“You know,” said Cortland, looking out the window over the big blue arc of the Pacific below. “I became an astronaut because I wanted to explore space. Not in some weird, ‘penetrating unto the womb of creation’ shit, mind you, but because I thought, well, that we could learn so much if we just got off the planet. Not just about the universe, right, but about ourselves, about being human.”
“Well, we’re learning something about humanity today, aren’t we,” said Garza, pulling her hair back and adjusting her short ponytail. She’d been up for 150 days already, and her hair was starting to get long.
“I guess you’re right,” sighed Cortland, pulling vacuum-sealed bags of champagne out of their box and sticking them into the emptied specimen refrigerator. They’d been forced to discard the spore cultures Heim had been working on, but Oliver Lapham, tech billionaire, space enthusiast, and owner of the International Orbital Station was coming to visit his hundred-billion-dollar baby, and he wanted cold champagne when he got there.
The launch of Lapham’s MegaEagle 3 Rocket from his private facility in West Texas went off without a hitch and earned Lapham $300 million dollars when the stock in his company bumped up in response. Wrapped like a mummy in weighted pressure bandages, he felt the last rumble of the rocket soften to a low purr as they left the atmosphere and entered low earth orbit. He grinned across the deck at the three people he’d brought with him: Lisa Glendon, reporter and TV personality; Paul Ames, essayist, novelist, and affected cynic; and, of course, Liam Whack, Lapham’s aide-de-camp, general factotum, and assistant.
The three of them looked a little green around the gills, he thought. Long-suffering Whack had simply closed his eyes and kept them closed, resigned to his fate. Glendon’s long-practiced reporter’s bravado made her return Lapham’s devil-may-care grin while Ames, feeling his machismo threatened, affected a profoundly contrived yawn.
What a bunch of fucking scumbags, thought Lapham, vampires trying to ride his coattails. His smile widened.
Through various convoluted and semi-legal business maneuverings Lapham actually owned Glendon’s news network as well as several of Ames’s publishers, both for his dense and elusive novels as well as for the famously sardonic articles that appeared regularly in the trendiest magazines. The two people belonged to him too, as much as the rocket did, as much the space station. Once he got them aboard for their two weeks long visit, the PR would flow out like a river of gold. It was the last nail in the coffin he’d built for public space programs. Satellites, rockets, and now his space station; he WAS the Space Program, by God, from launch to landing. He owned the sky, and now the rest of the world would know it to be true.
He leaned back and snuggled down into the wrappings. Deep within there folds, he fondled the good luck charm he always carried with him: the wolf’s tooth his grandfather had killed in the Carpathians. It hadn’t let him down yet.
The champagne better be cold, he thought, looking over his head at the endless night out the window of his rocket.
Garza yawned, blinked, and watched as the rocket docked with the station. They’d had to adjust their sleep schedules to accommodate their visitors, coming off the usual GMT time and transferring over to the Mountain Standard of Lapham’s West Texas launch facility. Their status as employees of a federal agency existed largely only on paper, anymore – they worked for Lapham now, and that meant that when the boss said jump, you asked how high.
She switched the intercom on and listened to the navigation chatter between Cortland and the rocket pilot. She wondered if they felt the same way about their job as Cortland did? Fifty years ago, “Rocket Pilot” must’ve been the sexiest job you could imagine. Now he was, basically, a chauffeur, ferrying Lapham up and then, once he’d unloaded the passengers and the “scientific cargo” (a nonfunctioning but very pretty light-up prop battery for Lapham’s electric car division as well as a cheap desktop 3D printer that’d net Lapham a cool quarter-billion next quarter), the poor bastard would turn around and head back home to wait. Just ridiculous.
The door behind her hissed open, and Heim, dour and taciturn since his spores had been autoclaved, floated in to join her.
“They here yet?” he said in his thick Flemish accent.
“Just about. Cortland’s guiding them in.”
“What sort of buffoonery is expected of us, do you think?” he said, peering out the window with her. The rocket had matched the rotation of the station, and now the atmosphere tube was extending slowly to meet it. Garza kicked the box of champagne packs at her feet.
“Drinks with astronauts, man, what could be better?”
“Letting us get on with our work,” said Heim, frowning.
