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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Infested

Stephen V. Ramey lives in an 1870's Victorian home in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, where yesterday gives way only grudgingly to tomorrow. His short fiction has appeared in various genre and non-genre markets. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink and is one of the founders of the popular Write 1 Sub 1 project. He blogs at Ramey Writes.
Our paranoia is infinite today. And not without reason. We have just endured a journey to and from Mars orbit in full view of the world. Areas of the ship that were supposed to be off-limits were not. Every bowel movement, every wet dream and dry heave, a veritable sampler of trysts--it has all been broadcast, sprinkled across the globe like so much Hollywood glitter. The ultimate Reality Show, with our crew of six as unaware actors.
Jimmy found the first pinhole camera. He brought it to me, pinched between his fingers like an insect with overlong legs. A frown fixed on his blocky face. His blue eyes blinked and blinked again.
"Do you think there're others, Cap?"
Cockroaches came to mind.
"I doubt it," I said. "It's probably just a prototype. Where'd you find it?"
"In the toilet, next to the lid hinge, you know?"
I nodded. Inside I was cringing. If the company had sold access to "special" interest groups, they'd sold it to everyone. I could not prevent my eyes from tracking to the cabin wall. Any of those rivets might be a camera.
"Back to your station," I told Jimmy.
"Should I look for more, Cap? Should I tell the others?"
"No," I said. "Let's keep this to ourselves for now, okay?"
"Sure, Cap." Jimmy turned crisply and left. The camera lay on my workstation, aimed at the far wall. With a shudder, I crushed it beneath a magnetic paperweight. One down, a thousand to go?
Of course I contacted Control.
"Really?" the tech said. I didn't recognize him. There's a lot of turnover in the control room.
"Really," I said, holding up the decapitated device.
The tech squinted. He frowned.
"Patch me through to Anderson," I said.
Liv Anderson didn't squint. She knew. I could see it in her steady gaze.
"You can be sure we'll get to the bottom of this, Captain Blevin," she said.
I can tell you the bottom of it, I thought. The bottom line.
Sharon came a few hours later. A tentative tap at the hatch, and I looked up to see her standing there, arms pressed tightly across her chest. She looked frantic, eyes darting from place to place, on the verge of tears.
"I found a camera in the crew quarters," she said. "In the shared laptop."
"How did you find it?" I said.
"The screen shorted, so I took it apart and... and..."
I stood. "It's okay."
She shook her head violently. "What if there are cameras here too? What if Carl sees... sees me... us?"
"It's okay," I said. It's too late, I thought. We were all married with kids, solid conservative family types in keeping with the current political climate. Long months of isolation will do strange things to a psyche though. I don't care who you are.
"What will happen to us?" she said. "You'll lose your commission. I'll... I'll..."
"Let it go," I said. "We can't control how others react."
"No," she said, suddenly angry. "But we damned sure could have controlled our own behavior. How can you be so calm about this? Did you know?"
"Of course not," I said. "I would never do that to you."
She looked doubtful, but turned and left the cabin without further comment.
By the next shift, the entire crew was in on the secret. They tore apart the sleeping room, inspected computers and lights and speakers, scratched paint from any protrusion or intrusion in the cabin walls.
Camera after camera found its way to my cabin, accompanied by infinitesimal microphones, sound amplifiers, night vision LEDs, you name it. I gave up trying to destroy them all.
Control continued to stonewall even with this pile of evidence. One bug, two maybe, but no way could they have launched a vessel infested with spying devices and not known about them. I told them to demand an updated schematic from the prime contractor, giving them a way out of the mess. They didn't bite. I used to envy Liv's composure. Now I hated it.
Yesterday, Gary found a bug in the main control panel, a listening device. He had to reroute a secondary thruster to get it out. Then Jimmy spotted a camera embedded in the airlock seal. By this time, the crew was frothing over this violation. I didn't point out that we'd signed waivers giving up many of our privacy rights. Standard protocol.
To date I had avoided searching my own cabin, but as the hours to re-entry counted down, I lost it. We were supposed to be heroes, not fodder for late-night streaming. Every time I tried to work, I felt eyes staring at me through the screen. Every time I heard a voice, it came from outside the hull, a steady patter of gossip I could not quite make out.
When Jimmy appeared in my hatchway, I was elbow-deep in light panel circuitry.
"Cap?" he said. "Re-entry in forty minutes." His gaze took in the shrapnel I had harvested. "Ship intercom's out," he added. Then he turned to go, no explanation required.
Now, I'm strapped into the re-entry capsule, staring at a blank space where the cockpit viewport used to be. Buttons hang from wires. My fists clench the RCS control wheel as usual, but I have no idea whether the thrusters will continue to respond.
Gary sits in the copilot seat. He's long and lanky and usually gregarious. Now he's quiet, lips compressed behind the smoky face shield of his EVA suit. My own face shield is cracked. I shouldn't have done that, but it was staring at me.
"In ten, nine, eight," Gary says.
I feel the first lick of atmosphere, the slightest shudder. Already the cabin seems too hot.
"Here goes nothing," Jimmy says from behind us.
I almost hope we missed a camera. If the world is going to kill us, I'd like to make it watch.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 17th, 2012


This story originated from a prompt at Liberty Hall Writers. I write a good many flash fictions from prompts, but they seldom emerge anywhere near complete. This one did. I edited and polished, of course, but the narrative flow and core issues of privacy and increasing corporate intrusion into our life-space came immediately to the page. Most likely this reflects my interest in the various Occupy movements, combined with a fascination for society's fascination with "reality" programming and social networking. Big Brother Goes to Mars.

Why not?

- Stephen V. Ramey

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