


‘They’re space mice now, aren’t they?’

She takes her little porta-vac to sweep the droppings.

But something strange has happened.

The droppings have all disappeared.

While they’ve been standing, talking, every single one of them has vanished into thin air.

And that’s not right, is it?

The screaming starts, as usual. Echoes. Shrieks. Like two machines, ripping the guts out of each other.

The crew are careful to ignore it.

Its source, its cause, cannot be found. It cannot be accounted for, and thus, by all official rules, and like her own job: it cannot exist.

The ship is vast. It’s Jenny’s privilege to know the parts of it that no-one else knows, go the places no-one else can go.

‘We need you to be small,’ they told her at the interview. ‘Are you small?

That’s how she knew the interviewer was neither human nor, in any likelihood, organic, and that the face on screen (young, handsome, Chinese), was almost certainly a simulation, meant to put her at her ease.

‘And are you good with animals?’ the face inquired.

‘Like, dogs and cats and stuff?’ she said.

A long pause. Then, ‘Big animals. Very big.’

‘Ah.’ She understood. ‘The ship, you mean.’

‘Yes. The ship. Are you good, Ms. Xu? Do you believe you will be good?’

She is good, yes. Or good enough.

She wouldn’t say that they were friends. The ship is much too big, too strange for that.

But there are times it whispers to her.

And she dreams.

She dreams about a place where she has never been, a world of tall red mesas and a big sky full of stars. There are buildings here, though very few are finished. Skeleton towers, a frame and a few floors, not even a roof. And in the foreground, on a pile of bones, there stands an ugly, cartoon mouse, waving his arms, declaiming in a furious, dictator’s oratory. Spit jumps from his front teeth. His big snout droops like a leaky balloon while he yammers and cries out, one hand jabbing at the air.

His words make no sense, but his rage, his hurt, is palpable.

She wakes.

‘Space mice?’

Her hand goes to the bulkhead at her side. It’s warm to the touch. ‘What are you telling me?’ she asks.

The ship says nothing back.

She knows the unseen places. She knows the crawlspace by tech alley, and the blind spots in the forward basin. She knows the places half the crew don’t even know exist.

And it’s here, hidden away, she finds the nests. The swarms. The colonies.

Not mice, this time. The mice are localized; the mice are Luc’s problem.

Not mice. Not even animals.

She put in a report about them, early on. The message came back loud and clear: don’t worry. Then, a second time: forget it.

But they show up on her scans. They crawl and fidget, down there in the cracks, between the pipes and the panelling, in places even she can hardly reach: these little creatures made of dust and floor sweepings, shed hair and cast-off skin cells. Some look like small homunculi, a few (she swears) mimic the crew members, and one, sat moping in a corner by itself, she christens Lucas. That’s a joke, of course. Ha ha. She zaps it with her wand. It crumples up, devolves into component parts: some hair, some string, debris and grime. A smell of burning pricks the air.

Some look like animals. A few are simply blobs, or multi-limbed, or tiny, intricate machines made out of dirt.

They’re not alive. They’re aggregates of waste and scrap, animated by the ship’s electric field. Yet their exact nature remains a mystery.

Parasites, perhaps? Waste products…?

And then it comes to her.

It’s simple.

They’re the ship’s neuroses.

They’re its phobias and fixations, given shape and form.

Here, alone, in space.

As she is. As they all are.

Alone, with emptiness in all directions.

Lucas tries to smile. His mouth pulls sideways, crinkles, struggling to remember how it’s done.

‘I didn’t know that you could dance.’

‘I’m not very good.’

‘Looks good to me.’

‘Don’t get ideas.’

‘I – I’m not. Oh, God. But I keep thinking—’

‘You know,’ she says. ‘Perhaps you should have kept the mice. Therapy animals. They might have done you good.’

‘Don’t joke.’ His face is creased in pain. ‘I could laugh about it once, you know. I could. But that was weeks ago. To her it’s months. I send her messages. I say, I love you, though I don’t know if I do. Not really. And there’s nothing in return. Just nothing.’

‘We’ve no fixed point. Of course there’s no reply.’

‘I know, I know. But—’

She checks the traps.

They’re empty, every one.

‘Have you opened these?’

He shakes his head.

