Unpublished short fiction written in February 2014
The Ulysses was spotted by a navigation buoy as it tore through space, spinning at hundreds of rotations a minute. It wasn’t large, as far as modern ships were concerned, but as the Derringer swooped towards its looming bulk, it seemed to swallow the stars entirely.
The salvage team stole furtive glances at the Ulysses through the porthole on the airlock door as they locked the pieces of their suits together and readied their equipment for the trip. They pretended not to watch as the gangway telescoped out towards the Ulysses, and all four of them jumped at the echoing clang that reverberated through the hull as the gangway connected.
Mara stood near the back, watching her crew finish preparations. She lifted her gloved hands to the faceplate of her suit, brushing them against the polymer and wishing she could rub her eyes. The painkillers weren’t doing anything for the headache.
A green light flashed next to the airlock door. Mara squeezed her eyes and shook her head, then took a deep breath.
“Okay,” she said to the crew, “Davis takes the lead. Double-check your safety clips, and keep your eyes on the person in front of you. Ready?”
The crew nodded, muttering assent, keeping their eyes fixed on the airlock porthole. Mara pressed the release, then closed her eyes and listened to the hiss of the atmosphere drawing back into the Derringer as it faded to silence.
The latch released with a thud that Mara felt in her boots. She opened her eyes to see the hull-lights from the Derringer frame hazy patches of the dull metal plating on the ship that hung in space across the gangway. Sixty years of pock-marks and burn scars had worn into the side of the Ulysses, giving it a sinister, organic look.
The voice of Dr. Renault whispered at the back of Mara’s mind in his nasal, clipped tones: Right through the skull, it said. If any debris hits you at sufficient velocity, you’re through. She tried to ignore it, but as she looked at the battered plating of the Ulysses, his voice replayed again and again.
Mara switched to the general transmission band on her wrist console. “Slow and steady,” she said. “And I’d say ‘don’t look down,’ but there aren’t many directions I’d recommend looking, to be honest. Okay?” Nods of assent from the crew. “Okay. Move out.”
One by one, the crew stepped out of the airlock, clipping their carabiners to the guide-wire and lurching as they left the Derringer‘s gravity. Mara followed them out, securing herself to the gangway while the airlock closed behind her.
She fixed her eyes on Atkins’ boots as he pulled himself along, hearing the Doctor’s voice all the while.
An amusing anecdote: (rang his voice in Mara’s head) During the earliest stages of interstellar travel, a test-subject was accidentally exposed to a vacuum. His last sensation before losing consciousness was excruciating pain, and the saliva boiling on his tongue.
She looked downwards past Atkins’ feet towards the thin, drifting gangway, dangling perilously across the stars. They swept past, filling Mara’s vision with an overwhelming cacophony of movement—a perpetual infinity of swirling light, cut by the black line of the gangway.
Her gaze snagged on the emergency release as she walked past, noting the mirrored red levers connected to explosives primed to violently separate the Derringer from its umbilical. She imagined a piece of debris hitting it, shorting its circuits, and blowing them all out into the void where they would spend the last few moments of their conscious lives screaming, falling, feeling the saliva boiling on their tongues…
Stop, she said to herself. You’ve done this a hundred goddamn times, right? Nothing like that has ever happened. Nothing like that will ever happen. You know better.
She took a deep breath, pretending she was convinced.
The crew passed the halfway point, each of them swaying with the gangway. Mara felt the familiar nauseous lurch as four sets of feet pulled the bridge as far as it could go in different directions.
Finally, when they reached the hatch of the Ulysses, Davis pulled a plate off of the side of the old ship’s airlock and attached a small metal box to the dull, corroded wiring.
“Everybody ready?” he asked, his hand hovering over the override. The crew nodded and wrapped their arms around the railing while he steadied himself.
He hit the button and the hatch shot open. A silent explosion of atmosphere hit the crew like a wall, making the gangway wobble deliriously beneath their feet.
For a split second, Mara imagined her line snapping, her grip breaking, and her feet slipping, sending her tumbling into space. She swore under her breath, and then it was over and the crew was stepping inside the airlock. Mara followed, wishing she’d gotten a better night’s sleep.
The airlock closed behind them, and everyone wobbled uncertainly in the Ulysses‘ gravity. Clarke leaned forward and put her hands on her knees, and Davis put his hand on her shoulder, leaning over to check on her.
