"Yo! Check this out!"
The call came over the suit-to-suit radio on a public wavelength, so Kevran decided to investigate. He bounced across the gritty surface of the asteroid to land beside Rock. The big man leaned over the edge of a crevasse, clutching Jackyl for balance. The two stared avidly into the crack. Kev flipped his helmet beam up to high and looked in to see the wonder for himself.
"Oh... gods..." he breathed.
Laying in the embrace of the asteroid was the body of a man.
"All right, you, back to work!" Old Hardass, the supervisor, arrived on the scene with an aggressive bounce. "Standing around ain't gettin' 'er donewhat the fuck?"
"Dunno, Hardass." Rock shook his head, bewildered. "Jackyl found 'im. Can't say's I make what he's doin' out here, no suit an' all."
"Is he one of ours?"
"Not with that thing on his face," Kev muttered. Two bars of black metal extended from temple to temple, framing the dead man's eyes like a mask.
"Who asked you, Feather?" Hardass glared at him. He winced. He hated that nick. Short for Featherweight, just because he wasn't some burly beer-guzzling ass-pinching lout of a brain-dead idiot. It wasn't his fault he was built lean and wiry.
"Nobody asked, but it's still true. You ever see anything like that on one of our boys? And just look at what he's wearing. That much leather would buy you and your mother both."
Kev immediately wished he could somehow stuff those words back where they'd come from. Idiot!
"You leave my momma out of this, boy," Hardass growled, advancing a single menacing step.
"Uh, Boss?" Rock came to his rescue, yet again. Rock was the one who'd let slip the fact that the crew called old Willie Hardass, trying to save Kev from a thrashing. Who'd have guessed the bastard would like it? "Weren't you here for a reason?"
"Yeah, yeah." The supervisor shot one last glare at Kev, then dismissed the matter. "Get your asses back to work, y'ain't gettin' paid to stand around."
"What's it to you, man? You ain't paying us yourself!" Jackyl tore his gaze away from the dead man to grin at Hardass.
"But if production drops, so does my commission. Now move it!"
Kev lingered as long as he dared, absorbing every detail of the body. He wasn't sure what was so compelling about it, but curiosity gnawed at him. Who was the man? How had the body gotten onto an airless asteroid in the depths of space?
Kev finished out his duty shift with less than half his attention on mining. Questions about the dead man distracted him, chasing each other through his head. Who was he? Where had he come from? Why was he dead? And most of all, what was that thing on his face?
Kevran lagged behind when the shift ended. With luck, he could grab another look at the man... yes, no one paid any attention to him. All attention focused on the incoming shuttle. He slipped back to the crack, keeping one ear tuned to the activity at the landing pad. Only a brief look, wouldn't want to get stranded here...
The sound of gravel shifting was all the warning he had before blackness overwhelmed him.
Typically, Rock noticed Kevran's absence first.
"Hey!" he called, searching the crowded shuttle. "Anyone seen Kev?"
"Not since we closed up ops on the surface. Why? Ain't he here?" Hardass craned his head about, searching for some sign of his least-favorite miner.
A quick headcount proved the shuttle one man short. Hardass grumbled and swore, but all could see the concern in his eyes.
"I'll make a report when we get back to the fuckin' Zelda, and they can send out an S&R team. They're going to rake my ass over the coals for this, the lousy little bastard. I ain't never lost no one on my duty shift before. What in all hells does he think he's doing, running off like that? I'll rip his measly hide to shreds..."
All grumbling aside, old Hardass shoved his way off the shuttle and and had Core online before the last miner had emerged from the hatch. Rock found a way to include himself on the S&R crew.
S&R blasted off within ten minutes of the report. The crew returned to the asteroid to find it devoid of all signs of life. Rock found the crack that had fascinated Kevran so and swore in shock.
The dead man was no longer there.
"Someone's taken 'im!"
"Taken who?" Perry, head of the S&R crew, bounced over to land beside Rock.
"Both of 'em! Kev, and the dead man."
"What dead man?"
Curious about what they were hearing on their headsets, the other members of the crew began bouncing in.
"The dead man that Jackyl found. He was right here, and Kev was starin' at him like you wouldn't believe. Betcha anything he slipped back here for another gawk and someone snatched 'im, someone as came back for the body."