‘Has anyone swept here? Anyone?’

No more droppings, either.

‘Is someone else doing my job?’

She dreams of him again.

The mouse, high on his hill of bones.

He wears trousers, pantaloons in gaudy yellow, and suspenders, fastened with gigantic, cartoon buttons. He rants and shakes his fist, pronounces nonsense with the passion and ferocity of holy writ.

She wakes again, and thinks, once more: the mice? But why the mice?

And then it starts.

She bears no title on the upper decks. No uniform. She wears a suit in burgundy and cream, as if she were another tourist (‘guest’ is the official term). Her instruments are small enough to carry in a large, mock-leather purse. She must cause no alarm, no sense of anything amiss.

There is no ‘vermin control’. Not on the upper decks. Because if there were, then that would mean – ah. Yes.

The officer escorting her chats prettily in public earshot, waves his hand towards the windows, and the heavens beyond. Silent, unending, with neither up nor down. A gas cloud spans the view like some enormous, cantilevered bridge, steadily melting in the void.

‘Domestics found it,’ says the officer, whispering now. ‘We upgraded the guests, moved their things. They don’t know. They were told they’d won a lottery.’ He gives a brief, somewhat embarrassed smile. They reach the door. He puts his thumb against the plate. ‘We’ve kept it locked since, obviously.’ He looks around. This is a public quarter, after all; too easy to be overheard. The door slides back, and with a brief touch on the shoulder, he urges her inside. The cabin lights come up. The door closes behind.

It’s a double cabin, ten times the size of Jenny’s little closet. She knows people at home who can’t afford a space like this. They’d get dizzy looking at it.

The gas cloud is still visible, beyond the observation port. There’s a sofa and a desk and a couple of screens, and a fold-down bed in the wall.

Someone’s sitting on the sofa. Legs out, head just nodding, on and on, like some peculiar kind of children’s toy. He makes a little grunting sound, in rhythm to the moves: ‘Uh. Uh. Uh.’

Jenny throws the officer a look.

He says, ‘Go closer.’

But she can see this isn’t right.

It’s not a person. Not a real person, at least. The cabin lights are soft, but the shadows fall across him wrongly, and there’s something odd about the folds of his pyjamas, and his face, she realises, isn’t in the shadow, as she’d first thought. There’s something dark across his cheekbone, making it look hollow where it should protrude.

‘Harmless,’ says the officer. ‘So far.’

She walks around until she stands in front of it. There’s a flicker of movement, and she steps back, without really knowing why. Only then, it strikes her that the eyes moved. They looked at her.

She blinks. She reaches out a hand, feeling for support. A wave of panic slides up from her belly, tightens in her chest.

She has to force herself to breathe. To calm. To rationalize.

It didn’t look at her. It can’t have done. The eyes move, yes, but one eye is the switch out of a wall-lamp, and the other is a bud from the artificial flowers in the vase beside the door.

It’s aware of her position, but it hasn’t seen her.

No eyes.

It’s made of dust and fluff and household waste, of human hair and dead skin cells, and here and there she sees its insides, more robust, built from a broom handle, a strip of plastic off the countertop, the glint of cutlery and broken plates, the dark stripe on the face identified now as the backpiece from a personal phone.

It bends its legs. Sets garbage-feet down square onto the floor. Then, with a lurch, it stands, swaying gently, to and fro.

It’s like a middle-aged man. The belly’s bloated, sagging, and the face appears to melt into the chest, without a neck.

It stands there, rocking on its heels, and its non-eyes twitch, move back and forth, to her, then to the officer, and back to her.

She says, ‘It looks like the tenant.’

‘How d’you know?’

‘Oh. Lucky guess.’

Forget the size, she thinks. Forget the shape. Forget it looks like somebody who had a ticket for the place. It’s not a man. It lifts a hand in greeting, but it’s not a hand, it’s just a mass of rubbish shaped into a hand.

From her bag, she takes the wand. She checks the charge in it.

‘You might call housekeeping,’ she says.

She goes closer. The thing swivels its head. It seems to look at her. It’s slow and clumsy. It doesn’t move the way a person would, as if it’s fixed together wrongly, all the joints just slightly out, somehow.

There is a smell, a tingle in the air.

She checks the charge again, just to be sure, then puts the wand against its chest, and flicks the switch.