What the champagne lacked in quality it made up for in novelty. Spiking straws into the packs, Lapham had toasted “bold frontiers,” and they all sipped as they floated placidly in the large common area of the station.
“Not very fizzy,” said the writer Ames, squinting at the label. He refused to wear the thick-rimmed glasses Lapham had made for him, saying the tight strap gave him a headache.
“But cold,” said Lisa Glendon, her camera at the ready.
“ – it better be, got rid of my specimens –” mumbled Heim, chewing on his straw.
“We got it in the fridge twenty-four hours in advance,” said Cortland, flashing his best smile at the reporter. “As instructed.”
“You know,” said Lapham, “When the monks invented Champagne, the first one who tasted it said to his fellows ‘Brothers, we have bottled the stars!’ Well, I’ve been thinking; we should expand the Station’s hydroponics to include some wine grapes, create the first orbital winery, hey! ‘Bottle the stars!’ would look good on the label, hm? Ha ha! Whack, are you writing this down?”
“My pen isn’t working,” responded Whack, his voice wracked with apology. Garza handed him a pencil, which he accepted with a look of undying thanks, and began scribbling.
“ – terrible idea, uncontrolled fermentation in a space station, Jesus Christ – ” muttered Heim. Lapham narrowed his eyes in his direction, and Heim shut up.
“It’s not too bad once it warms up,” said Ames, grabbing a second bag of Champagne.
“How about a tour!” said Lapham, clapping his hands.
Even for a structure as large as the International Orbital Station, a seven strong tour group was a little crowded. Lapham suggested they split up, with him, Commander Cortland, and Lisa Glendon taking a clockwise orbit through the structure, leaving Garza in charge of Ames and a visibly distraught Whack. Heim would remain behind to set up the “experiments” for a demonstration that Glendon would film, later.
“Are you sure you won’t need me, sir?” asked Whack, as Lapham followed Cortland out the door and into the passage towards the exercise room.
“I’ll be fine, enjoy yourself Liam!” said Lapham, as the door slide shut behind them. Whack floated sadly over to Garza.
“Well, shall we go for a stroll?” said Garza.
“If we must,” sighed Ames, pocketing another champagne bag. They floated down the passage, Ames and Whack flailing miserably while Garza, a practiced zero-G navigator, knifed serenely through the air. She gave a brief rundown of the station and its operations as they went.
“The I.O.S. is the largest space station ever constructed, one point six linear miles of living and working space designed to help humanity reach for the stars. Built like a hexagon, the six cylindrical modules (A through F) are connected to one another by multiple passages (two located at the ends of each cylinder and one in the middle, extending across the empty space and intersecting perpendicularly with the passages heading in the other direction). This allows for multiple paths of travel and plenty of space to stretch out, avoiding the extreme close quarters of previous long-term space missions.” She opened the door to the next module and they followed her through into the damp warmth of hydroponics.
“And how many astronauts are here, now?” asked Ames, bonking his head against a watering array attached to one of the walls. She grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back towards the central walkway, helping him get his velcro socks hooked in place.
“Well,” she answered, hopping free to retrieve Whack, whose out of control spiraling threatened their whole tomato crop. “Right now,” she said, grabbing him by the leg and dragging him down to safety. “Just three – the Commander, myself, and Dr. Heim.”
“Pretty sparse,” said Ames, poking at the nutrient bag feeding the carrots.
“Small numbers are easier to handle, for now.”
“Two men and just one woman, though,” leered Ames. Garza ignored him, leading them through the module, pointing out the experimental plants at the far end and shepherding them around the UV lamps that hung low over the rows. They exited and were floating through another long passage, Ames and Whack making use of the hand holds while Garza dove quickly down the centerline of the corridor.
“This is an example of the habitation modules,” she said, ushering them in through the door. “Sliding walls and curtains provide privacy, and there’s plenty of modularity built into the space to allow for customization and personalization of each space.” God, she thought, I sound like a fucking real estate agent.
“But no one lives here now,” said Ames, peering into one of the sleeping nooks.
“We’re currently getting it ready for a group coming in soon,” Garza said. “There’s a whole team of Chinese scientists scheduled for the week after you guys.”
