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Quantum Entanglements

Chapter 1: The Job That Went Wrong

By Heidi UnruhPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 23 min read

“Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.” Ennis leaned over the table conspiratorially. Mella was soaking in his famously mellifluous voice, her eyes wide, her mouth slightly agape. I nibbled at my salad.

“And do you know why space is so absolutely silent?” Mella shook her head. Ennis continued with the air of one who enjoys knowing more than others.

“Sound waves travel through air. Without an atmosphere, you can neither make noise nor take in a breath. The moment you are cast into space your organs begin to starve for oxygen. Within fifteen seconds you lose consciousness.”

“Could—could you just take a really big breath beforehand?" Mella asked timidly.

“You could,” Ennis replied, holding up his cup, which his servicer immediately refilled. “But then your lungs would explode.”

“Oh.” Mella looked horrified. She was playing her naiveté well.

“Another peculiar quality of a vacuum, my dear, is that liquids immediately vaporize. In pure space you would feel the moisture start to boil in your mouth, your nose, your eyes. Do you know how much of your body is made of water?”

Mella shook her head again. “Sixty percent,” I cut in, then asked coyly, “Do I get a prize?”

Ennis lifted his glass to me, and his eyes glittered. “We shall see.” He returned his attention to Mella—but I knew now who he was really trying to impress.

“Imagine sixty percent of your body slowly boiling away and turning to gas under your skin.” Ennis lowered his voice. “Every part of you would swell. Your capillaries would burst. Eventually the bubbles in your blood would reach your heart. And while this is killing you, radiation is bombarding your unprotected body. You slowly both burn and freeze to death.”

He paused with dramatic flair. “By the time anyone found you in the vastness of space—if you were found—your body would be unrecognizable.”

Mella simply stared into his famously piercing eyes, mesmerized.

“From Mutiny and Madness, I assume?” I asked lightly. I dabbed at my mouth with my silk napkin. My servicer, a sleek golden unit, unobtrusively retrieved it and replaced it with a clean cloth, then refilled my glass. I’d been on cruisers with more luxurious cabins, but I had to give the Crown of Light points for service.

“Ah, I suspected the high bidder to dine with me would be a true fan,” Ennis crowed. “Not many know that work, from my early period. A little over the top, perhaps.”

“We all grow more subtle with time.” I arched an eyebrow. “That is, not too much time. You still look quite … vigorous.”

“I will ignore the ‘still’ and accept the compliment,” he said, stroking his well-manicured beard, streaked with ever-so-distinguished silver.

“I see the years have brought you wisdom as well as acclaim," I volleyed.

“I like to think it is my raw talent that has accomplished that.” He turned back to Mella. “How about you? Have you enjoyed any of my immersive reality sagas?”

Mella shook her head, and I answered for her. “No, my niece is too young for IR. At least, according to her parents. They are quite strict.” I gave her a friendly poke in the side. “That’s why I brought her with me on this cruise. To get out and live a little.” I sighed. “Though it’s a challenge getting her to try new things.”

“I tried that slimy archaea soup you ordered me for dinner,” she protested. “And it tasted terrible. And now I have a stomachache.”

“So, Vayana, which of my IRs is your favorite?” Ennis predictably swung the conversation back to himself.

I had prepared for this question. I struck a thoughtful pose. “It’s hard to say. Temptation and Tears, perhaps? But I also love Seasons for Sons.”

“It appears you prefer dramas of the heart.”

I leaned in confidentially. “Well, I suppose you could say that is one of the areas where I possess raw talent.” A little over the top, perhaps? I thought.

“Then again, I do enjoy solving your mysteries,” I added quickly. “You’ve created so many sagas, and I’ve experienced all of them, so it’s tough to choose a favorite.”

“Don’t be so sure you know all my body of work.” Ennis threw out the line. “I have a few more … private productions, only for invited guests.” His eyes met mine. Gotcha.

I demurred, but only slightly. “I just might say yes to that invitation.”