"The Mazuri," someone murmured, in a tone half fearful and half awed.
"Stop that, right now!" Perry glared at all of his men, his brusque tone concealing a visceral tremor at the word. "I'll have none of that kind of talk here. The Mazuri are just a children's tale, and you all know it. Get back to the search. Now!"
Rock lingered, staring at the empty crevice. The Mazuri... a shiver went through him, a primal feeling of horror. Everyone knew the tales of the space-roving demons, who came to snatch you away without a trace... Had the masked man on the asteroid been one of them, the ultimate enemy? Had he been among the only three people ever to see the face of the Mazuri and live to tell about it?
Rock felt a claw of cold terror clutch at his guts, then shook it off with an effort. Of course not. The Mazuri were just tales used to frighten children, make them more conscious of safety out in the hostile environment of space. No demons existed in the asteroid belt. He turned from the crack without a backward glance and rejoined the search effort. But even Rock's practicality couldn't quite erase the horrifying thought of his friend suffering unknown torments in the hands of demons.
It was a quiet and disheartened crew which returned to Base Ship Zelda. Not a trace of the missing miner had been found, a completely unprecedented situation. Usually, there was some sign, some indication of what had caused the disappearancea broken tether line, an accident scene, even a scorch mark from an exploded jetpack. Most often, the missing person was found waiting at the shuttle site, embarassed and sheepish. More than one person had simply missed the shuttle launch. None had ever vanished without a trace.
Rock took it upon himself to break the news to Kevran's partner. Knowing Kellina, she wouldn't take it well, and it was better she hear it from a friend.
The organic unit performed its task smoothly. There was nothing to mark this unit as different from any of the hundred other units assigned to fly protection for the Council Ship; on the surface, at least. But something happened within the unit as it carried out its duties, protecting the Ship from the lesser craft clustered near the asteroids.
A thought formed in the void of the organic unit's mind. It felt a vague need to report the malfunction to base, but did nothing.
A concept took shape, filling the void. Home. Comfort. A name: Kellina.
*Rock. Jackyl. Hardass. Featherno! Kevran. My name is Kevran. I have a name!*
Excruciating pain shot through the unitno, Kevran. He groaned and clutched the bars of his mask. Movement felt odd, unnatural. He quit moving, sent his shipself into a breakaway roll. He could see his objective ahead, the open shuttleport of the Zelda. He twisted himself through the barrage of weak defensive fire with contemptous ease, then brought himself in for a landing in the shuttle dock. He sat there passively as armed guards surrounded his craft, while the Zelda's surviving escort pilots limped in for a landing. Behind them, the Council ship and her protectors vanished into a blur of nonbeing.
Something happened. The organic unitKevrancould feel their disgusting human hands on his sleek skin, feel the pain as they pried at his shipself. He flicked open an entry port and felt distant amusement at their surprise. Then they climbed him, heavy boots scuffling at his skin, weapons at the ready.
The bridge crew was still in shock from the unexpected battlebattle!when Astrogator Kellina suddenly swore and abandoned her post. Startled eyes followed her into the lift, but no one tried to stop her.
Kellina ignored protocol and ran through the halls, shoving people aside if they didn't move quickly enough to suit her. The call had come across her private channel: We've found Kevran. Get to MedBay, now. No further info. Core disconnected even as she tried to form a coherent question, and she couldn't raise a response. She'd tried, but given up in favor of following instructions.
The door to MedBay stood ahead, drab green against the grey-white of the corridor. She hit it at a dead run and exploded into chaos.
Medtechs swarmed around a contorting form on a gurney. She knew instantly it was Kevran. That dark hair was unmistakable, even dulled and flopping in lank strings against the sterile white gurney. But what was that thing on his face?
"Who are you?" A medic noticed her as she stared in shock, taking in the details of her contract partner's appearance.
"Kellina," she choked out. Gods, but he was thin! Wasted away to nothing, even to her space-bred eyes.
"Oh, good. You're his partner, right? We need you here, as next of kin."
Kellina tore her gaze away from the black bars across Kev's face. "What is wrong with him?"