“I hear about half of them are billionaires too,” said Ames, arching an eyebrow.
“Part of the research done on this station is studying how civilians adapt to space travel,” she said, smoothly. Goddamn, she thought, I’m too good at this bullshit.
She took them through her geophysics lab, where she explained her work studying the earth’s magnetosphere. They went through Heim’s biology lab, with his microbes and spiders and one fat grey rat that had adapted to microgravity much more quickly than the two civilians wobbling along behind her. They went through the galley; they saw the humming water recycling cylinders and marveled at the massive power plant. Ames bumped his tailbone, hard, against one of the doors and Whack had vomited twice (blessedly, into a bag each time), but they eventually made it back to the common room shortly after Cortland’s group.
Lapham was speaking as they entered.
“Of course, in the future,” he was saying, speaking mostly to Glendon, “we’ll try different ways to simulate gravity. Space wheels, for instance, or a single large rotating cylinder, things of that nature. These designs don’t exist; I will build them.” He turned at the sound of the door. “Ah, all back together then. How was the tour Ames, did Dr. Garza show you all the dark corners? Ha ha! No, but seriously, I hope you can see the kind of vision we all have for this place, the sort of things we can do.” He turned, his velcro socks crackling as he walked over to Heim. “Take this for example, and maybe this is something you’ll want to record, Lisa?” She took the hint and produced her compact camera with its small directional microphone. “Ready?”
“Ready,” she answered. Cortland and Garza exchanged quick glances.
“Is there any more of that champagne?” whispered Ames to Garza.
“What we have here,” said Lapham, beaming down the lens of the small camera. “Well, why don’t I let Dr. Heim explain?” He clapped him on the shoulder and smiled at him.
“It’s a 3-D printer –” Heim began.
“Right,” interrupted Lapham, “but the interesting thing about this one, the really revolutionary thing about it, in addition to its size and power and efficiency, of course, is that unlike most 3-D printers, which require being connected to a computer that houses the digital plans for whatever object you want to make, this one, instead, has a digital scanner that will quickly register the shape of the object, translate it into a plan, and then allow you to reproduce whatever you need! Remarkable, isn’t it?” Heim stared blankly forward.
“Yes, well,” continued Lapham, “let’s show how this works, shall we? Ah, do you have an object I could borrow, something interesting?” Heim looked around, and then leaned down and pulled a wrench from the magnetic strip on the underside of the work desk. “Ah, well, that’s, ah, too big to fit in the scanner. Anything else, anyone?” There was a shuffling search of pockets. Cortland offered a pencil (“too boring!”) and Ames asked for more champagne again. Lapham’s eye began to twitch, making his assistant Whack tremble, before he suddenly smacked his head, his face brightening. “Of course, here’s something of immense interest!” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the wolf’s tooth. “I always have this with me. It’s sort of my lucky charm; my grandfather, a very great hunter, gave it too me once as a sort of talisman I guess. I know what you’re thinking,” Lapham laughed, winking into Glendon’s camera, “how can this great engineer, a scientist really, believe such superstitious rot? Well, perhaps, but as Hamlet said to Horatio, there are more things –”
Heim, cursing in Flemish, reached for the tooth just as Lapham was gesticulating theatrically. Its sharp end, yellow and ragged, jabbed into the palm of Heim’s hand, and three tiny ruby drops leapt from the wound and began to float away, glittering redly in the bright light.
“Fuck!” hissed Lapham, pressing his hand against his chest. Garza was already diving for the first aid kit while Cortland, pushing between Lapham and Heim, grabbed a sample dish to catch the blood droplets.
“They didn’t get anywhere, did they?” asked Heim.
“No, I got them,” said Cortland, exhaling in relief. Even a small amount of stray fluid could be disastrous if it got into the delicate electronics of the station. Garza quickly examined the wound.
“Nothing serious, shallow,” she said.
“Just moving too fast,” said Heim.
“No worries, here we go, antiseptic, and some tape,” she closed the box. “I’ll check it later, make sure there’s no infection, but I think you’ll be fine.”
