The last shop he’d visited was several floors up. Jianyu made the ascent slowly, careful with his footing on the ladder. The bag dug into his shoulder, and he had to stop and adjust it twice.
This floor had been busier when he stepped into the lift, but now it was just as empty as the bottom level. There were more screens on the walls here, positioned so that they could show news or advertisements, but all of them were now tuned to the same Security Lockdown message. The dull red on the backlit screens cast the whole hallway in a strange light. It was silent too; Jianyu hadn’t noticed that white noise had been playing before until he realized that it was missing now. His footsteps reverberated on the floor, and he was uncomfortably aware of the sound of his own ragged breathing after the climb.
He stopped outside the store, looking through the window with its display of packaged treats from a multitude of planets. The storefront was still open, but the cashier was gone. Jianyu remembered her: a human girl, brown-haired, exuberantly cheerful at the prospect of a big sale. She’d talked him into buying some candy made with sugar produced by cyanobacteria; Jianyu hadn’t been sure if the crew would like the taste, but she assured him that it was safe for human consumption and most customers didn’t complain.
Maybe something had happened to her. Jianyu got closer to the window, cupping his hands to cut out the glare of the store’s illuminated sign as he looked through the glass. One of the display racks had been knocked over. There were packages of chips scattered all over the floor.
Jianyu eased the bag off his shoulder so that both his hands would be free. He hadn’t bought anything that would work as a weapon, and he wasn’t in the habit of carrying a gun. He stepped into the store carefully, looking around, but he couldn’t see the cashier or whoever had knocked over the rack. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up, and his gills fluttered involuntarily. Maybe she’d only stepped out, scared by the eerie security message. Maybe something had happened to her in the half hour since Jianyu had walked away from her counter.
He squatted on the floor, looking for some clue amid the scattered chips. There was nothing out of the ordinary there, besides the tipped rack and the half-crushed merchandise. He’d worked himself up over nothing, just a weird computer glitch and an empty store.
Something hit him in the back of the head.
The whole world went white, and then the pain came crashing in, an agony that was sharp and crushing all at the same time. His thigh ached, a distant second to the pain in his head. He’d lost his balance and tipped over sideways, and he must had landed hard.
He put his hand up to shield his skull and his assailant hit him again, a more glancing blow this time since his forearm caught the brunt of it. It was still enough to send pain shooting up to his elbow, and his head throbbed again. He scooted sideways, crashing into a wire shelf, which tipped half its contents onto him.
Jianyu tried to stand, but his leg
s weren’t getting the message. Neither was his tongue, when he tried to say something. The best he could manage was an awkward lurch in the direction of the wobbly shelf, which rocked the other way and fell down. That at least got him facing in the other direction, and he could look up at the stranger who’d attacked him.
It was–no, it wasn’t a stranger. It was the cashier, no longer smiling, with a length of metal pipe already raised above her head for a third strike. “What?” he managed to get out, bringing both arms in front of his face just before the pipe slammed into them. It was a bone-numbing jolt, and all the pain was beginning to blur together now, a riot of sensations he couldn’t make sense of.
“What are you doing?” he tried to ask, but the words weren’t coming out properly. Her mouth moved, but his ears were ringing so badly that he couldn’t catch what she was saying. Something about an attack. Well, yes, she was attacking him. That seemed obvious.
He reached for her as she brought the pipe down again, and managed to wrap his fingers around it even as the metal smacked into his palm. He yanked, and she tried to keep her hold on her weapon but she stumbled, tripping on a chip packet and then over the wire rack. A crash, a moment of confusion, and then they were both on the ground, Jianyu trying to simultaneously wrestle the pipe away from her and keep her at arm’s length. He was stronger than she was, but he was also confused and hurt, and it took some effort to wrench the weapon away from her and grab her by the front of her shirt.
He looked up, and saw a ring of concerned faces. More strangers, a variety of species. Three of them were wearing station security uniforms. Oh, thank goodness. Surely they’d be able to help.
“She attacked me,” Jianyu tried to say, but the words weren’t coming out right, he could tell even as he tried to speak that there was something wrong.
“He’s one of them,” the cashier shrieked, trying to kick Jianyu.
“Take it easy. He’s not going to hurt you,” said one of the security officers, stepping forward. He had the slight stature and unnaturally perfect face of a Falacerian, and Jianyu realized with a jolt of fear that there was something really wrong with his head, because his features seemed to flicker. The whole scene was flickering, blurring out and coming back in, the sound and light wobbling like a degraded signal. The security officer reached for something hanging on his belt. A stun baton. Good. Someone was taking control of this situation. Jianyu relaxed his grip on the woman’s shirt, although he kept ahold of the pipe in case she tried to go for it again.
The officer brought the baton around in an arc. Jianyu had just enough time for one last burst of confusion before it connected with his shoulder and the world went grey.