“Are you all-right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Clarke said, tentatively. “That was bad though, right? It’s not just me?”
“Not just you. We’re spinning at around two hundred meters per second.”
“Gimme a sec. I might—I might throw up.” said Clarke.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve all ruined a few helmets.” said Davis, patting Clarke’s bulky sleeve. He looked up at Mara, who shook her head.
Clarke sat down and took a few deep breaths, then looked at Mara and nodded.
“Okay,” said Mara, “According to the assessment scans, nothing is too smashed up. But we’ll need to restart the reactor. Davis and Atkins, head to the bridge and pump the security console—see if you can’t get us access to the maintenance routines. Clarke and I will head to Engineering. Once you two get us access, we’ll see if we can get the lights on. Any questions?”
The crew shook their heads.
“Good. Keep the general band open, and report in if you find anything.”
The screech of metal-on-metal tore through the silent hallways of the Ulysses. Mara clenched her jaw as she and Clarke wrenched the door of the engineering deck open, wishing for the thousandth time as she did that she’d taken more painkillers.
They finished, and stepped back to stare at the slim black opening. “Atmosphere looks normal,” said Clarke, checking her wrist-display. “No radiation, no toxins.”
Mara peered into the engineering room. She swept the floor with her flashlight, pausing here and there, searching. After a moment she keyed into Atkins’ frequency. “Atkins?” she asked, “Have you found any remains?”
“No sir,” said Atkins, his voice crackling through the headset. “Not a thing. Thought we saw a body as we walked past the mess, but it turned out to be nothing. How about you guys?”
“Nothing,” said Mara. “No sign of damage, and no bodies. I don’t like this.”
“I know. I never thought I’d be spooked by the absence of dead people,” said Atkins.
Mara sighed and handed the flashlight to Clarke, then squeezed through into the room. She looked around, trying to see into the shadows between the consoles and equipment.
“All right. New orders. Once you’re done with the bridge, I want you and Davis to sweep the A deck for remains. Look for anything that might tell you what happened to these people.”
“Look through the abandoned spaceship. In the dark. For bodies. Roger that,” said Atkins. He cut the transmission with a pop.
“Everything all-right?” asked Clarke, pulling herself through the door.
Mara cleared her throat.
“Probably,” she said. “Let’s get the reactor online, then we’ll see.”
Clarke shined her light across the banks of ancient monitoring equipment. The beams caught on the dusty monitors, reflecting and diffusing, making the shadows of the terminals dance across the plating and pipes.
The far wall was a long bank of windows, tilted to look out onto the floor below. At the center of these sat a single terminal, squat and bulky, on top of which sat a large, dull screen.
Mara walked towards it and pulled a boot-strapper from her belt, then stopped with the gray plastic brick hanging from her hand. On the main terminal screen was the smear of a fingerprint, highlighted by a film of dust. A single line, traced on the slate gray screen.
She reached out her hand and the fabric of her glove brushed against it. She imagined the room as it must have been, thinking of the uniformed crewmen standing at their stations or running from place to place, fixing, working, monitoring—she saw, in her mind, a crewman pointing out a detail to her subordinate, finger resting on the screen.
Clarke’s flashlight danced across the room, and Mara could almost see them in the reflection on the screen.
“Davis says they’ve got the routines open,” said Clarke.
Mara jumped. She turned—Clarke was standing just behind her.
“Thanks,” said Mara. She cleared her throat and knelt down to the base of the console.
The bottom panel came off easily. Mara took the boot-strapper and stuck it to the filament wires on the exposed circuit board, adjusted the settings and pressed the button. The console awoke with a grinding hum. Mara stood and brushed the dust from her kneepads as the screen popped to life, deepening from matte gray to obsidian black.
A line of text blinked in the upper left corner of the screen:
REVIVE? It said. Y/N?
Mara pressed ‘yes.’ The text on the screen vanished and the screen dimmed, leaving the afterimage to dance across Mara’s vision. For a while, nothing happened.
Suddenly, a deep and furious chord rang from everywhere at once. Clarke stumbled and crouched, and Mara ducked, then began to laugh. Her headset crackled to life:
“What the hell was that?” yelled Davis, over the general band.
