Jake stared at the model of the Ham Lin. Tiny and intricate, exact in every detail to the space station as she was first built, it spun on his father’s desk. Two hundred years later, though, the wheel-like shape revolving around the red dwarf Wolfgang was no longer so elegant, no longer perfect. Lack-lustre composites had replaced most of the Rim panels, many of the silicate ports were foggy and patched, and pustules of extra transformers covered the six spokes and the two docking spindles.
“I don’t appreciate you all coming in here and ganging up on me.” Commander Tucker, the Ham Lin’s highest authority and Jake’s father, raged at the men and women crowded around his desk. “And with my own son no less!”
Don’t look at him, Jake thought adamantly. Eye contact would only make it more difficult. Better to argue with a featureless shape against a background of stars and translucent video feeds.
“Jacob Tucker is a respected member of your research labs,” Science Director Sam Eden firmly replied. “Like the rest of us, he has a vested interest in your decision.”
“Unlikely,” Commander Tucker snapped, the grey and red shape of him pacing back in forth in front of the vid screen. “This is emotional leverage and nothing more.”
“You won’t listen to reason, so what choice do we have?” Of all the Directors, Anna Jowalski, head of Security, was the most aggressive. She leaned over Commander Tucker’s desk, gloved hands splayed on the glowing surface. Lit from below by a constant stream of status updates from the station, her eyes became a toxic green. “We need a piper!”
“You need a psych evaluation,” Miriam Rose sniffed. She leaned sideways and laid a small hand on Commander Tucker’s arm. “Don’t worry about it, Gustav. Give Lam some more men to go through the ducts. They’re obviously over-worked.”
“Some more men?” Director Lam repeated. His olive features twisted in annoyance. “Do you know how many hundreds of kilometres worth of ducts, shafts, tubes and passageways there are?”
“More men,” Rose asserted. She angled her tablet toward Tucker and nodded at the screen. “As many as you need; it will still be less expensive than a piper. Just look at these estimates.” As the Financial Director, she was the most vocal in her objections to hiring a piper. It was unfortunate for the other Directors that, as Commander Tucker’s paramour, her voice rang loudest.
“Who cares about estimates?!” Jowalski drew herself up to her full height and glowered down at Tucker and Rose. “We can’t deal with an infestation on our own. We had enough trouble killing one of the things; Von Russe nearly lost an arm.”
“So there are some chewed wires.” Rose shrugged gracefully. “Hardly an infestation.”
“The point of the matter is,” Commander Tucker began, calming after Rose’s interjection, “we just can’t afford it.”
“You can’t not afford it!” Jowalski gestured sharply toward Jake. “You’ll risk seventy thousand people? Your own son? Just to save some money?”
“We’ll be the next Pax 9,” Lam added. “End up floating in space, crewed by the dead.”
“It isn’t just the money,” the Communications Director interjected. Patrick O’Neil, a square and nervous man, tugged his sleeves down his long arms. “The League presence will impact everything from the economy to our relationship with the other systems. A lot of people don’t trust the pipers.”
“For good reason,” Rose murmured. “Everyone knows they’re running a scam. They probably have ships dropping off rats in every station. Thirty days later, they get a call.”
“That’s not true.”
The Directors fell silent and turned to stare at him.
Jake firmed his chin. He could regard those men and women in their identical grey and red uniforms at least, if not his own father. One by one he looked them in the eye, seeing anger and greed. “The Interplanetary Resonant Defence League didn’t form until after rats were already destroying ships and stations. Also, there is still no safe way to contain them.” He lifted a pale eyebrow at Rose. “Any ship that tries to drop them off wouldn’t make it from one system to another.”
“Another child wanting a spectacle,” Rose sneered in return. “All of you just love the pipers, I know. But the adults are speaking now.” Her gaze crawled over him, from his lank blond hair, over his white technician’s coat, and to his dead legs sheathed in plain black trousers. His skin itched and blood rose in his face at her disgusted stare. “We’ll call you if we need to know who your favourite piper is, their favourite colour, and how many autographed holos you’ve collected.”
Fool, Jake seethed. He buried the thought, shoving the acidic hatred back down into his gut. The worst part was the silence from his own father. Commander Tucker just stood by, his broad hands smoothing the grey uniform over his large belly. Any outburst from Jake, though, would only harm their cause. They needed a piper—he needed a piper—and he would take as much abuse as he must to get one.
“We don’t have a choice.” Jowalski’s jaw swelled as she grit her teeth. “The things are bold enough get into the lighted corridors now and it won’t be long before they head toward the Rim and our main food stores. There are citizens down there! Families and children! When you get reports of starvation, diseases, and babies missing from their cribs, will you agree to calling the League?”
Rose laughed. “You’re exaggerating.”
“Lam!” He jumped as Jowalski barked his name. “Show our honoured colleague just how much we’re exaggerating.”