The medic backed away a step from her intense eyes. "We don't really know," he said, twisting his hands in an unconscious motion. "We think it's to do with the mask he's wearing. We need your permission to remove it."
"Let me see him." She pushed though the crowd of medtechs without a second thought.
He was pale, sweat shining on his hollow cheeks, thrashing and moaning. She reached for his hand and the contact seemed to help. He gripped her hand hard and stopped thrashing, but the low moaning continued.
"How did this happen? Why is he like this?"
"He began to go into convulsions when the tech crew cut the line connecting him to that ship. We had to sedate him to get him this calm."
"You call this calm? Okay, you have my permission. Get that thing off him!"
The medics went into action. Four of them strapped Kevran's body to the table, while two more positioned themselves at his head. With the straps secure, everyone stepped back to allow the two a chance to remove the black bars from Kevran's face. One of them touched the mask. He jerked his hand away, shaking it, with a muffled oath.
"That thing zapped me!"
"Great," the other medtech muttered. "Insulated gloves, now!"
With gloves on, the two medics positioned themselves carefully again, hands poised above the contact points of the mask, looking at each other. The one on the right nodded. In a synchronized movement, they pried the mask away from Kevran's face.
Kevran went into a massive convulsion, then collapsed, still and silent. Kellina's heart pounded and she stared at his temples. Where the mask had rested two silvery metal spiderwebs gleamed against the moist, pale skin.
"Implant technology," sighed one of the medics, awed. He touched the silver webs carefully. "Whoever did this to him must be incredibly advanced."
"Will he be okay now?" Kellina couldn't keep the edge of fear out of her voice. Kev lay so still, so quiet... She couldn't bear to lose him again. He'd been gone for over a month without a trace. She'd thought he was dead, and had begun to adjust. But now here he was, miraculously returned from the dead, and she didn't think she could bear the pain if he died again.
"We don't know yet." Medtechs could be so reassuring at times. "We'd like to run some tests first..."
"What kind of tests?"
"Just a basic body scan to start with, then it depends on what we find."
"Go ahead with the scan, but nothing else, understand? I'll not have him poked and prodded like a lab animal."
He hid disappointment well.
Kellina watched as they rolled Kevran's gurney into the scanner, afraid. He still hadn't moved. She didn't like medtechs, or tests, or... anything to do with MedBay, in fact. The only time she'd ever set foot on a planet she'd contracted an infection which had kept her in MedBay for two years. Those two years were a part of her childhood which still gave her nightmares. She'd wake up screaming and crying, then Kevran would hold her until the fear passed... She blinked back stinging tears. He would be okay. He had to be okay.
She heard an excited flutter from the medics clustered around the scanner readout and joined them. "Well? What is it?"
"Come see this, miz!" One of themshe couldn't even begin to sort them out, and didn't much care who was who anywaymade room for her by the scanner. She was treated to a grainy, black and white view of the inside of Kev's body. There were shiny silver things which stood out clearly in the image, attached to every major organ.
"What are those things? Like the ones on his head?"
"At a guess, I'd say they were regulating his vital functions," said the head medtech, distinguished only by his rank pin. "We'd like to study"
"No," she interrupted. "You know as well as I do that this technology is beyond yours! I won't have you messing around with Kevran's life."
She glared at him, satisfied when dropped his eyes. She took a deep breath and hoped no one could see how she was shaking.
"What's going on in there?" The blond medic at the console frowned at the readout and tapped keys rapidly. "He shouldn't be moving like that!"
"Get him out of there." The head medtech opened the scanner door and the gurney rolled obediently out. Kevran's eyes were open, and he struggled against the restraints, trying to sit up.
"Kev!" Kellina shoved through the excited medics to his side.
"Kellina! What happened? Where am I?"
"Oh, Kev! You're alive!" Kellina felt a huge grin cover her face and sudden tears sting her eyes. "You're in MedBay, safe back at home."
"Home..." He smiled. Then he tried to sit up again. "Will somebody let me out of this damn bed? At least let me sit up!"
The head medtech himself undid the restraints, and Kevran sat up.
"It's cold in here. Can't I have some clothes? Why do you medics like to keep people naked, anyway? And when can I go?"