The sound of a machine that had not run in decades—a crackling, creaking rumble—shook the plating beneath their feet. Mara and Clarke ran to the window. In the dark beyond the glass, a thin pillar of blue light sprouted some distance below them. Monolithic containment units spun around it, eclipsing it with deep, black shadows.
The deep mechanical groan rose in pitch, pulsing in time with the quickening rotation of the monoliths. The pillar of light that bloomed from the core began to shift as well, growing brighter and brighter, mixing in shades of yellow and pink until a violent white mash of fluoresence poured out from between the spinning blocks.
Clarke leaned forward, pressing her helmet against the window.
“There’s something on the floor,” she said, pointing.
The light of the reactor spilled across the deck below them, casting an uncertain glow over the shapes scattered across the floor—indistinct lumps that dotted the metal plating like dead insects in a lamp. Clarke stepped back, her mouth hanging open. Mara said nothing.
With an electric crunch, rows of overhead lights sprang to life, casting the Ulysses in a flat yellow glare. The two engineers didn’t seem to notice; they stood, staring at the deck below them.
After a moment, Mara stepped away from the window and keyed into the general band.
“Davis, Atkins, come in.” she said.
“Everything all right down there?” asked Davis.
Mara looked at Clarke, who shook her head.
“You can rescind that last order,” said Mara. “We’ve found them.”
The smooth chrome fixtures of the medical bay felt cold to Mara, highlighted by the harsh white light. She listened vaguely to the conversation, watching the reflections move in the mirrored surfaces.
“It was all of them,” said Doctor Renault, scrolling through a tangle of information on his datapad. “Every single member of the crew, gathered together in the reactor room.”
“Any idea why?” asked the Captain. She stood in the center of the medical bay, her arms clasped behind her back, staring at the Doctor as he hunched over his desk.
“Not yet. I don’t have much information. The pictures taken by the salvage crew were careless, at best,” said Renault, looking pointedly away from the door where Mara stood, leaning against the frame. “To know more, I’d have to bring a number of the bodies back onto the Derringer.”
“We don’t have the time for that, Doctor,” said the Captain. “We’re on a tight schedule. The Company needs us done within the week. Do you think it’s necessary?”
Renault selected a picture on the datapad and enlarged it. “See, here,” he said, pointing to the subject’s neck. “Is this asphyxiation? Infection? Strangulation? Does it pose any danger to the crew? I’d like to know, before we continue work.”
“We haven’t picked anything up with our scanners,” said Mara. “There’s nothing in the Ulysses’ logs, either.”
“Were the scanners designed to pick up the chemical traces of parasitic infection? The remnants of neutrino bombardment? Radiation burns?” asked Renault.
“Come on, Renault. These people have been dead for sixty years. I don’t care why, I just want to finish the job and go.” said Mara.
Dr. Renault held up the datapad and tapped it. “Do you want the crew to end up like this bloke, then?”
Mara glared at him.
“So what do you recommend, Doctor?” said the Captain, after a moment.
“I recommend that we cease operations before the salvage crew is further exposed to a compromised environment. I recommend that we send word to the Company with the appraised situation and wait for a response, and I recommend that we wait until we know what we’re dealing with before we deal with. But,” he said, looking at Mara, “But, I’m well aware that we’re on a schedule. Time and tide, and all that.”
“Get to the point, Doctor.” said the Captain.
“Get me three bodies,” said Renault. “I’ll perform the autopsies tonight and give you my report in the morning. Make a decision then on whether or not the salvage team should keep working.”
“All right,” she said. “We’ll get you the bodies. Do the autopsies and give me the results as soon as you can—”
“No,” said Mara, standing straight.
The Doctor and the Captain looked at her.
“I don’t—I’m not comfortable having those bodies on the ship,” she said, after a moment.
“It’s not your decision though, is it?” said Renault.
“Enough of that, Doctor” said the Captain. She turned to Mara, sighing. “I don’t like this either, Mara,” she said. “But the Doctor is right. We need information. And unless your crew wants to help the Doctor perform an autopsy on the Ulysses, this is our best option.”
“But we don’t—” said Mara, taking a step forward.
“I’ve made my decision, Chief Engineer.”
“Understood,” said Mara, clenching her jaw.
“Good,” said the Captain. “Now, unless there’s anything else, I expect you both to get to work. The sooner we’re done, the sooner we leave.”