It seems to groan. It’s just the sound of the materials shifting, caving in, she thinks; but it still sounds like a groan. The chest comes open, the head drops down into the cavity. The arms lift, as in surprise. The eyes look up at her, and an expression of bewilderment abruptly skews its features.

She touches it again – twice, three times. By then, it doesn’t look the least bit like a man. It twitches, and she zaps it, zaps it till it’s gone.

Soon there’s just a heap of objects lying on the floor, covered in dust.

‘Is that it?’ asks the officer. He’s kept his distance.

‘Just needs sweeping up. You call?’

‘I, um, I wanted to be sure you’d fixed it, first.’

‘All fixed.’ She gives a smile she can’t feel.

Still he stands there, and he doesn’t call, until she spells it out. ‘The field’s dispersed. Inert, right?’ Then, ‘It’s dead, you know?’

‘I found it in the conduit,’ says Lucas. ‘I thought it was a ball. Then, when I got it out…’

It’s a white sphere, big across as a man’s hand. He’s propped it on the lip of the garbage chute, as if to dump it quickly, should he feel the need. She sees the surface isn’t smooth, but made from countless interlocking pieces, like some complex piece of sculpture. It might be marble, or limestone…

‘It’s bones,’ he says.

She picks it up. It’s light as a balloon. Her fingers trace the surface, reading it like Braille.

‘Mouse bones,’ he says.

The little white sticks, immaculately clean, are tangled up in such a way that nothing in the sphere can move, there’s no give, no shift, no little click of bone on bone.

It’s perfect, beautiful, and dead.

‘So that’s where all the mice went, then,’ she says.

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She steps into the void. The stars shine under her.

She does a turn. Goes up on points, skitters a few steps, lifts her arms, lowers herself—

The screaming starts.

Earlier, today.

Earlier, and louder.

The mouse isn’t a mouse.

It struts and blusters. It moves like Groucho Marx, bent over, one arm up behind its back. It wears a frock coat, like some horrible Victorian paterfamilias, and its cartoon snout lifts, sniffing at the air, then wrinkles like an old glove.

But she can see: the face has taken on a different look. Still shadowy, uncertain, yet almost human now. Human, like the crew, the passengers – the guests.

She wakes, but with a nervous, empty feeling down inside. Her fingers touch the bulkhead, and it trembles at her touch.

The first man dies.

No-one knows why.

Lucas tells her, ‘Systems failure.’

‘That’s not possible.’

‘I got a look at the report, before they took it down.’

‘What report?’


‘I’m asking. What report?’

‘It was on screen, for maybe five, ten minutes. Now it’s gone. Guest’s in the cabin, door sealed, air’s not replenished. By the time he realizes, it’s too late. He tries to get the door open, can’t budge it. He’s probably delirious from lack of oxygen. Alarm won’t sound, door won’t open. Communication’s out. End result—’

‘No,’ she says. ‘No. There’s safeguards. There’s a hundred different systems that’ll kick in first, before that happens.’

Lucas shrugs, holds up his hands. Then, though, he frowns.

‘You ever have those moments,’ he says, ‘you don’t remember where you are?’


‘Like, you’re doing something, and you realize, for maybe, three, four seconds, you actually weren’t scared, weren’t worrying, weren’t thinking of the emptiness, or things that might go wrong, or anything like that?’


‘I love those times. It’s like your mind plays tricks on you, tells you it’s normal. Safe.’

‘I know what you mean, but…’

‘It’s the only time I can relax.’ His fist is clenched. A shiver passes through him. ‘And then, the moment I’m aware of it, and I think, yes! – it’s gone. You know?’


‘And this. Something like this. Reminds you, reminds you—’

‘Luc, statistically—’

‘I want to send a message to my wife.’

His face is grey.

‘I want to send…’

His voice trails off.

‘Luc,’ she says. ‘You failed your psych test, didn’t you?’

He grits his teeth. He nods.

‘They took me anyway.’ He gives a yelp of a laugh. ‘Thought I’d gotten lucky. Though I guess they were just short of crew.’

‘Luc. I think the ship failed, too…’

And in the hour, they’re everywhere: the junkmen, the trashmen, the men made out of hair and dust and cast-off skin, with skeletons of rusty pipes and toothbrushes and plastic tubes, and the tingle that you get when you go close to them, the hum of static and the smell of ozone.