Kellina smiled, wiping away happy tears. That was definitely her Kevran!
Kevran walked rapidly through the corridors, pushing himself to his limits. He felt appallingly weak, with little muscle left. Even simple movements, like walking, gave him tremendous difficulty after so long immobile. Over a month, they'd told him. He frowned, trying once again to fight his way through the blank spot in his mind. He had been at work on the asteroid, and then he woke up in MedBay. Nothing in between, not even a blink of memory. Just a feeling of emptiness, then pain and a need to reach the Zelda. Nothing to tell him what had happened in the five and a half weeks Standard he'd been missing.
He continued on his unchanging orbit of the Zelda's outer corridor. Three trips around... four... and he absolutely could go no further. He sought the comfort of the lounge, to rest before returning to the quarters he shared with Kellina.
Kellina. Now there was a problem. He hadn't realized how dependant she was on him before. His disappearance had damaged her badly, and now she was becoming increasingly neurotic. If she knew that he'd pushed for four circuits of the ship, rather than two, she'd look at him with those faded blue eyes full of reproach and flay him alive without even raising her voice. She had no peer when it came to reducing him to a guilty, grovelling worm with a minimum of words.
He reached the lounge and ordered a dark ale, first making sure there were none of their mutual friends about. Friends who might snitch on him, might tell her that he came in red-faced and panting for breath... friends who might look at him with thinly-veiled fear in their eyes.
Surreptitiously he touched the implants. He didn't feel any different, even knowing there were little machines controlling all his vital functions. He had allowed that much testing out of sheer curiosity. But he heartily agreed with Kellina about not becoming a lab rat. And besides, the technology was obviously beyond human levels.
His ale arrived and he sipped it, ignoring the furtive glance of the server. Let the humans wonder. He was... what? What was he, anyway?
Kev groaned and put his head in his hands. It had happened again. He no longer felt human. And won't that go over well with Kellina... He tried to fight it, reminding himself of his life as a human being, but still felt... different.
He finished his ale quietly, then returned home.
Kevran... changed. His easygoing good humor, his willingness to laugh troubles away, even his desire for companionship shifted into a brooding quiet. He lived in a state of nervous tension, consumed by a nameless longing. He grew listless and discontent. He argued with Kellina frequently, over her protectiveness, over her concern... over anything.
Soon he put a name to the trouble: the Mask. He wanted his Mask back. Without it, he was nothing, not human, not... other. He managed to locate it, in a locked box hidden in the lab. Once he got close enough, he could feel it within, calling to him in a voice that matched his own longing. But he couldn't break the lock, he could only cradle the box in his arms and stroke the hard plastic surface.
Kellina found him in the lab. "Kevran?"
No answer. She flipped on the light switch. "Kev, I know you're in here, Joel saw you come in here..."
Then she saw him.
He lay on the floor, curled tightly around a plastic box. Tear tracks ran down his face from red and swollen eyes. "Help us, Kellina," he begged.
"We can't be apart like this... we're dying in here, in this dark airless place. We need to be complete..."
"What do you mean? Kev, are you okay?" She knelt beside him and felt his forehead. Cold and clammy.
"No, not okay... must be complete."
She checked his pulse. It was thready and racing. His breathing was shallow. Suddenly he burst into activity, trying to get into the box. He whimpered, then clutched the box to his chest, panting from the brief exertion.
Kellina sighed. She thought she knew what was in that box... the mask the medtechs had removed from his face. Perhaps it was more important than anyone had realized. She pried the box loose from Kevran's grip and examined it. He kept reaching for it, pleading with his eyes.
It had a simple combination lock. She fiddled carefully with the tumblers, feeling the slight catch whenever she passed the right number. She found the three numbers quickly and pressed the catch. The box popped open. Kevran grabbed the mask before she had a chance to blink.
Kevran sighed with intense relief and sank back against the wall. The bars of the mask framed his brown eyes, now utterly blank. The pupils shrank to mere pinpricks. He turned that empty stare on Kellina and smiled.
"We thank you, human."
Kellina shrank back from that harsh, cold, inhuman voice. "Whowhat are you?"
"We are the one you know as Kevran, but more. We are complete."