“Can I come too?” Mella broke in. “I want to experience an immersive reality, Auntie Vayana. You said I should try new things.”

I let out a bubbly laugh. “Oh, no, sweetheart, this is not the kind of new thing I meant. Anyway, you just said you have a stomachache. You should go to bed early. In fact,” taking her by the elbow and guiding her away from the table, “you should go to bed right now.”

Over Mella’s protests, I began sweeping her out of the dining hall, pausing to cast a meaningful look over my shoulder at Ennis. He raised his glass to me again. “Gamma deck, corridor 5,” he called after me.

Once Mella and I were seated in our chariot—the Crown of Light’s fancy name for their corridor transport—and out of earshot, I punched her lightly in the shoulder. “Well done.”

“I really didn’t know all that about what happens in open space,” she said. “I don’t think I want to go near a viewport again.”

“Well, avoid Mutiny and Madness, then,” I said cheerfully. “Not only is it rather graphic, the dialogue is so bad you really would get a stomachache.”

I’d had to rent a v-room and binge on Ennis’ IR productions to prepare for this job. I didn’t get to all of them, of course—that would have taken weeks, and a stronger constitution—but enough that I could pass. I hadn’t let Mella near them. Her inexperience had to be convincing as well.

We reached our cabin, comfortable but hardly worth the extravagant rate. Thankfully all our costs had been paid up front. I quickly changed out of the bejeweled dining gown and into diaphanous evening wear, dabbing on a little perfume. Then I double-checked my hardware.

The data tracer embedded in the methyl-red nail of my right index finger had the highest sensitivity on the market, able to sense hidden AI, VR, processors, digital streams or compressed data within a 1.75-k radius, even with radiometric interference. The tracer communicated with me via emcode pulses directly into my finger—imperceptible to others, unless they also happened to be operating a similar device.

The data tracer was tethered to the port reader implanted in my right palm, with uplink capacity to my shipboard intelligence and other compatible systems. Both thumbs on my right hand had integrated functions: the interior was implanted with a recorder, and my retractable dextral digit housed a removable data chip.

My left palm also had an implant, a set of remote access controls to my ship, the Justice. I usually operated this in stealth mode, but as needed could toggle on panel lights that glowed under my skin, which Mella found fascinating. In my line of work you didn’t skimp on anything that could help you make a quick getaway.

I tapped my earlobe, just above my sparkling earrings, and Mella jumped to attention. “Signal check,” she said.

“No, don’t say it, signal it,” I chided.

“Sorry.” She gave her ear two quick squeezes. Ear implants were rather common, so it wasn’t a stealth device, but still convenient.

I sat down next to her on the divan. “You clear on the plan?”

She drew a breath and nodded.

“I know the first time as my assist can be scary. Just follow the plan, and—“

“And when, not if, the plan goes wrong, follow your lead. I remember.” She grinned at me in her impish way. “You did say to try new things, Auntie Vayana,” she added, giving my made-up title a slight ironic lilt.

“That’s the spirit. And be ready to leave for our ship in a hurry. Whatever you’re not wearing stays here.” I stood up, checking my hair in the ornate mirror before heading to the door. Red-gold was attractive on me, but I preferred my natural pale green.

I had high hopes for my new assist. She had a gutsy innocence, a high-spirited sincerity. She was artless in her mendacity. Over the years I’ve grown confident in my ability to select and train quality assists, but success has also depended on my partners bringing a certain spark.

Most of my young assists served for three or four assignments at most before they got homesick and asked for the memory wipe. And I returned every single one safely to their families, with their payment. I had deviated from my pattern with Mella, who didn’t have any family and didn’t seem to have much attachment to her foundling home. Normally I did not take in orphans because they add unknown variables. But I knew her home’s matron—in fact, I had done several jobs for her, tracking down rich relations for her foundlings. She had introduced me to Mella.

“You may enter, honored guest,” said the servicer at the gate to Ennis’ corridor. “Please deposit weapons and declare implants before screening.”