Jenny’s pager beeps. It beeps and beeps. She runs, from one call to the next, fending off questions: ‘Is it a game? What are the rules?’

Excited, happy guests stand watching, clap their hands, applaud her derring-do.

‘The rules,’ she says, ‘are, stay away!’

She waits outside the Captain’s door. She’s never seen the man. Not once, the whole voyage. It took a half a day to set up the appointment. In that time, no-one else has died, although a power oscillation on the upper decks remains both unexplained and unexcused.

She has de-animated twenty-seven trashmen, along with several smaller entities, which she regards as nascent forms.

She waits. Drinks coffee. The light over the Captain’s door goes green. The lock clicks open.

She takes a breath, stands, turns the handle.

It’s a tiny room. A broom closet. There are three chairs, fastened to the floor, with just sufficient space to slip around them and sit down. She takes the left-hand seat. Fixed to the wall there is a screen, and on the screen, a face. It’s looking down, focused on something she can’t see. Reddish, curly hair, a man of middle age with plump cheeks and a bulbous nose. But as the face looks up and seems to see her, so its features melt. It smooths, grows darker in complexion. Heavy, epicanthic folds shadow its eyes. The hair dissolves from crinkly red to glossy black. This is the face that interviewed her, months ago. It smiles, greeting a friend.

‘Hi, Jenny. How do you do?’


For a moment, she’s derailed, unable to collect her thoughts.

‘Who am I talking to?’

‘You know who.’ Again, he gives a gentle, friendly smile. ‘I’m who you say I am. The Captain. Who else?’

‘Are you the ship? Or the company?’

‘I’m both, Jenny. The ship belongs to the company. The ship, and the company, they’re both the same.’

She catches herself, trying to read its looks, then realizes, there’s no point. The face is programmed. It has no tells, no give-aways – no real humanity at all.

‘I mean,’ she says.

Another smile, each one just slightly different from the last – a change of angle, a shift of gaze – how many variations does it have, stored up, ready for use? How long before the patterns and the gestures will repeat?

‘You mean?’ it prompts.

‘I want to know who I’m talking to. I want to fix the problem. I want—’

The face frowns.

‘Problem, Jenny?’ Its voice drops half an octave. ‘No problems on Liveships. You know that.’

She opens her mouth, about to say, ‘Somebody died,’ then stops herself.

‘The ship—’ she says.

‘We are on the ship.’ The figure spreads its hands. ‘The ship is our environment. Our earth, our air. Our food and warmth. Whatever happens on the ship is right, and natural. Now.’ It folds its hands again. ‘You want to tell me something… about the ship?’


She swallows.

The face mimes curiosity.

‘It’s jealous,’ she says. ‘It’s jealous. And it’s scared.’

‘The ship is all around us. We are all part of the ship.’

‘And there’s something wrong with it.’

Her tone veers up. But she catches herself, falls silent.

The screen says, ‘Do you suggest, Ms. Xu,’ and she notes the change of address, ‘that we are in some form of danger?’

‘I think the crew are safe.’

‘Well, then.’

‘Not the passengers.’

She waits for a response, but the screen has frozen. The picture vanishes. She’s staring at her own reflection.

She stays there two, three minutes. Then stands, ready to leave.

They are on the edge of a disaster. But her next thought is a selfish, shameful one.

That’s my career, she thinks, and steps into the hall.

The next appointment’s waiting. It’s a mannequin, a dummy, and it looks just like the first she saw: a tubby, middle-aged man, on garbage legs, with dust bunnies and hair and bits of fluff, and metal piping, and a grill that might be from the air ducts, and the product out of someone’s make-up kit. The whole thing rocks there on its heels and, seeing her, its head bobs in what might, perhaps, be taken for a greeting.

There’s a change of light behind her. She looks back. In the Captain’s room, the screen has flashed to life again.

She assumes the face is watching her, although of course it’s not.

The trashman lurches forward, and she ducks out of the way.

The face on screen begins to crumble. The image falls apart, grows grainy and the colours change from dark to light and back again. The hair piles up and falls away; the lips fill out, then shrink down to a prim, grey slit.