“Oh well,” Lapham said, “accidents will happen.” The twitch in his eyelid had returned. He turned to Glendon. “You can edit that out, I assume?” Thumbs up. “Fine, excellent. Well, shall we begin…”
After an hour, including a realignment of the printer’s spindle and a reinstallation of the onboard drivers, they produced a blue plastic replica of Lapham’s lucky wolf tooth. Lapham held it up next to the original and grinned at the camera, then gave the plastic tooth to Heim.
“Although I shouldn’t be rewarding your clumsiness, I suppose! Ha ha!” he laughed.
Following the excitement of the printer, there was relatively relaxes supper, explanations regarding the toilets, and the assignment of sleeping quarters to the visitors.
“Commander Cortland,” said Glendon, right before bed. “I was wonder if you could get me up early. I’d like to capture a sunrise, if possible?”
“No need for a wake-up call, Ms. Glendon,” smiled Cortland. “We complete a full orbit of the earth every 90 minutes or so. Get sixteen sunrises a day here!”
“Amazing!” said Glendon. “Sixteen a day. And sunsets!”
“And moon rises,” added Cortland. “In fact, should be the full moon soon. They’re pretty spectacular to see, from up here.”
“Sounds very romantic,” she said, winking up at the tall Commander, who blushed furiously.
Their guests safely in bed, the three astronauts finished up the remaining champagne that they’d hidden from Ames.
“That was exhausting,” said Garza.
“They’re a handful,” nodded Cortland.
“They’re idiots, they’ll get in the way of everything,” said Heim, scratching at his bandaged palm.
“Lemme see,” said Garza. “Looks inflamed. Let me put some more antibiotics on that,” she said.
“I’ll do it, thanks, Xochitl,” said Heim. They cleaned up, and Heim recleaned and resealed the angry red wound on his hand. Then, a final toast, and they went to bed.
“Gonna be a long two weeks,” sighed Heim, tossing the plastic tooth into the autoclave.
Despite some zero-G nausea, the visitors aboard the IOS got through the day relatively unscathed. Ames hung close to Garza, pretending to take notes, while Glendon filmed everything she could, or at least tried to when she wasn’t being asked to capture Lapham pontificating about the future of space commerce. In fact, the only trouble was Heim’s hand, which seemed to get worse as they day wore on, the wound becoming angrier and redder. By suppertime, Cortland was beginning to get worried.
“I’m, I don’t know, feeling tired, too,” said Heim. He was sweating, and his skin was flushed and ruddy. Cortland held his hand up to the light and examined the red scratch with a hand lens.
“It’s infected, but it’s not hot or running or anything.” He let himself drift up a bit as he thought. “Does the wound ache?” Heim shook his head. “What do you think?” he asked Garza.
“We could begin a round of antibiotics,” she said.
“Oh, no, my God, please,” said Heim. “It’ll destroy my digestion, and I don’t want to have to deal with that, not up here.” Cortland smiled and shrugged.
“Okay, no drugs for now,” said Cortland. “But if it still looks like that tomorrow, we’ll have to give you a needle. Now, I know you’ll be upset, but I think you ought to skip the evening socializing and head to your bunk for some rest.” Heim brightened considerably.
“Every cloud has its silver lining,” he said with a wave of his wounded hand as he passed through the door to the crew quarters.
“Ah, you know, Commander,” said Garza, “I’m, uh, not feeling to good myself…”
“Oh no, I’m not facing them alone,” said Cortland. “C’mon, full moon rising in…” he looked at his watch, “half-an-hour, that’ll give ‘em something to ogle.”
Heim was beginning to worry that something was really wrong. He stopped himself in the middle of the second long passage, choking down another wave of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him, same as he’d had in the kitchen module after he’d left Cortland and Garza. It bubbled up inside him, squirming through his guts, making his head swim. He held himself as still as possible, arms linked around one of the handholds, and counted his breathing. If he could just get to his bunk, that’s what he needed, just get someplace familiar. After another minute, the sick feeling receded, and he continued on his way.
Probably just stress, he reasoned. These civilians, and that fucking idiot Lapham, were getting under his skin is all. He’d get used to them – they were just another environmental feature he had to adapt to, same as the microgravity, same as the recycled water and the filtered air and the sterility, a world of white plastic and chrome and the hum of computers.