The last thing Mara wanted to do after a long day of hauling corpses across the infinite chasm of space was ask Dr. Renault for headache medication, so she went to bed that night with her head still pounding.
As she slept, she dreamed of the reactor.
It grew silently in her dream, slowly filling the silent chamber with its light while the mechanisms that spun around the pillar cast great black squares of shadow across the walls of the room in which Mara stood.
In her dream, the shadow’s horizon crept towards her, flowing over the shapes of the engineering room. It felt to Mara, as she watched the shadow, like she was watching the world fall away.
The black shape of the shadow crept closer and closer, and Mara found that she was stuck fast to the floor. Then it was on her: it crawled across her fingers, up her arm, to her shoulder, and she closed her eyes and wished for it to pass.
She became aware of the quiet rhythm of movement, somewhere behind her. She opened her eyes and the shadow had passed, but the sound remained: a shuffle, a thump. A slide, a clap.
The next shadow hit her like an icy wave. She forced herself to hold her eyes open, and she saw them. There, in the corners of her eyes. Near the edges of the room. Looking at her. As she watched they slapped their bare feet on the cold metal floor, and slid forward with a shuffling hiss. Then the shadow passed over her and they were gone, washed away in the light.
Still, she could feel the vibrations of the dancers through the floor; she could hear them, the only sound in the stifling silence.
She tried to look around her, but it was hopeless—she seemed fixed in place, driven by nails into the metal plating. She clenched her fists, digging her fingernails into the pads of her hands, and wrenched her body, first one way, then the other, but there was nothing she could do but stare at the glow of the reactor and watch the next shadow draw closer.
They were nearer now, in this shadow. Close enough to see the wetness of their eyes and the twitching jerks of their hands as they danced across the room in lurching, halting steps.
The shadow passed and for the first time she wished the room was nothing but shadow, that the reactor would break—at least she’d be able to see them, see the hands that reached for her and the eyes raked her skin. She could hear their dancing speeding up, feel their footsteps through the floor, but she couldn’t see them, she needed to see them— The next shadow was far away, it was too far away—
Oh God. There. In the reflection of the windows. They were there, and they were reaching out with black, twitching fingers, inches from her neck—
Mara jumped and threw her arms out to shove the blankets back, and she realized she was in her bed with sweat sticking to her shirt and her breath rasping in her throat. Her eyes shot around the room, and she saw that it was empty, saw that it was nothing but the same walls she’d been looking at for weeks, bathed in the dim red light of her clock.
She laid back, and took deep breaths, listening to the Derringer’s million little hums and mutters. It calmed her. She closed her eyes and her shoulder-blades began to unwind as the purring of the engines softly flowed through her.
Except, there was something beneath the noise of the engines. A tapping, quiet and arrhythmic.
Mara sat up and opened her eyes. The noise seemed to come from beyond her cabin, just outside her range of hearing. She threw her blanket back and walked to the wall of her cabin, and pressed her ear to the cold metal.
There. Somewhere to her right. It seemed to be coming from the hull, back where the med-bay was. Back where the Doctor was working.
She pulled on sweatpants and opened her cabin door, then walked out into the darkened corridor, listening for the tapping. It sounded like a person, keeping time to a song.
She turned, following the sound. It hung to the edge of her hearing until she reached the med-bay doors. They were closed. Mara blinked, thinking uncomfortably of the doors on the Ulysses.
The latch on the med-bay door clicked and the hydraulics hissed, flooding the corridor with harsh white light. Renault stood, framed by the open door, peeling a stained blue smock off of his chest. In the examination room behind him, Mara could see the spattered red shape of the Ulysses‘ crewman on an operating table.
“Engineer Gonzales,” said the Doctor, nodding. “What are you doing awake?”
“Something you’re doing is making noise. It woke me up,” said Mara.
“Excuse me?” said Renault. A smirk hooked the corner of his mouth.
Mara wished, more than anything, that she could punch the smirk off of his face. She stared at his mouth, clenching her fists. As she did, she noticed a small smear staining the corner of his lips. Back-lit as he was, it was difficult to tell the color.
“Midnight snack?” asked Mara, pointing to the Doctor’s mouth. “Isn’t that a little unhygienic?”
His eyes flicked downwards. He chuckled, and raised a sleeve to wipe the offending stain from his lips.
