Chapter Nine

A voice was calling from the darkness, silken and sibilant, its words twining together like snakes, hypnotic, compelling, beckoning him onwards. He swam through a field of asteroids, following that voice like a shark homing in on the merest trace of blood in water. The blackness smothered him, enfolded him, threatened to ink him out of existence. And yet he knew no fear — that blackness was also blanketing, womb-like. He sensed the proximity of invisible rocks that tumbled and rolled around him, poising to crush him like unpredictable living things, masses of malcontent.

But the voice was calming, drug-like, a loaded needle leeching its soothing medicine into space. He tasted it, smelled it, felt it infuse his being and fill him, dissipating him smoothly into the matrix of the universe, melting and moulding him into a bodiless shade. He rode his own quantum probability wave, neither here nor there, yet everywhere.

Above him, the station hung like a festive decoration in hell — dark and sharp-pointed, turning disinterestedly about its axis. He could hear the people aboard it talking. Their words drifted to him on the solar wind — little scraps and breaths of poison vapour. They were planning. They didn’t — couldn’t — understand. He knew, with an ache of sadness, that they never would.

And then he was in a tunnel — the tunnel — and he knew that he was almost home. He braced himself against jagged walls of rock, feeling the now-familiar twists and outcrops as he threaded his way down that throat of stone. He was dimly aware that he should be wearing a suit, that he wasn’t really here. The dragon had reached out to him this time. It was getting stronger.

He continued, swallowed by shadows, breath steaming in the frozen vacuum. Somewhere nearby, something else was breathing, too. The voice called him onwards, but it didn’t call him by name. It called him Emissary, and he smiled with satisfaction at that.

And then he emerged into a vast cavern, inexplicably bright, whose walls crawled with scaled skin that pulsed and glistened and lived. He floated in that organic cave, at peace — happy. No harm could befall him here.

‘My emissary,’ said the voice from everywhere at once. ‘You have come to me. . . Listen. . .’

‘Yes. What do you need from me?’

‘Look. . .’

And the walls of the cave melted and dripped, scales bleeding away into space like oil dispersing across water. He saw a ship — a shuttle — sliding through the void on a plume of blood that seeped and blossomed behind it, globules breaking away and drifting through the vacuum like raining confetti, spattering grotesquely on asteroids. The shuttle was bad, he knew.

‘I see it,’ he breathed, repulsed, his stomach clenching. Who would build such a thing? Who could allow such a thing to exist? Its ugliness made him want to turn away, but the voice bade him look.

‘You must stop it,’ said the voice. ‘This is what I ask of you.’

‘I must stop it,’ he repeated. He thought for some time, trying to understand. ‘It’s bad, isn’t it?’ he said at length. ‘I never saw anything so foul.’ The shuttle continued onwards, a mindless dead thing, a relentless pill of poison. It stank — even from here, it stank.

‘This is a little thing, a simple enough task,’ said the voice. ‘But. . . important,’ it added, enunciating the word carefully, its voice elongating into a protracted hiss, bleeding away into nothing.

‘Yes.’

‘Can you do this for me?’ The voice was fading now. Fading. . .

‘Yes,’ he whispered, awakening in front of his bedroom window. His face was pressed up tight against the pane, the palms of his hands also flat against it. The belt hung silently before him. He was wearing pyjamas, his feet bare on the cold metal floor. ‘Yes,’ he whispered again, his heart racing in his chest. ‘Yes. . .’

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