The first thing I’m going to do when I get back to Earth, he thought, is run through a forest. He closed his eyes and remembered his youth, visiting relatives in the gentle Ardennes, camping in the living fairytale of the Schwarzwald, the smell of moss and the sound of leaves in the breeze. He could almost taste it, even here, the spice of pines in the high peaks, thunder rolling in the valley as a storm rose up against the wall of the Făgăraș and the deer, fat with summer feed, ran free, ran in terror of him as he pursued, mouth gaping, how he would cross Cornul Călțunului and come among the sheepfolds and lie in wait for the shepherds, soft and slow and deliciously afraid, and his teeth, flashing in the moon, red blood flowing under the stars –
He gasped and slammed himself, hard, against the bulkhead.
“What the fuck was that?” he said, his voice small and quiet in the emptiness of the module. Sleep, he needed sleep, he’d feel better after a sleep.
The common room had a big observation window, four by five, that produced a view impressive enough to give even Lapham a moment’s pause. Below them the Mongolian steppes stretched away, grey and brown peeking through streaks of clouds that looked as if they’d been ladled onto the Earth with a spoon. Glendon was pressed close, filming and listening as Cortland pointed out some of the geography below.
Ames, impressed in spite of himself, nodded, wrote a couple of notes in his pad, and then turned to Garza.
“Does it ever get old?” he asked her.
“Every view is different, different clouds, different seas, different weather, different mountains. It changes all the time, stays interesting. But,” she said with a shrug. “It’s not the same as the first time.”
“Nothing ever is,” said Ames wistfully. Garza rolled her eyes. What a fucking jackass, she thought. “So, when you’ve had enough of being reminded of your own insignificance, what do you do to relax around here?”
“Well, there’re movies, and we’ve got a pretty good little library of books up here, too.”
“Any of mine?” Ames asked, smiling.
“I don’t know,” said Garza, simply, “remind me of their titles?”
Cortland, who had long ago mastered the delicate art of people managing, had been listening to their conversation with half an ear. He decided to put Ames out of his misery and rescue him from a conversation he could not win.
“Gather ‘round, folks,” he said. “The full moon is about to rise.”
Heim felt better.
Heim felt much better.
He was hot though, too hot, much too hot. And scratchy. Why was he covered in all this stuff? He squirmed and wiggled and finally tore his way out of the hammock. That felt good too, ripping, shredding. He liked it. He was good at.
He was still too hot though. He scratched at his chest, at his flanks. Still wrapped up. He tore and ripped and was finally really free.
He spun around and around, snarling with excitement. He couldn’t get his feet to stay on the ground, and when he pushed against something, he flung himself across the room. It was annoying. It was fun, admittedly, but it made him a little mad, too. After a few tries, he learned he could bounce around pretty effectively, just point himself in the direction he wanted to go and launch himself off a wall. He bumped and careened around his den a few times.
His den smelled like him, but not enough, so he fixed that, although not being able to stand still on the ground made that tricky, too. Messy, but his smell was everywhere now. That was good. That was right.
He scratched at the door, found the handle, and something deep and quiet inside him told him he had to push it down like this and then pull it like that and it opened up.
New air, new smells. There was his smell, other smells. Heim grinned.
Heim was hungry.
“And there it goes,” said Cortland, watching the moon sink beneath the horizon. “Takes the moon about fifteen minutes or so to traverse the sky, as we see it from here.”
“And it’ll be back in another 90 minutes? Well, I guess 75 minutes, now.”
“Regular as clockwork. Of course, we have our own internal time here, to keep us all sane.” Cortland looked at his watch. “And we should be switching over to the night cycle in a little while. We’ve got a big day tomorrow; Dr. Garza will be showing you the magnetics array we’ve installed, and I’ve got a spacewalk scheduled for the afternoon, so I think I’ll turn in.”
They said their goodnights, the civilians heading one way, while Garza and Cortland floated in the opposite direction, towards the junction leading to their crew modules.
“I’ve got to get in another thirty minutes of jogging if I’m going to keep my bone mass,” said Garza.
“Sounds good,” said Cortland, “I think I’ll check on Heim before turning in. Goodnight.”
Garza had barely done a quarter of a mile when the intercom buzzed overhead.