“I’m unarmed. I have a pilot implant in my left palm.” I could have left it in stealth mode, but declaring it earned trust. As for my right hand, I was confident that the tracer could out-scramble any detector. I had to stay confident—many security systems included bioreadings to flag suspicious agitation.

I walked through the screening field without a peep. The door to Ennis’ suite slid open.

As marks went, he was fairly predictable. Shimmering dressing gown, candles and decanter on the table, light music in the scented air. His beard was freshly and flawlessly manicured. He greeted me with a kiss.

“Are you going to offer me a drink, or do I need to call my servicer to come do it?” I asked archly. As he turned away from me to pour the drink, I glanced around the room–far more lavish than mine–making a mental map.

The data tracer sent a series of pulses into my finger indicating the presence of two compressed data files matching the specifications of the target. The tracer began sending me coordinates for the two files, based on sphere plotting with the tracer at zero axis. Wherever I happened to be at a given moment, I could identify direction and distance from the target.

One data file was near the divan in this room. The other was in the room adjacent, behind a closed door.

A compressed data file could be tucked into any object—or it could be in an unadorned chip, a disc no bigger than a nostril. To be certain which object housed the file my employer needed, I would have to get close enough to trigger my port reader. Unlike the tracer, my port reader had very limited range. I had to be within an arm’s length for reliable scans.

I accepted my drink, then gestured toward the closed door. “Is that your private IR room?”

“No, it’s an office.” He laid his hand on my shoulder. “Right now, the only reality I want to immerse myself in,” he said, “is you.”

If I were Mella, I thought, I wouldn’t need an emetic.

I clinked my glass with his, and allowed him to steer me toward the divan. I settled myself close to the end table, on which was a crystal statue, an antique timepiece, and a small golden chest. The lid of the chest was open but I couldn’t see the contents. My tracer signaled that the data file was close.

I dismissed the timepiece, since my cabin had identical kitsch. I picked up the statue in my right hand—no response from the reader. But I looked at it curiously anyway, and realized it was a trophy.

“You bring your Inspired Award with you on all your pleasure cruises?” I asked, trying to sound more impressed than incredulous.

“Only that one,” Ennis replied. “The others are in what I call my inspiration room back home. But I take this one with me to remind myself that inspiration is always close at hand.” Saying this, he took my hand in his.

“Brilliant,” I said. Insipid, I thought.

I reached downward with my glass to set it on the end table and knocked it into the chest, spilling it.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, jumping up. “Did I ruin anything?” I looked into the chest and saw that it was full of holopics. Of Ennis.

Ennis waved dismissively. “No, no, plenty more where those came from.” He chuckled. “Usually I hand these to visitors as a parting gift, but you can take one now, if you like.”

I reached into the chest. Immediately my port reader tingled and I knew that the data had to be in one of the holopics. But there were dozens of frames in the box, and without a deliberate search, I couldn’t discern which held the file. And I couldn’t just sit there with my hand in the box while uploading the data.

I picked a frame at random. No signal spike. I let it go and closed my palm around another. No luck—no spike.

I tucked my hair behind my ear, giving my signal implant a quick, discreet squeeze. “I’ll take one when I leave,” I said. “Why do I need a pic when the real man is right here?” I reached up and stroked his perfect hair.

He leaned in to kiss me again. Just in time, the door slid open. The gate servicer announced, “The niece of your honored guest has arrived.”

“Mella! What are you doing here? I told you to stay in our cabin!” Actually, she had been lurking just out of sight of the security gate.

She was holding back tears, clutching her stomach. “I’m sorry,” she said in a wavering voice. “It just hurts so bad. I didn’t want to bother you. I called the medic station but they said I couldn’t come without my guardian. ”

“Well, why didn’t you signal me?” I demanded. Then I answered my own question with a sheepish look at Ennis. “I turned off my receiver.” I held out my arms to her. “You look terrible, sweetheart!”