It takes several seconds to acquire a perfect image of the trashman’s face.

The trashman stands behind the chairs, seeming to watch the screen, and they face each other, silent and unmoving.

Neither one is human.

So the second wave begins.

It starts in tiny ways, a ripple moving through the upper decks: a flicker in the light, a shiver in the corner of the eye; a vase set on a table, edging forward, like a convict looking for a chance to run.

Old snack wrappers that rise up in an unfelt breeze. A tingle in the air – a pulse, a throb, a hint of electricity.

A crewman yells out, ‘Animal in the trash!’ and something churns and thrashes in the garbage he’s about to jettison, and he and his companions dig down, frantically – but there’s no animal. There’s nothing that should move at all.

Scared half to death, a family of four hide by the sofa while a man-shape gradually assembles on the rug. Bit by bit, the debris drifts, drawn by an unseen force. It gathers and agglomerates: old socks, children’s toys, coasters and plastic forks, methodically sculpting themselves, taking on a human form.

The trashman dons the father’s clothes, tugs a jacket over lumpy arms, and shuffles off along the hall.

He nods to passers-by, tips an imaginary hat; and in the cabin now, a second, smaller figure drags itself up from the clutter and detritus, grinding and clicking, till the sounds make words: ‘Just call me Mom.’

‘Invasion!’ screams the officer.

He calls for scans, telemetry, spectrum analysis, while Jenny chases after, hissing, ‘It’s the ship!’

He yells for shielding. He checks the casualties list (bloody nose and broken arm, possible heart attack in cabin 12).

She says, ‘It isn’t an invasion!’

He strides past her. Furious, she races round in front of him, grabs his lapels, and, bouncing on her toes, she screams into his face, ‘It’s the ship! The ship, the ship, the ship!’

He looks like he’s been slapped.

‘It doesn’t like the mice,’ she tells him. ‘Or the passengers!’

His mouth comes open. ‘What…?’

‘And nor do I!’

In Fine Dining, the plates spin, cutlery whirls up and leaps, and then the whole lot crashes into one big mass, adheres, takes shape and form: a knight in armour totters down the aisle, rattling and clanking like a hundred diners all eating at once. Squat, junkyard figures elbow out the guests, gesture to menus, order up a dozen different items, picked with neither taste nor style nor decency. The plates arrive, piled high, and soon the food itself begins to smear and drift, and dwarfish little food-beasts spill onto the floor, running for the corners, vanishing down drainage pipes and ventilation ducts.

Guests panic. Some run, hide, while others grit their teeth, act like there’s nothing wrong, and try to order coffee and dessert – then flee, along with everybody else.

Jenny seeks them out. She has a handful of the crew with her. She finds people under tables and in locked rooms, one hidden in a traveller’s trunk. She hands out mops and brooms, spray-guns, disinfectant, paint – whatever she can find.

‘It’s not a game,’ she says. ‘This is your only chance.’

They stare at her.

‘You want to live, you work.’

Some argue, some resist. Some walk away. Some say the situation ‘needs to be resolved’, as if a simple change of rules could finish it.

Some fold their arms, refuse to look at her.

Some die.

They’re silly, stupid deaths, seemingly so easily avoidable: crushed by a sliding door, buried under furniture, trapped in a closet…

Silly, yes. But deaths, nevertheless.

‘It was the mice,’ she says, though no-one understands.

An image floats before her mind, haunting her: a ball of bones, so big it fills the room, with skulls and fingers, ribs and spines, tibia and fibula all interlocked: the bones of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, tied up in a tight, white knot.

This is the future. This is what she fears.

She tells them, then: the ship wants you to care for it. It wants you to be nice. From now on, you’re its groom, its chef, its make-up artist. You’re its doctor and its dentist. Keep it well, and keep it happy.

It wants that.

Or else it wants you gone.

It’s a long, slow journey towards landfall.

No more music. No more laughter.

The hallways have a gaudy, carnival look, but all in dumb show. No-one talks. Work-gangs in expensive clothes wash and paint the walls, then sweep and wash and paint again. The work itself isn’t important: only the pampering, the constant, finicky indulgence.

What does it want, the ship? What pleases it?

Their interest and attention.

Their service and their love.