“Xo,” said Cortland, the worry in his voice clear even over the intercom. “We’ve got a problem.”
Heim’s head throbbed, and he felt like his joints were on fire. He blinked, and the disorientation of waking in microgravity made him feel like he was in a rock tumbler. It took him a minute to screw his head on right, convince his brain that the rotation was in his body and not in the whole room. He reached out to steady himself, and then pulled his hand back with a little yelp. He’d jabbed it against something. He looked around for the first time, again.
He was in his lab. But what had happened?
It was like a tornado had hit – everything smashed and scattered. Deep gashes in the furniture, and a strange series of marks on the heavy clip board, an elliptical semi-circular arc of deep and wide pockmarks.
Like the bite of an enormous dog.
He rubbed his hand. Jabbed twice, in the same hand, goddamn it. He looked up and saw what he’s cut himself again.
“Cecil! Oh no!” he said. The rat cage had been torn open, and Cecil the rat was nowhere to be found. First his cultures in the refrigerator, now his rat. Was he ever going to be able to get any fucking work done around here, goddamn it! He felt like screaming. He felt like killing someone.
His eyes fluttered, and he covered them with his hand. What had happened? And how had he gotten to his lab?
And where were his clothes?
“Jesus Christ,” said Garza, recoiling in disgust at what was floating perilously close to her.
“Yeah, watch it,” said Cortland, using the bucket and medical gloves to collect it. “He must’ve been sicker than we realized.”
“What happened here?”
“I don’t know? His hammock is torn to pieces, same with his clothes. A seizure, maybe? And then there’s all that,” he said waving in the general direction of the waste still floating in the air.
“Where is he?”
“Why didn’t he call us if he was this sick?” asked Cortland.
“He might not have had the presence of mind. Maybe training took over, and he went to medical?”
“We should’ve made him take the antibiotics,” he said, shaking his head.
“I doubt it would’ve helped,” said Garza. “This progressed fast. Too fast for an infection, I’d say.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” she paused and thought. “Poison?”
“What? You mean on that tooth?”
“Who the fuck knows?” sighed Garza. “I’ll head to medical.”
“The door was open and some of it got out into the passage. Let me make sure we’re not going to have some vent get clogged and burst, and then I’ll join you.”
Ames couldn’t sleep. His head hurt, and he needed a drink, and he was tired of being in space. If he hadn’t needed a big splashy book deal he’d have told Lapham to go fuck himself. And despite the plodding dullness of the station, he was unable to go to sleep. He’d been sitting here in his hammock for what, an hour? Christ!
Garza might be a cold fish, he thought, but Glendon might be up for pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, or whatever Lapham had said this place was all about.
Hell of an essay. He grinned in the dark.
He unzipped his hammock and got dressed. They’d each been given an entire module to themselves, so he had to pause at his door and try and remember where Glendon’s was. Down this passage to the junction, then follow the yellow arrows. Right, easy, and maybe even fun.
He paused halfway there to rub the ache out of a banged shin. This zero G shit was getting annoying. He should’ve waited for Lapham to invent antigravity or something. He looked up and out the window to see the big blue marble below and, just over the horizon, the pale round moon rising full and bright.
There was an itch in his brain this time.
He felt it, felt the tug through the walls and the nothing beyond them, the heaviness of the moon that made him writhe and wriggle and yelp with delight. Beautiful moon! He wished he could see it, but he knew it was there, could turn and point directly to where it was, no matter that he couldn’t see it or the stars or anything, blind, buried deep in the earth, dead, even then he would know his mother, his master, the moon.
Heim’s ears twitched.
Someone was stumbling this way. He scrambled impotently in midair, blood like fire pouring through his veins, teeth bared. Finally, one of his hind legs caught against the chair bolted to the wall, and he pushed, hard, careening down the module and banging into the cupboards. He pushed again, this time ready for the landing, coming in with his feet out, landing and pushing off quickly. He was getting good at this. He got to the open door at the far end of the lab and paused, sniffing.
People smell, people sounds. His lips pulled back, his ears folded against his skull. He tensed.
“Goddamn zero G,” said Ames, then he heard the noise, and turned just in time to see the huge, furry shape hurtling towards him, teeth first.