“I waited as long as I could.” She was gasping, gulping. “The servicer told me where to find you. I’m sorry, I can’t hold—”

She vomited. All over me, all over Ennis. Smelly, slimy, yellow flecked with bits of green. This was not my favorite part of the job.

Ennis exclaimed and jumped up. She vomited again, hitting his shoes.

“I’m so sorry,” Mella croaked, wiping her mouth before she doubled over again.

Ennis strode to the cleansing room and slammed the door. I called after him, “Can I get a robe from your servicer so I can change in your office, please?”

“Yes, whatever you need. Just get the girl out of here.” I could hear water running.

The cabin servicer emerged from the corner, opened a cabinet and rolled to me with a satin dressing gown, then unlocked the office door. With a look at Mella, I disappeared into the room. I pulled a handkerchief out of my bodice, wiped my hands and set to work. The data tracer led me to a large, polished desk.

Opening the top drawer, I saw scribing screens, a stylus, a rod recorder, and a few more of Ennis’ holopics. I examined the stylus, which had “Ennis Productions” etched on the side in fancy lettering, and immediately spotted the glowing data port hidden in one of the letters. Gotcha.

I touched my palm to the port, and a pulse code confirmed that the file identifier matched my target. I only needed six seconds to make the copy.

“Vayana?” Ennis’ voice came through the door.

“Still changing.” Still holding the stylus, I quickly stripped off my vomit-stained dress and slipped into the robe. I felt the pulse pattern that meant the uplink was complete. Swiftly and silently, I wiped the stylus and set it back into place, shut the drawer, then calmly opened the door.

“Your servicer can send the dress straight to the combuster.” I went to Mella, huddled miserably on the divan, and laid my hand on her forehead. “Are you all right?”

“Better than my shoes, I'm sure,” grumbled Ennis.

“It’s too bad about our evening together.” I reached out to caress his cheek, but he drew back. “Perhaps another time before the cruise ends?”

“I’ll let you know.” His voice was frosty.

I put my arm around Mella’s shoulder. “Let’s get you to the medic station. Poor girl.”

We exited his suite, passed the screening field and headed to the corridor. I gestured for a chariot. Mella was breathing rapidly and I could practically see her heart jumping through her tunic. She still looked like she might throw up. “Calm down, that was the hard part,” I whispered. Then, aloud, I instructed the chariot, “Medic station.”

Not coincidentally, our cabin with its private dock was on the same level as the medic station. We walked up to the station, in case anyone was checking the vidfeed. Mella tugged on the sleeve of my robe. “Really, Auntie Vayana, I feel much better,” she delivered her line. “I just want to go and lie down.”

We walked down the corridor to our section. I activated the retrieval signal embedded in my palm, calling to my ship in the bay on the underbelly of the cruiser.

The Justice was programmed to come directly to the access point closest to my current location. Since the unscheduled launch of a ship in bay would trip the cruiser’s security system, we had a tight window for escape, but my ship’s start-up sequence only took a few minutes. That was all the time I needed.

Our private envirolock docking hatch was in an anteroom with luggage rack, cushioned benches and sanitizing station. I tapped my key rod on the sensor to give Mella access to the room.

“Wait here. If the ship docks before I’m back, get in.”

I went back to our cabin, which was just down the corridor, and quickly changed into my flight suit. I was not boarding my ship in Ennis’ dressing gown.

I took a thin polymer mask out of the pocket of my flight suit. Then I yanked off my necklace and pried open the gilded locket. A flat round pad fell into my hand. I set it on the table, took off my shoe, and smashed it. Immediately a gas began roiling out and filling the room. Within ten minutes all organic and chemical traces of our presence—fingerprints, sweat, oils, residual microbiome, byproducts of exhalation—would be erased.

I stuffed the thin dressing gown and broken necklace into my pocket. I had already sent all our clothing and toiletries to the combusting disposal. Nothing else in the cabin could be traced back to us.

