Kei stared at the map illuminated on the wall.

“We were here, right?” he said, tapping the screen. “The Parisia housing unit. We’ve only gone through three bulkheads, so how can we be in Athens Gardens?”

Smithson shrugged. “You must be reading the map wrong, sir.” She came over to examine it herself.

“Maybe,” Kei said, frowning. “It just seems like we’ve come a lot further than we have. I mean… I don’t know. What do you think, Mr. Kenji?” He’d learned that if he wanted Kenji’s advice, he had to ask for it. The man always had something to say, but his refusal to volunteer his opinions was a little frustrating at times.

The older man stroked his beard. “It could be a malfunction in the map.” As if to prove his point, the map flickered a few times before coming back dimly. “If we are in the Athens Garden, and it certainly appears that way, it puts us closer to the bridge than expected.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “The information center here might have hard copies of the floor plan. I’ve found paper is less likely to malfunction.”

Kei looked around. Over the last thirty years, the garden had turned in to a jungle. Vines crawled across the walkways. Bushes engulfed the fences that surrounded them. One of the large cobblestones was split down the middle where a tree root had gone searching for water.

The lighting was virtually non-existent. Moss had grown over all of the floor lights, and the ones on the ceiling could barely penetrate the canopy. Staticy recordings of birdsongs played over the aging speakers.

“It must have been beautiful thirty years ago,” Smithson said. She rarely made comment like that; the military tended to crush that kind of thinking, or at least train soldiers to keep it to themselves. He liked it when she opened up, though. He felt he got to see the real Paige Smithson.

“It’s beautiful now,” Mr. Kenji said absently, shining his flashlight over the trees.

Kei thought “spooky” might be a better word, but he didn’t say anything. “Smithson, why don’t you take point?”

“Yes, sir,” she nodded. She moved down the overgrown path, sweeping back and forth with the light attached to her rifle.

They came to a clearing with a large fountain made of white marble in the middle. The gap in the trees let the light from above come down. It was surprisingly bright after the poorly lit corridors and even darker garden.

Surprisingly, the fountain was still working. But then again, if the plumbing had broken here, there wouldn’t be this jungle. Four statues of women surrounded it. They were done to resemble the ancient Greek style. Each had a pot on her shoulder, and water flowed in an endless rush into the fountain between them.

“The information center should be around here somewhere, but I don’t see it,” Kei frowned.

“Over there,” Smithson said, pointing her gun at a wall of vines. “Must have overgrown it.”

Kei clipped his light to his shoulder and drew out his combat knife. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he crossed the plaza. He had the strange sense he was being watched, but he did his best to ignore it as he started cutting away at the vines.

There was indeed a door hidden there, and it slid open at his touch. Dust flowed out and making his water and causing him to sneeze.

“Should have put my helmet up,” he said, trying to sound casual as he wiped at his eyes. “Was that statue always like that?” he asked, once he could see again. The closest statue was turned at the waist so she was looking away from the fountain and towards the information center. She only held her pot with one arm, the other held a finger to her lips.

Smithson looked at the statues, then back to Kei. “Must have been,” she said.

“But why only her?” he asked. “The others are all looking in to the fountain, and using both hands to hold their pots. Why is this one different?”

“She was probably supposed to be pointing to the information center, so people could find it, only the artist messed up.”

“You’d think they’d fix something like that.”

She shrugged. “From what I understand the Starland was well past deadline and over-budget by the time they launched. No time or money to bother fixing statues.”

Kei wasn’t really sure he wanted to think on this any longer. He was starting to feel very uncomfortable here. It was probably the dust.

“Hold this point while I see if there’s any maps in tact. See if you can get through to Kain while you’re at it. I’d really like a status report by now.” She could also tell them where the hell they were, but that didn’t sound like a very Captainy thing to say. He took another breath, and entered the information center.

“Welcome to the-” Kei jumped at the voice, flinging his knife at the source in a panic. It bounced off the cheerful face of an automaton.

“Please refrain from littering in the Athens Gardens, sir.”

Kei’s heart was racing, and he hoped that Smithson and Mr. Kenji hadn’t noticed anything. He collected his knife, then stopped, looking at the automaton. Aside from the dust, she looked like she was in good condition. She was modeled to look like a young woman in her twenties, dressed like a flight attendant.

“Can you tell me what happened here?” he asked.

“Certainly, sir,” she said. She whirred slightly when she moved, he noticed. Dust in her motors, no doubt. “The Athens Garden was built by Mr. And Mrs. Tobias as a place to relax and enjoy the peacefulness of nature, even during trans-solar flights. This area is filled with flora from the midwestern United States. If you-”

“Cancel response,” Kei ordered. “Can you tell me what happened to the ship?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, in that same cheerful tone. “I don’t understand the question. Try being more specific.”

“Where did all the people go?”

“I’m sorry. This information is protected to ensure our clients’ privacy. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

He sighed. Automatons weren’t very bright, and this model was thirty years old. “Do you have any maps?”

“Of course,” she said, gesturing to a dust-covered table beside her. “Please help yourself.”

He took a map, and turned to leave.

“Thank you stopping by. Have a nice day-day-day-day-death.” He was halfway out the door, but he turned back sharply.

“What did you say?” he asked. She had slumped forward and didn’t respond. Her programming must have finally crashed.

“The sooner we’re off this hunk of metal, the better,” Kei muttered. “Is everything all right out here?”

Smithson was staring down a pathway, her gun braced against her shoulder. “Thought I heard something,” she reported. “Laughter. Probably just a glitch in the ambient noise systems, though.”

Kei glanced around. Something was off — even more off than before, at any rate. The statue raising her finger to her lips was smiling at him. He was almost positive she wasn’t smiling before. The other two hadn’t moved.

“Smithson,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Where’d the fourth statue go?”

She turned around, lowering her gun, but keeping it ready. She stared at the fountain. “There’s no way someone could have moved it,” she said. “Not without me hearing it.”

“I’ve got another question,” he said. His heart was beating painfully against his ribs, as he drew out his sidearm and flipped the safety off. “Where did Mr. Kenji go?”

Advertisements