“He’s not here,” said Garza into the intercom, “and I don’t think he’s been here, either. Nothing taken, no signs of anyone being in Medical at all.” The room was a clean and empty as they’d left it, not even a syringe out of place.
“We’ve got to find him.”
“Lot of station to look through,” she said. “Should we conscript the civvies?”
“I kind of feel like that might be more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Garza scratched her chin, thinking. Where could he have gotten too? She snapped her fingers. “Hey, how about his lab?”
“That’s got to be it,” said Cortland. “He’s delirious, working on muscle memory. Poor bastard is probably weighing Cecil and scratching agar through a fever even as we speak.”
“I’m closer, I’ll check and let you know,” said Garza, flying quickly down the passage. She glanced out a porthole as she skimmed by. The moon was high over the Earth below.
He played for a bit before he got serious. Were there more people in this strange place, he wondered? He couldn’t smell anything anymore, just blood and the bits of the man that remained. Better to be frugal; better to be cautious.
He needed a cache, somewhere else, far away from his lair, where he could lay some aside, in case of lean times.
That was smart. He was smart.
He gathered as much as he could carry, some between his jaws (how strong they were! Even he seemed surprised, as much as the man, at the shearing, crushing, killing power of them!) and some in his paws. He couldn’t grip with them, not really, but he could hold some of the man tight against his chest, although it kept threatening to escape, and pieces and drops and bits kept floating away. What a mess! He yipped and wiggled with joy.
Calm down now, the cache, then, more hunting.
He scrambled and pushed and flopped away, letting his nose lead him.
“The lab is in shambles, Cortland,” said Garza into the intercom, her voice low and worried. Heim’s room had been nothing compared to this – a few torn clothes, and ripped hammock. Sure, all the shit had been unpleasant, but the lab had been torn apart, deliberately, destructively.
“Why would he destroy his lab?” asked Cortland.
“He must be crazy. Delirious.” She swallowed, letting the full horror of the situation into her mind. What he could do, if he got to Command –
“I’m putting us on lockdown.” Cortland had been thinking the same thing. “You keep searching while I go gather Lapham and the others. I want everyone in one place, safe.”
“Roger,” she said.
“And be careful Garza. Who knows what he’s capable of?”
She picked her way through the ruins of the lab, delicately pushing aside the floating debris and ruined equipment. She felt tears in her eyes – to see someone destroy their work, the thing they took such joy and pride in, it was terrible. She hoped Heim was okay. She hoped they could help him.
A sound made her jump, a scrabbling or a scratching, coming from one of the big cabinets at the far end of the lab. Something was in there.
“Heim,” she said. “Is that you?” More scratching, faster and more insistent than previously. She pushed off the desk and coasted towards it. For some reason, her hands itched to have something in them, something to defend herself with.
The cabinet wasn’t completely closed – a thin black line showed were one of the doors hung loose. She gripped the handle and opened it slowly, reassuringly.
Cecil that rat exploded out of the closet, three of his little limbs pinwheeling while a fourth, one of his hind legs, hung limply, twitching. There was blood on him, especially around his tail. Garza leaned back and away. Cecil had pushed off the back of the cabinet and came out fast, but she reacted quickly; pulling off her jacket she caught the rat, who squeaked and squirmed.
“Shh, shh, it’s okay Cecil, it’s okay, come on now,” she cooed, looking around. His cage and habitat were destroyed, the plastic ripped opened. “Sorry buddy, gonna have to stow you for a bit.” A sturdy sample box, floated by, and she put him inside, jacket and all, and then clamped the lid down. She’d come back to feed him and take care of him, she promised herself, once they found poor Heim. She shuddered as she secured Cecil’s temporary home. That had looked horribly like a bite mark on Cecil’s flank.
She sighed, and was about to resume her travel down the lab and to the passage when she saw a hand begin to float into view in the doorway, first the fingers, then the palm, then the wrist. It was still, and it drifted without purpose.
“Heim!” she shouted. “Is that you?” She hurried through the lab, the detritus she knocked aside spinning wildly away into new orbits. “Heim!” she called again. The wrist turned into the forearm, then the elbow, then –
She stopped and, horrified, watched the ragged remains of the arm drift across the open door, and then slide, serenely, calmly, out of view.