“Gladly.” A dented green metal toolbox rested at his feet. Lam heaved it up and dropped it onto Tucker’s desk. “It couldn’t be poisoned, suffocated, burnt, crushed, or electrocuted,” he began, his normally soft tones hardened. “We had to pin it down and cut it open. It took five of us.” The sound of the latch seemed loud in the suddenly quiet office.
“This is entirely unnecessary,” Rose started.
“Oh, but it is necessary.” Lam pried the lid up. “I don’t think you even know what a rat looks like.” He upended the box and something black and shining thudded to rest on Commander Tucker’s computer. Gobs of dark green fluid sprayed from the impact. Jake jolted when some of it speckled the back of his hand, but he refrained from doing more than calmly scrubbing it off on his knee.
“Ugh!” Rose pressed herself back against the starry screen, holding her tablet in front of her like a shield. “How dare you bring that in here?!”
“It’s dead,” Jowalski assured her. She smirked and prodded the corpse with a stylus.
The rat unrolled, the plates of its black carapace sliding smoothly together. Its underbelly sagged open, the millions of tiny, hairlike cilia quivering in the open air. Its vestigial clawed feet remained stiffly at its sides and its thin tail lay still. The eyeless head, mostly detached from the body, rested to one side, its jagged mouth open and flecked with the same green liquid that oozed from the rent in its neck.
The sight of it made Jake wonder, If this is the creature that evolved to survive on space ships and stations, then what does that say about the humans who designed and live in them?
Tucker breathed deeply. “Cosmos,” he murmured. “That’s ugly.”
“They’re even uglier when you’re alone, in the dark, and you know there are a few million in the walls around you.” Lam regarded his superior flatly. “That’s what you’re doing to my engineers.”
“Um,” O’Neil began, pointing at the rat. “Why is it—”
Rose waved him into silence and scoffed, “A million, Lam! Really.”
“On a station this size, a full-blown infestation will number in the billions,” Jake interjected. His studies in resonance theory had led him to investigate the creatures in detail. He eyed the corpse on the table, his first personal encounter with a rat, and noted how the flat body and the motion of the cilia gave it the ability to squeeze through even the thinnest vent or duct. With an immunity to nearly every method of extermination, rats were the perfect conquerors of stations like the Ham Lin. “When they run out of food in the storage units, they will come after the people. So long as we don’t starve or die from disease first.”
O’Neil stepped back from the group, his face waxen, and knocked a chair over.
“What?” Jowalski snarled, glaring over her shoulder.
O’Neill pointed again. “Why is it still bleeding?!”
The rat’s headless body exploded into motion, twisting and writhing across the desk toward Commander Tucker. Rose shrieked and bolted away. Jake nearly cried out himself at the grotesque sight, pressing himself back and gripping his chair arms. He stared up at his father, aghast and concerned.
Commander Tucker’s face was flushed with the recent argument, his thick lips pulled back in a grimace. He leaned away, but did not flee. His eyes flared under heavy brows as he watched the thing wriggle about mindlessly on his computer, spattering its green ichor. With a speed that belied his age and size, he snatched up the model of the Ham Lin and brought it down on the thrashing corpse. One of the two sharp spindles penetrated through the rat to the computer screens beneath.
The desk released a fountain of sparks, a loud crackle, and a plume of smoke. The Directors recoiled, coughing, and Jake rolled himself back as far as he could get without running over anyone’s toes. A speaker in the ceiling emitted a gentle pulsing alarm, informing the room’s occupants that there was smoke and the threat of a fire. Moments later, foam fire suppressant sprayed down, coating the room.
Tucker swiped foam and the rat’s juices off his scorched stubble and glowered at his Directors. The rat continued to twitch reflexively, curling around the model.
“Even the dead ones are dangerous,” Jowalski called over the muffled alarm. Her expression was grim satisfaction, even as a lump of white foam slid down her cheek. “We can’t do this on our own.”
Commander Tucker looked around himself, taking in everything from Rose’s thin and shivering figure behind him to his own son. “Well,” he said slowly. He shrugged his broad shoulders. “The Accounting Department might eat me alive, but at least they won’t chew the wires. O’Neil, send a message to the nearest League outpost.”
Jake’s heart leapt.
Tucker continued grimly. “But if you ever do this again—” he gestured with a wide hand, taking in either the rat, his son, or both, “—then your asses’ll be on the next mining freighter to come through.”
“Sir,” Jowalski barked, saluting.
Lam looked up from his tablet and added, “Yes, sir. I’ll get some men in here to clean up.”
“See that you do.” Tucker ran a hand through his bristly steel hair, scattering globs of foam, and shook his head. “Now get out of my office.”
The Directors departed without argument, Jake following. He barely noticed the wash of cool air in the hallways and the prickling of his damp skin; his mind lurked elsewhere, steeped in elation and nervousness. There was so much to do, so much to prepare, before the piper arrived.