They called it Outpost Vincenzo, the smallest of three outposts in the ass-crack of Callisto. Astro-Garrison Multinational funded the place as a pet project, and they ran it like a corporation runs anything: by cutting as many corners as possible. Your cell on earth was more fit for outer space, and the air was fresher, too. Every time someone flushed the toilet, the nuclear reactor hiccuped. Even the scenery sucked: a landscape of barren rock with a few pitiful attempts at terraformed gardens, while Jupiter’s ugly ass filled the sky and stared accusingly down at everyone like the eye of God. It was a failed attempt at terraforming the moon’s surface for colonization, demoted to an interstellar truck stop for passing starships.
It managed to do ONE thing right, though. It was impossible to escape from. The nearest dot of civilization was light-years away. The Geneva Convention was even further.
This was your assessment of the place your first hour as a visitor, after you had been registered, quarantined, and scanned for space bedbugs. You were forced into a snug new prison jumpsuit — it doubled as a temporary space suit in emergencies — and shoved up the hall to the commander’s office. He looked like a gorilla with a crew cut and smiled like the Grim Reaper.
You knew you were in trouble when you glanced out the office window and saw your ship taking off without you.
“I’m Commander Philo,” said the gorilla. “Your ship was called to make an emergency pickup, and they don’t have room for you and the cargo, so they’re leaving you in our care for a few weeks. Consider it an extended vacation. Compared to where you’re going, Vincenzo is a resort.”
He looked over your file, occasionally glancing at you like a hangnail he was thinking about biting off. You thought about your destination: the Rock, the cosmic version of Alcatraz, where bad earthlings were sent to disappear forever.
“You’re a disgrace to the human race,” Philo finally said, dropping the file on the desktop as he walked around the desk to your side. “No wonder they booted your ass off the planet.”
“But I’m great with kids,” you said.
The gorilla replied by jamming a cattle prod into your testicles on full charge. When you stopped vomiting and your eyesight came back, he was hovering over you with that damn smile. “They call me the Lord of Pain around here. You’re in my castle now, and don’t you ever forget it.”
Philo had you thrown into a closet with a fluorescent-lit cot and a glorified bedpan with plumbing. There you rotted for two weeks, with no company but the ever-staring eye of Jupiter overhead, and only the occasional beating or sleep deprivation experiment to occupy your time. Even in your dreams, Philo was a giant skull-faced monster whose giant, bony hands brought only pain.
Starships came and went every hour. If it weren’t for that, boredom would have driven you as batshit as the commander already.
The arrival of an AGM freighter caused a notable stir. The captain was a woman, her curves evident through her spacesuit even at a distance. She argued with two hangar grunts for ten minutes; then a spaceman with commander’s stripes moonwalked out to her and argued for another fifteen. Eventually a guard came and escorted you to the rec room where Commander Philo was having coffee with the captain, her hair red and flowing like wine.
“You’re the new tenant, yeah?” she said, offering her hand to you. She was Australian.
You didn’t take the hand. “Who’s askin’?”
“Captain Dobkin. My impulse drive is cactus maximus, and we got an important delivery to make. The commander says you’re shipping out to the Rock ‘cuz of a hijacking.”
“Wasn’t my idea,” you said. “The shipping OR the hijacking.”
“He says you’re ace with fixing ships. You were an engineer on earth, yeah?”
“Out of the goddamned question,” said Philo. “He’s breaking the law just by LOOKING at a ship!”
She ignored him. “All Philo’s techies are green, and we have a deadline to keep.”
You raised an eyebrow. “What’s your cargo? Caviar?”
“Six sleepy space monks.” When she saw everyone’s confused looks, she grinned. “That was my reaction, too. They’re from that monastery on Titan, the one that went Defcon 1 awhile back. Picked up their distress signal on the way back from Pluto, HQ wanted ’em brought in ASAP.”
“I thought nobody survived that disaster.”
“These guys did, but they’re all veggies. We gotta keep ’em cold and keep ’em under ’til we get ’em home. The admins wanna poke around in their brains, find out what happened there. Power surge cacked the life support systems, and my guys won’t go near those damn monks to check on ’em. It happens again, our cargo’s liable to spoil. Or worse, wake up and try to convert us.”
“What do I get?”
Philo grabbed your collar and shook you violently. “Convicts don’t bargain. They do as they’re told.”
Dobkin smiled coyly at you as she stood up. “We got a synthetic navigator named Stella. She’s a beauty. I can letcha borrow ‘er for an hour. That do?”
You grinned. “I prefer redheads.”
The redheaded captain scowled. “Get ‘im a toolbelt,” she said as she dropped her helmet and headed back out to the ship. “You make me late, Philo, it’ll cost you YOUR job, too.”
It was easy to see why the crew was so nervous once you met the cargo. The monks’ cryotubes were lined up in the cargo bay like a six-pack of beer, secured in an upright position with bungee cords. All six were male, bald, pale, and had spooky aquiline features that made them resemble Roman statues. Their dead eyes stared blankly at the outside world.
You did a quick diagnostic check and found the surge protectors had been fried, along with one of the cryostasis tubes’ control modules. You had just popped it apart to check the innards when you heard the dripping sound and glanced up.
Crimson ichor was oozing out of the cracks of the cryotube and slowly dribbling upward in noxious ropes as if gravity had been reversed, forming an ugly red puddle on the ceiling. You glanced back at the monk itself and found its dead eyes staring directly into you.
Something tried to claw its way into your mind, but you scrambled out of there before the visions got too vivid. After hearing your description of the scene, Philo took a dozen armed men into the cargo bay with the Captain and her first mate in tow. The ceiling was now a hellish crimson lake, and the statue-like monks were all looking directly at the commander. You could hear his mind snap like a twig.
Commander Philo opened his mouth to shriek the order to open fire just as the puddle spurted. The stream went straight down his throat.
You relished his screams at first, but once the alien chuttering started — what sounded like laughter — and the tentacles started ripping out of him, you were the first to bail. You don’t remember much after that, except vague snippets of people being torn in half, guards with hideous yellow eyes turning their guns on their comrades, and the outpost twisting in its foundation as if reality itself were rejecting it.
That was two days ago. You’ve kept quiet and hidden since then, listening to the former staff members chattering in alien gibberish on the radio; to the howls from the deepest reaches of your nightmares, echoing deeper within the outpost. All you had to do was sit tight until the next ship arrived, then get the hell outta dodge. You’d take the ship over if you had to — Philo had plenty of guns and ammo laying around the outpost. Or he DID, anyway, before the space-time continuum shit the bed and turned everyone into mumbling space-boogeymen.
As you relieved a dead starport guard of his pistol, the base intercom suddenly kicked on, and the screen in the nearby wall crackled to life. Grinning at you through the static was a nightmare caricature of the skull-face you had grown to loathe.
“THERE you are, Dead Man,” it rumbled. “Thought I’d forgotten about our playtime schedule, huh?”
You swallowed your bile. “Hey, Philo. Love the new makeover.”
“Good,” the thing slobbered, “‘cos you’re next in line. Sit tight. Pain Lord’s comin’ to getcha.”
The screen crackled and went black. Further up the hall, a door whined open, and through it came a chorus of alien babble, drawing closer with every word.