Kevran gazed at his surroundings with wonder. This was surely how things were meant to be seen, this glorious clarity brought by the Mask. Everything stood out in preternaturally sharp detail, outlined in colors no mere human was capable of seeing. He saw the femaleKellinamove away from him in a predictable reaction to the voice distortion. Humans were incapable of appreciating altered speech. To another of his own kind, the voice of the Mask would be as sweet as the finest music, appreciated at levels beyond the mere auditory.
"Kev" the human started to speak, then paused and swallowed. She tried again, with more success. "Kevran. What happened just then? Why do you sound different? Why are your eyes like that?"
"It is the Mask." Something inside of him responded to the human's disturbance at a deep emotional level. He smiled. "Do not worry," he said. "We are still Kevran, and we still love you."
"I hope so," Kellina muttered, quietly enough that an ordinary human wouldn't have heard.
Kellina sat in the darkness, alone. There was no one else up at this hour, save the poor souls on dogwatch. She could feel the hum of the Zelda's interstellar drive as it propelled them through space in search of yet another asteroid belt to mine.
She shifted on the cold metal. Ahead of her was the airlock door. All it would take was a single push of a button, and it would all be over. No more worries about Kevran, no more fear of what he had become over the last few weeks... Why hadn't he stayed dead? It was easier to deal with the news of his disappearance and probable death on the asteroid than it was dealing with the Mask.
He had changed, without a doubt. Kevran no longer bore even a superficial resemblance to the light-hearted, cheerful man she'd contracted with. The Mask had changed all that.
She shuddered at the thought of the obscene thing, stretching its twin bars across his face from temple to temple. It was disgusting, unclean... She hated the sight of it, hated the way it made his pupils shrink to mere pinpricks and turned his voice into a harsh, nearly metallic croak. She hated even worse the way he spoke of it as if it were a living entity. More, as if it were the most important living entity ever to exist, worlds away more important than her. He always spoke of himself as we now, and she was not a part of that we. Only the Mask, only that revolting piece of technology which had stolen her lover away...
She smiled at the blackness outside. Before, she had held on to life because she didn't want to hurt Kev. But nownow, she wasn't sure he would even notice if she was gone. Now nothing held her here. No Kev to care, just little machines and a Mask inhabiting his body.
She slammed a fist into the unforgiving metal of the deck in sudden anger. "Damn you! Why are you doing this to me? I thought you loved me!"
Love. It was supposed to be strong enough to withstand anything. But whoever said that had never had to deal with a situation like this. A loved one missing, presumed dead, who returned miraculously... only changed. Full of little metal implants, which kept all internal organs functioning smoothly, completely at one with the alien technology of the Mask. No longer human, but something else. Something more, he'd said.
"Something less," she muttered resentfully. Emotionless, cold, inhumanhe no longer cared for anything except that Mask.
Especially not her.
There was no room left in his heart, if he even still had one, for her. He had made that painfully obvious today.
"What is wrong?" he'd asked, finding her alone in their quarters. The harsh, distorted voice had made her jump.
"Nothing." She refused to look at him, to look at that thing.
"We don't think that is true. If there were nothing wrong, then why would you sit all alone?" He sat on the couch beside her.
"Who else would sit with me?"
"Kevran..." she sighed. "Is there anything special about today?"
"We do not know. How do you mean, special?"
"Special as in unusual, as in remembering that something different happenedoh, say, two years ago, on this date?"
His blank look had torn her heart out. "We don't know what you mean."
"Nothing, like I said." The depression had settled firmly upon her then. She rose to leave the room. "If you don't remember our anniversary, that's your problem, not mine."
Whatever he was now, he was not her Kevran any longer. Her Kevran would have remembered, would have planned some extravagant evening, would have pampered her outrageously... not just given her a blank stare. He really didn't care.
The pain of her loss twisted within her. Kevran was gone again. She turned slowly, fixing her gaze upon the glowing red light of the airlock control. It would be so easy... just a single touch, and no more pain or worry ever again...
Her hand caressed the button lightly. Memories played through her mind... Kevran courting her, Kevran loving her, Kevran just being himself. She felt hot tears scalding her cheeks and let them fall. Her Kevran was no more. Whatever inhabited his body now was a cold, inhuman machine, with no emotions left to care about her.