“Yes, well. Late nights, no break. Lots of work to do, and all that.” he said. “But, as you can see, I’ve nearly finished here. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yeah. Whatever it was making noise in there, tone it down.”
“I’ll try to dissect more quietly, Engineer. But I can’t guarantee the scalpel is going to cooperate. It’s an older model, you see.” said Renault, smirking once again.
“Come on, Renault. I just want to get a good night’s sleep,” said Mara.
“As do I,” said Renault. “And so, if you’ll excuse me?”
He patted her on the shoulder, pressed ‘close’ on the door panel, and walked off towards the living quarters. Mara’s face burned. She watched the Doctor disappear into the dim light of the hallway, unsure if the tapping had stopped or not.
The salvage crew started work after breakfast, where Mara gave a short briefing while gesturing to a schematic of the ship with a half-full cup of coffee. Afterward the crew once again crossed to the Ulysses, where they split up into the dark hallways of the ship towards their individual tasks.
Mara took it upon herself to untangle the delicate mess of archaic filament wires in the scanner array. The circuitry was housed in a cramped room near the fore of the ship, on the far side of the Ulysses. In the silence, away from her crew, the flickering overhead lights made the hallways seem thin and insubstantial.
Prying off the maintenance panel in such a dry, empty silence seemed almost sacrilegious, Mara thought as she undid the squeaking bolts. She wrenched the panel off with a wheezing metallic squeal, and sent it crashing to the floor, wincing, half listening for shouts of outrage from the ship around her. There was no-one, of course. Just the weak hum of the overhead lights, flickering in an empty ship.
Mara tapped a few commands into her wrist console and her headset filled with music. She slapped disposable lights on the wall, took the electronic tourniquet from her belt, and locked it to the exposed circuitry. The lights dimmed as the room was cut off from the ship’s power, leaving her to work in the icy blue glow of the disposables.
It was slow going. Taking apart a sixty-year-old ship meant that Mara had to trace each thin golden circuit from component to component, making sure that she disassembled them in exactly the right order. Nothing was modular, and everything was manual.
An hour passed. Mara found herself lying on her back beneath a console, following a particular circuit that some idiot engineer had thought to attach two inches beyond what she could reach. She wedged herself between two support struts, and strained towards the connector, brushing her fingertips against the bolt.
With a muffled curse, she gave up and slumped back. She closed her eyes. The headache she’d had yesterday danced just outside of her vision—she could feel it standing there, just waiting to be let in.
I need sleep, she thought. A whole, solid, beautiful night of sleep where nobody wakes me up. And if Renault so much as whistles two notes as he walks past my door, I swear to God that I’ll end him. She smiled wanly at the idea.
There was a rattle, somewhere near the door.
Mara opened her eyes and sat up, scanning the room. She expected to see Clarke, or Davis maybe, with a trolley to carry away her salvage. But there was no-one. The room was empty.
She pulled a wrench from her belt and leaned back, adjusting her position to keep an eye on the door. Hesitantly, she reached up towards the circuit.
She stopped. A chill ran up her spine. Nothing seemed out of place—the panels she’d taken out and stacked, the bundles of circuitry she’d bound, the dead monitors of the consoles. Everything was right where it should be.
But then she saw the man, reflected in the screen to the left of the door. There, outside of the room. Suitless. Staring at her.
Her stomach lurched in panic. She sat up, scanning the screen. She blinked—
The screen was empty. There was nobody there. Nobody. No sound, no movement. No reflected figure. She tapped the touchpad, and the music in her headset cut. She listened for the sound of movement, but there was nothing. Nothing but her and silence.
Mara felt her heart pound in her chest. Her palms were slick with sweat inside her gloves, and blood seemed to roar in her ears. She took a deep breath, then another, and another, slowing her breathing to a controlled crawl. It was nothing, she thought. It was nothing.
She breathed in and counted to ten, then breathed out.
Then the man walked past the door.
Mara leapt, scrambling to gain purchase in her bulky suit, grabbing for the edge of the console. She pulled herself upwards and hefted the wrench, stumbling over a stack of components that clattered to the floor as she threw herself into the hallway.
It was empty. There was no sign of anybody.
Mara walked forward slowly, holding the wrench out beside her. Her footsteps seemed to echo forever in the dead silence. She checked to her right, and to her left, looking into the doors on either side of the hallway. Inside, the lights flickered and hummed over empty rooms where nothing moved.