I hurriedly exited the cabin, tore off the mask, and headed for the dock. Then I heard Mella cry out.

I rushed to the anteroom in time to hear the envirolock hatch click shut. Through the round window in the hatch I could see Mella trapped in the narrow docking vestibule, with only the sheen of the force field between her and utter darkness. Her eyes were bright with terror.

And then I saw Ennis, with one of his security goons beside him. I lunged toward the envirolock control panel, but the goon grabbed my arms and wrenched them painfully behind my back.

“I’ve been in the playacting business almost my whole life, so I can honestly say you two are good,” said Ennis with icy calm. “But not good enough to get away with stealing from me. After you left, my security sweep alerted me to the missing data file.”

I was genuinely perplexed. My port reader’s stealth duplication process left no losses or digital debris. So I wasn’t lying when I protested, “I didn’t take anything from you.”

“Then why were you both about to jump ship?”

I looked at Mella, pounding futilely on the other side of the hatch. "Ennis,” I said placatingly, “There must be some mistake. She’s just a kid. A sick kid.”

“All the more reason to return the file you stole. Send QE back to me right now, or she flies.”

Now I was even more confused. The name of the IR draft I’d uploaded was Blood and Beliefs. The adherents of Aboaster had launched a legal battle to prevent Ennis from plagiarizing their texts and profiting off their ancient religion. They had hired me to retrieve a copy of the file, with all his notes and sources, as leverage. “QE" meant nothing to me.

“Ennis, listen to me. I did come to your suite to get a file. But I copied it, I didn’t steal it. And I’ll destroy the copy.” I was babbling, hoping to stall long enough for the Justice to arrive at the dock. “You can scan me, search me, search Mella, search my ship. Just let Mella go.”

Ennis’s reply was to insert a key rod into the envirolock control. The outer force field sparkled out. Mella flew backward into the vacuum of space, her eyes wide, her mouth still agape.

Ennis turned to me, the corners of his mouth upturned. “You see, it’s true what they say.” His voice dripped smugness. “No one heard her scream.”

Ennis twisted the rod to reinstate the force field, and opened the envirolock hatch. “I hope you’re convinced that I at least am not playacting. Return QE, my dear, or you’re next.”

His goon shoved me toward the hatch. Behind my back, I swiveled out my left retractable thumb, which has full range of motion, and took aim. I tripped the release, and a barb shot out from the ring on my thumb and embedded in the goon’s neck.

The paralytic agent was temporary but quick-acting. I wrested my hands from the big man's stiff fists, and with my hip knocked his immobile body into Ennis, clattering them both to the ground. Using my key rod I sealed myself into the envirolock, where Mella had been.

The seconds counted down in my head. I took the polymer mask out of my pocket, exhaled, and put it on. Then I pressed my ship’s emergency retrieval signal, blinked off the force field, and launched myself hard in Mella’s direction.

Thankfully the cruiser was a slow-moving star-gazer, but even so the gap between Mella’s trajectory and mine was considerable. My opaque sheath membranes slid instinctively across my eyes. I became aware of intense throbbing in the veins under my skin, gnawing in my chest, growing numbness in my hands and feet. I felt an odd bristling sensation on my tongue and knew my saliva was starting to boil. Sparks began to swirl behind my sheathed eyes, harbinger of approaching unconsciousness.

Seconds passed. I waited for my ship. All was silent.

I could not hear the engines of the Justice, but I could feel its heat as it drew close, its entry ramp extended. My first attempt to grasp the ramp with my stiff fingers failed. In desperation I threw my arms and legs around the ramp and crawled up, finally getting close enough to fling my hand at the entry sensor pad, releasing the outer hatch. The entrance force field bubbled around me, then contracted, drawing me into the warmth and light and safety of my ship. I stumbled onto my bridge.

I unsheathed my eyes, ripped off the mask, gasped, and croaked out to the computer, “Find Mella. Bring her in. Quickly.” My breath came in harsh gulps.