Glendon was a little disappointed when she saw Cortland hadn’t come to her quarters alone, but the look on his face quickly made her realize that something serious was happening.
“Sorry to wake you,” said the Commander, “and it’s nothing serious, but I’d like you to come with us to the commons, please.”
Behind him, Lapham looked imperious, even in his pajamas, and poor Whack was shivering in fright. Glendon swallowed, and nodded.
“Let me get my camera,” she said.
They all floated towards Ames’s room, pausing once when Cortland thought he heard something. They were moving fast, faster than the space novices were comfortable with, but something in the hard line of Cortland’s jaw kept them quiet, and focused.
He pounded on the partition sheltering Ames’s hammock, but there was no answer. He pushed it aside and peered in.
“He’s not here,” he said.
“Where could he be?” asked Glendon.
“Why would Mr. Ames be wandering around the station at night?” squeaked Whack.
“I think it’s time you told us what was going on, Commander,” demanded Lapham. Cortland sighed, shook his head, and then shrugged.
“Dr. Heim is sick,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “He left his bunk and went to his lab which he, ah, well, which he destroyed. I believe he is delirious with fever, and not in complete control of himself. So, I want everyone together in the common room, and then Dr. Garza and I can continue our search for our colleague.”
“And now for Mr. Ames, too,” said Glendon.
“I hope he’s just gone to the restroom. Regardless, let’s get everyone into the common room, and then we can get all this sorted out.”
“He destroyed his lab?” said Glendon. “That seems…ominous.” Cortland could only nod in agreement.
Heim felt strange.
What was he doing here, in Garza’s geophysics lab? Like his, it had been destroyed, completely torn apart. This was terrible! He had to do something. He had to let Cortland know they had a madman on board. Probably that goddamn Lapham, he thought. A few screws loose in that one, surely, and he’d brought his madness aboard to terrorize them all!
He wanted to hurry out of the ruined lab, but his body seemed confused. He was having a hard time moving – why was he trying to run with his hands, and he seemed to be covered in something sticky? Coolant? It smelled coppery. His stomach rumbled. God, he was hungry, and whatever he was covered in smelled good…
Why was he still naked!?
A privacy curtain in the corner made a utilitarian, if inelegant, wrap. At least he was somewhat covered now. He had to find Cortland, warn him. Where was he? What time was it? The clock in the lab had been smashed, like everything else. There was a general intercom in the common room; he could put out a call there. He finally got underway, and the confusion with his limbs seemed to subside, finally.
His head was muddled, and he got turned around a few times, confused about the directions and with a strange, gnawing sense that there was some point outside the station, some presence that moved slowly but steadily around, some lodestone that he should be navigating by. It was all very confusing, very tiring, and Heim was hungry again, terribly hungry.
Then he turned a corner, and saw Cortland, and the others.
“ – lock the door after me,” Cortland was saying. His back was to Heim, but the others were facing his way, and Lapham saw Heim first.
“There he is!” he shouted. Cortland spun around, a look of horror on his face.
“Heim, my God,” he said.
“Commander,” he stammered. The words were thick in his throat, and he found it suddenly hard to talk, like his mouth was put together all wrong. His teeth felt funny, wrong somehow. He shook his head. “I don’t know what happened, but my lab was destroyed.”
“Take it easy Heim,” he said.
“No, that’s not all! Garza’s lab…was destroyed too. Just torn to pieces. There’s someone on this station, someone dangerous.” Heim looked over the faces in the crowd, felt ashamed that he’d let his personal dislike of Lapham color his conclusions. “There’s someone missing here, isn’t there…” He paused, thought hard. His vision seemed cloudy. “The writer, what was his name? Where…where is he?” He looked up at them. “Goddamn it’s hot in here,” he said, letting the curtain slip from his shoulders. “Where’s Ames?” He looked passed them, through the big window and the cool blue Atlantic four hundred miles beneath them. The crystal cool rim of the world, and above it, just peeking over the horizon, the beautiful moon.
Why were they screaming?
Why were they running?
But he liked it when they ran.
TO BE CONTINUED