She tapped the controls on her wrist-console, pinging the general band, then stopped.
There couldn’t have been anybody there. Everyone aboard the Ulysses was accounted for. They were all dead.
“Is that you, Chief?” came Atkins’ voice, crackling over her headset.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me,” said Mara, staring down the hallway.
“Everything all right?”
Mara took a deep breath and held it.
“Yeah. Everything’s all right,” she said. “Sorry. Just bumped my console.”
She cut the transmission and stood in the silent hallway for another minute, then walked back. As she walked, she tried not to check over her shoulder with every other step.
Back in the sensor housing, she sat on the floor and pulled herself back underneath the console, trying to focus on work. She hadn’t seen anything. There was nothing on the ship to see. She needed sleep. That was all. A good night’s sleep.
Mara stared at the connector. After a moment, she sat back up, grabbed the wrench and set it beside her, then continued to work.
That night, Mara skipped dinner. Instead, she took a granola bar from the crew’s pantry, filled up her water-bottle, and took them back to her room. She ate the granola bar and two sleeping pills, washing it all down with the water and a mouthful of old coffee left behind from breakfast to get rid of the taste. She pulled a book from her shelf at random, got into bed, and closed her eyes.
Mara didn’t know how long she slept. After a while, she found herself floating just beneath consciousness, listening to the brittle pattern of tapping. It was the same pattern that had awoken her the night before, she realized. But this time, as she listened, she began to understand.
The tapping had meaning. It was insistent, and intelligible. It was the pattern she’d followed down the hallway, and the dancing steps of the figures in her dream. She felt relieved, knowing it was all, all of it, one and the same.
She held her eyes shut, relishing the darkness. She listened to the tapping, letting it rattle through her mind. The starts and stops of the rhythm seemed familiar, almost. If I didn’t know better, she thought, I’d say it was Morse-code. She smiled to herself at the idea, and lazily began to play with the pattern as she heard it.
…L. E. A.
She opened her eyes, and the smile disappeared from her face. Was it Morse-code?
Mara rubbed her eyes, trying to clear away the chemical mist of the sleeping pills. She sat up in her bed and stared at the ceiling where she thought the tapping was coming from, tracking it as it traveled from the left side of her room to the right, and out into the hallway. Slowly, unsteadily, Mara stood up and followed it.
She opened her door and listened, staring dully at the corridor. Everything was cast in starlight; in a flickering, silvery light that looked like frost. The cool light grew from the portholes, seeping in and pooling across the floor where it sprouted tendrils that climbed the walls and coated the doorways. Mara half-expected to see her breath curling in a silvery mist as she exhaled.
The tapping led her onwards, always a step too far away for her to make out completely. Mara barely noticed the thin, cold carpet on her bare feet as she wandered down the hallway. She tilted her head and listened:
Please, the tapping said. Please, let us in.
She realized, after some time, that she’d been walking down the corridor in a daze, with her eyes half-closed. When she opened them, she found herself standing at the door to the medical bay, while the tapping seemed to travel beyond towards whatever lay inside.
A shiver ran up her spine. With a heavy, dream-locked certainty, Mara knew that she would open the door. She didn’t want to, but she watched helplessly as her hand rose to the door controls.
The door hissed open. Dr. Renault stood hunched over a ragged, opened body, singing to himself over the hum of a vacuum pump. He was digging through the viscera while the pump choked on a thick, clotted brown liquid. Blithely, he picked up a pair of surgical scissors and began to dig into the body with nauseous wet snips.
The sound of the tapping had all but disappeared. Just above the medical bay, Mara could hear its last fitful burst:
Please, it said. Please.
Dr. Renault seemed to hear it as well—he looked up, nodded, then reached into the body and pulled out a dark, glistening lump. As Mara watched, the Doctor pulled down his mask, examined the clot, and slid it into his mouth. Slowly, with relish, he began to chew.
Mara froze as the reality of what she was seeing filled her with a slow, chilling dread. The tapping was gone. The chemical haze was gone. Everything was gone but her, barefoot at the door, and the Doctor standing a few yards away, chewing.
“Oh God,” she said. “What—”
He turned and began to speak, but realized that his mouth was full of rotted tissue. A dribble of dark brown fluid dripped from the corner of his mouth as he cast about, searching for her voice.