"I love you, Kev," she whispered, then pressed the button.
"We thank you for bringing the information."
Kevran shut the door in Rock's face and stood for a moment in stunned disbelief. Then he turned to face the room he had shared with Kellina, up until her departure several hours ago. The part of him which stubbornly remained human cried out in pain. He had just that day determined that he would ask Kellina's help to return to humanity, rather than continue to become whatever he was now. He had been shaken by her revelation that this was their anniversary, because he had not remembered at all. Kellina herself just hadn't seemed that important, not when compared to the Mask. And now the Mask was all he had left...
Kevran moved slowly to the seating unit and sat, reaching for the framed holo which stood on the end table. It showed Kellina and himself, both smiling, on the day they contracted... two years ago today. The Mask symbiont was disturbed as human emotions directed tears to fall slowly from his blank eyes.
"Forgive me, Kellina..." he whispered, but there was no response. There would never be a response again.
A voice intruded upon Kevran's private misery.
*Come to me. It is time.*
"What?" he said aloud, startled. The voice had sounded through the Mask, rather than the pathetically weak human ears.
*Come, Kevran. It is time now.*
"Time for what?"
*It is time for you to join us. Go to your ship.*
"Why should I?" Resentment flared up in him. How dare someone, even an unseen voice, disturb his mourning!
*You do not belong there. You belong here. Mazuri are waiting. We are your kind.*
Kevran began to feel a compulsion to investigate the voice. Curiosity stirred in his human portion, through the pain of loss. He could feel the symbiont urging him to return to the ship, repair the damage, and go home.
He looked around the room. Reminders of Kellina were everywhere. Her image in many holos, her favorite wallscreen, her sweater laying over the back of the chair... all twisted in his heart like daggers. Perhaps a change of scenery wouldn't hurt, after all... The symbiont urged him strongly. He sat the framed holo back in its place and rose decisively. There was nothing for him here. Kellina had been the only reason he was here anyway, and with no hope of her safe return... He'd do just as well to follow the voice in his Mask.
The corridors were hushed. The Zelda was not a large craft, and the loss of one of the bridge crew was felt throughout the entire ship. He was aware of unfriendly eyes on him, aware of the restless mutterings which followed his progress. The human part of Kevran wallowed in guilt, hearing and agreeing with the accusations. It was all his fault. If he hadn't changed so much, Kellina would still be alive. If he had never come back, she would have been fine. It was all his fault...
The symbiont guided Kevran's body effortlessly through the Zelda until the objective was in sight. Then Kevran was jolted into awareness as the symbiont cried out in pain. An unseen barrier blocked his progress, keeping him from his ship.
The symbiont allowed his human portion to surface and deal with the problem. He looked around and located a shield generator box mounted on the wall, with a glowing red light. He walked over and touched it. The Mask stripped data on its workings from it with contempt and made the necessary adjustments. The light switched to green and the barrier dropped.
His ship waited for him, sleek and elegant. He touched the smooth side and received a reassuring welcome. Yes, this was the right thing to do. He no longer belonged with these beings. He opened the portal and stepped inside.
The severed lifeline was the first thing he saw. He dropped to his knees and picked it up, cradling it protectively.
"What did they do to you?" He felt the ship's pained response through his Mask. He looked around the interiorempty, save for the pilot's chairand spotted the first aid cabinet. He laid the lifeline down carefully and opened the cabinet. Fortunately, he wasn't the first pilot to have such a mishap, and the Masters had provided the means for healing.
He extracted a small sealer unit carefully and applied it to the lifeline. As soon as it touched, the line incandesced and sealed over. The ship hummed with satisfaction as the lifeline regrew its missing pieces. Kevran, trembling with eagerness, returned the sealer unit to the cabinet and placed the lifeline ends against the temple receivers on the Mask.
A feeling of rightness permeated him. He sank into the supportive embrace of the chair and powered up his engines. Ahead of him was the open shuttle bay. It was the work of a moment for the Mask to command the Zelda's computer to drop the airshield. Kevran turned his shipself into position and launched, reveling in the freedom of once again streaking through the stars.