When several guests decide to call a halt – as happens, two days in – and down tools for an hour, the sense of threat grows palpable. It’s like the air itself clamps down around them. Bulkheads shake. A high, sharp whistling fills the halls—

And work resumes.

Is this where they were heading all along?

A small, pink world, dotted with two or three white clouds; catalogued as Albianus 7-1, but known by its local name, ‘Shy Byron’.

There is a geostationary platform over the equator. Here they dock. Emergency procedures are initiated. Passengers are hurried from the decks, while crew stand by, praying that it won’t be too late when their own turn comes.

Jenny leans against a wall. She shuts her eyes. She feels her heart race. She’s kept them all alive. She’s stripped them of their joys, their privilege, their leisure-time. She’s spoiled their fun. But in return, the ship has let them live.

Some know this. There are words of thanks, brief nods of gratitude.

Some don’t, or won’t acknowledge it, and hurry by, sullen and resentful.

They take shuttles to the surface, where they’re met by doctors, lawyers, media crews.

‘They told us – told us to say yes, or else we’d die.’

The cameras train on haggard faces, worn and wild-eyed.

‘It was barbaric. It was – it was slavery.’

Cut to a long shot of the ship, a great, black egg against the stars.

‘They made us work,’ claims one man, fascinated and appalled, as if compelled to join some act of sheer, delirious indecency. ‘I can’t believe what we were made to do—’

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‘You fed the mice,’ says Jenny.

They are sitting on a city street, possessions piled around them, looking like beggars, or like refugees.

There has been talk of legal action, against Liveships, and the crew, and each and every one of them as individuals.

You fed the mice,’ she says again.

Luc shakes his head. ‘It was an accident! I swear!’

‘Nevertheless,’ she says, ‘you did it.’

She flexes her toes, looks at a sky alive with lights.

‘Just cookie crumbs,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t know.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ She stretches one leg, bends forward, grabs her toe. ‘Ship sees the mice get special treatment. Doesn’t like it, so it kills them. Which I think we all agree,’ she says, ‘is my job.’

‘I didn’t mean to—’

‘Then,’ she says, ‘it sees the passengers get special treatment, too.’

‘I’m not—’

‘It’s jealous. And you know how that feels, don’t you, Luc?’

She’s seen this place before. Never been here, but she’s seen it, just the same.

The buildings are much taller now. They’re finished. No more skeletons, no more scaffolding. Nothing half-built. A glance along the avenue, and she can see the mesas, red beneath a blazing sky.

‘The ship was born here. Raised on nature films and fun cartoons, like any kid. The ship’s come home.’

Luc mutters, ‘Lucky ship,’ and he, too, looks up at the sky, imagining his wife there, somewhere.

Trying not to think of what she might be doing, all the things his own dark fantasies can conjure for her life.

So Jenny stands. She stretches. Points her toes. Takes one step, two. Bends from the waist, straightens, and then springs into the air.

The gravity’s a little different here. She has to compensate for that.

She reaches down, takes Luc’s hand, pulls him to his feet.

‘Hey. Wanna dance?’

And there they are, further from home than either one has ever been, stuck on a planet neither of them knows, with no way back.

He’s clumsy at the start. But at least he doesn’t tread on her feet.

‘See,’ she says, ‘like this,’ and spins around, once, twice. ‘I’ll teach you, if you like. Do you want me to?’ ∎

Tim Lees is author of the novel Frankenstein’s Prescription (Brooligan Press) described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a philosophically insightful and literary tale of terror”, and of the “Field Ops” series for HarperVoyager: The God Hunter, Devil in the Wires and Steal the Lightning. A new story collection, The Ice Plague and other inconveniences, is due from Incunabula Media this summer. When not writing, Tim has held a wide variety of jobs, including film extra, teacher, conference organiser, lithographer, and lizard-bottler in a museum. He spent several years working on the rehab units of a psychiatric hospital, rewarding work in every way except financially. Tim is from Manchester, England, but now lives in Chicago with his wife and small dog. He Tweets as @TimLees2 and occasionally remembers to update his website at

Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the
United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine
Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training
in graphic design and illustration. For seventeen years he taught
college level graphic design and photo-illustration classes while also
freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing on being a
designer/illustrator. Richard can be contacted at:

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