Mara turned and ran, stumbling back towards her room. As her feet pounded down the corridor she realized that he must have seen her—he must have seen her, seen the look of terror and disgust on her face. She prayed that he hadn’t, but she knew with a cold, terrible certainty that he had.
There was no sound of running behind her. She reached her cabin and jammed her finger into the door control again and again, diving inside as the door hissed open. She slammed her palm on the latch, only daring to breathe when the door had closed again with the bolt secure.
She pressed her back against the door and slid to the carpet, heartbeat pounding in her head. Her cabin was silent. It was a long time before she slept.
“I want him locked up.”
The Captain sighed and took a sip of her coffee. “I know you do,” she said, setting the mug down on her desk. “I would too, if I thought I’d seen what you did. But—”
“Thought I’d seen?” said Mara.
“But, I can’t put a member of my crew in lock-down because of the allegations of someone who was walking around at three in the morning on sleeping medication.”
“I don’t feel safe!” said Mara. “Are you going to let this go? Are you even going to talk to Renault?”
“And say what, exactly?” said the Captain, exasperated. “Ask him if he took a bite from one of his subjects? Tell him that we these accusations of cannibalism especially serious if they’re brought to us by someone on sleeping pills? Mara, you have to understand how unlikely this all is!”
“I do! I know it sounds ridiculous! But you have to understand that, if I am right, this is the sign of someone who is seriously disturbed. Okay? This is someone who ate a piece of a recovered body, for Christ’s sake!”
“Supposedly,” said the Captain.
“Fuck you, supposedly!”
“Engineer Gonzales, it is out of personal courtesy that I am warning you once, and only once, to speak with respect when addressing me,” said the Captain.
Mara opened her mouth, then shut it.
“Yes, Captain,” she said.
Captain Lee sighed, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I understand that you’re not happy with the situation. I do. But your evidence is tantamount to sleepwalking and having a bad dream.” She held up her hand to cut Mara off, then continued: “Regardless, this isn’t something I can take lightly, to say the least. So here’s what I can do. You’re not going to like it, but it’s what I’ve got. Ready?”
Mara nodded, crossing her arms.
“We watch him. Day and night, as much as we can under the circumstances. And if he shows even a hint of misconduct, we can lock him in his cabin until the mission’s over. Okay?”
Mara sighed, then nodded again. “Okay,” she said.
“Until then, keep working,” said the Captain. “And keep an eye out. God knows what will happen if you’re right.”
The navigation systems on the Ulysses were fried. Every third circuit panel was coated with caramelized, bubbling plastic. Much to Mara’s chagrin, that meant that two out of three panels were salvageable.
She hung over the edge of the platform, straining into the mess of machinery and jabbing at circuits with the diagnostic, trying to tell the useable from the hopeless. Clarke stood above her, fiddling with the settings on the tourniquet locked into the wires on the far wall.
“How about now?” she asked, periodically. Mara would grunt a reply, and Clarke would input another series of variables for the search pattern. The two worked in relative silence, letting the sound of their movements echo flatly against the metal walls.
“So, Davis says he saw you leave the Captain’s cabin this morning,” said Clarke, after a while.
Mara strained to look back towards Clarke, then turned back and kept working. “It was nothing,” she said. “I had a complaint. The Captain couldn’t do much about it, so I complained about that, too.”
Clarke snorted. “You rebel, you,” she said.
They fell silent again, letting the shifting buzz of the electronics wash over them.
“Weird job, though,” said Clarke.
Mara sighed, and nodded. “Weird job,” she said.
Clarke adjusted the tourniquet, then looked back towards Mara.
“So, we were talking last night, after you went to bed,” she said. “All of us, in the mess. Atkins says that this job is going to be classified, after we get back to Earth. Something about the way we found all those people in the reactor room. I guess it matches up with some other reports he’d heard about.”
“Atkins should probably learn to keep his head down and do his job,” said Mara. She jabbed the diagnostic into a circuit coated with corrosive crust. It was functioning normally, apparently.
“Why, though? I mean, shouldn’t the crew be told about this stuff?” asked Clarke.
“It’s a liability thing,” said Mara. “The company insurance people want to avoid hard questions, like ‘why did an entire crew die huddled around the glow of a reactor,’ or ‘are we liable if the salvage crew dies in the same way.’ Stuff like that. The less people know, the less likely it is that they’ll have to spend money.”