My ship rapidly located Mella in the vast emptiness and traversed the distance. Then with precision it maneuvered alongside and cast a force field bubble around her still form, drawing her in. I watched through the viewport, prickling with the return of circulation to my limbs, fighting exhaustion and a fuzziness in my brain. As soon as the outer hatch was secured I locked the ship into stealth mode. Then I carried Mella to my tiny medbay—more like a med closet—and lifted her onto the recovery bed.

Mella was breathing—barely. Her hands and feet were swollen and blotchy; her face was puffy, red with frostbite, purpled with bruises and grotesque with terror. As I gently pulled her tunic over her head so I could attach the monitor leads, I noticed something solid in a stealth pocket on the interior of the sleeve.

“Oh, Mella,” I said, as I pulled out the object. It was a holopic of Ennis. She must have nabbed it from the chest in his suite, while I was in the office.

I set it aside as I finished setting up the recovery incubator—warming, hydration, oxygenation, tissue regeneration. The monitor beeped her vitals with satisfying regularity. I stroked her hair and looked into her little face, still swollen and discolored but more at rest.

Then I picked up the holopic. Ennis stared back at me with that pretentious intensity, shifting with the viewing angle into various expressions and poses. Was Mella actually smitten? That kind of sentimentality could ruin a job.

But my gut told me there was something more.

I turned the holopic over in my hand. On the base was an etching I had not noticed on the other frames: an infinity symbol, with the letters Q and E in each loop.

I held my port reader over the etching and sure enough, at the nexus of the infinity symbol glowed a pinprick port. Another IR file? I activated the upload—and found myself flat on my back, blinking at the ceiling of the medbay. My hand tingled painfully and the rest of me felt like I’d been kicked in the spine.

“Let’s not do that again,” I muttered, picking myself up and retrieving the holopic. Ennis leered at me.

I have a code, as uncompromising as the code governing my ship’s processor, or the servicers back on the cruiser. I will not damage sentient beings. A little pain and inconvenience is often necessary to accomplish the job and survive, but I do not kill, or inflict lasting harm. I have never found it necessary.

But—I do get tempted. Looking at Ennis’ supercilious image, I wanted nothing more than to return to the Crown of Light so I could smash him to bits.

I locked the holopic in my safe. Then I sat in my captain’s chair to think.

Bafflement swirled around my head until it distilled into three options. One, Mella knew the significance of that particular holopic and stole it—in which case she was probably working for someone else.

Two, Mella did not actually intend to steal the file—in which case someone had somehow planted it on her.

Three, Mella wanted a holopic as a souvenir, and had the bad luck to pick the one that got her thrown out an envirolock.

I strode to the recovery bed to search Mella’s bloated, bruised face. She was a long way from regaining consciousness, but I was patient. I was cunning. Sooner or later, I would discern the truth.

Suddenly the medbay monitor shrilled a warning. Mella’s chest started jerking upward as if prodded with electric shocks. Saliva bubbled around her oxygen mask.

“No, no, Mella, no …” I tried to make sense of the numbers flashing on the biodisplay.

At that moment the ship’s vicinity alarm began to blare. As improbable as it was with the Justice in stealth mode, someone had found us.

science fiction

About the Creator

Heidi Unruh

My passion is "coming alongside people and their good ideas, so great work can shine!" I do this as a developmental editor, writing coach, and author of 6 nonfiction books. Creating fiction, poetry and plays is pure joy!

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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    Well-structured & engaging content

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Comments (4)

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  • Babs Iverson12 months ago

    Well done!!!

  • Leslie Writesabout a year ago

    That was really exciting! She’s like James Bond and that villain Ennis seems like a real prick. I’m not very tech savvy and I was a C student in science, but you made this understandable without compromising the tech talk. It really kept my interest. I’d like to read the next chapter. 😊

  • Cat Webling2 years ago

    That was damned good! I'd happily read the rest of this book.

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