“So what you’re saying is that we work for scumbags,” said Clarke.
“You say it like you’re surprised,” said Mara.
Clarke opened her mouth to reply, but the lights flickered and died leaving the navigation housing bathed in the cold blue light of the disposables.
“Goddamn it,” said Mara, squeezing her eyes shut. “Could you go down to engineering to check this out?”
“Sure,” said Clarke. “Are you gonna be all-right here?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve got a few more disposables, and I think I found the problem circuit. I want to get this done. Go ahead, and come back when you’ve got the lights figured out.”
“Yessir,” said Clarke. She adjusted the tourniquet, pressed a button, then walked off down the hallway.
Mara listened to the clanging of Clarke’s boots as she left. She worked in the half-light for a while, crawling further beneath the platform and straining her neck to get a good angle on the bolts.
She took a disposable from the dispenser on her belt, and stuck it to the underside of the platform. The circuitry glinted in the dim light, reminding Mara of the shipwrecks she’d read about as a child, lying deep down on the bottom of the ocean. She reached her wrench out towards the bolts, but it fell short. It was hard to judge distance in the dark.
Mara continued to work, slowly working through the assembly of circuit boards. After a while, footsteps clanged in the hallway behind her. They stopped at the doorway, just out of sight.
“Welcome back,” Mara said.
She stopped. The lights were still off.
She strained her neck and turned her head towards the door. Out of the corner of her eye she could see an environmental suit, lit in blue from beneath by the disposables.
“Hello, Mara,” said the Doctor.
He took a step into the room. Mara scrambled to her feet, pushing herself up off of the metal grating.
“Renault,” she said. “Look, I don’t care what you were doing last night. I don’t. I just want you to leave me alone, okay?”
He took a step forward, and held up his hands. “You misunderstand me,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to speak with you.”
“Clarke is gonna be back any minute. If you wanted to have a private chat, you picked a really shitty time,” said Mara.
Dr. Renault reached for something on his belt and tossed it onto the floor of the navigation housing. It clattered to a rest at Mara’s feet—a circuit.
“Not to worry,” he said.
“What the Hell is that?” asked Mara. “Is that a piece of the ship? Did you sabotage the lights for this?” She reached for her wrist console, but Renault held out his hands and sputtered.
“Wait!” he said. “You hear them! I know it, you can hear them talk to you! I just—”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Mara. She began to activate the comm. Renault dove forward and grabbed her wrist, driving her backwards towards the railing.
“I said wait!” he shouted.
He twisted Mara’s arm backwards. She turned, forcing the Doctor sideways, and rammed him with the shoulder of her suit, driving him from his feet. He grabbed for her, pulling at the fabric with clumsy fingers, clinging desperately to her wrist.
The lights overhead crashed on like lightning. Renault looked up and loosened his grip. Mara dove for the floor, kicking off of Renault and grabbing wildly for the wrench. Her fingers closed on its handle and she felt his hand on her back—she spun, whipping the wrench around in an arc towards the Doctor’s wrist. There was a dull snap.
The Doctor stumbled sideways into the wall, crashing into the tourniquet. The lights in the room surged wildly—sparks spewed from the sockets of missing circuit boards and monitors began to glow and flash in guttering rhythms as the boot cycle started.
Renault staggered, cradling his arm. Distantly, Mara heard the voices of the crew shouting over the general band, asking each-other what had happened.
She didn’t care. A blackness began to rise on the edges of her vision. All she could see was the Doctor. She felt her lips pull back in a hideous grin. She swung at Renault, hitting him in the side, sending him sprawling.
Mara held the wrench in both hands. So this is it, she thought, distantly. She adjusted her grip and pulled the wrench back, locking eyes with Renault. She took a deep breath, then—
“Chief, what the fuck?!”
Clarke stood at the door, her face white and her eyes huge behind her face-plate.
Mara froze, breathing heavily. She looked from Clarke to Renault, writhing on the floor. His face was the color of milk, his lips were pulled back, and Mara could see the knot of his jaw as he clenched it.
She lowered the wrench. Clarke ran forward, kneeling next to the Doctor and checking to see how badly he was hurt.
She looked up at Mara, her eyes full of fear and anger.
“What the fuck did you do?” she shouted.
Mara dropped the wrench. Her mouth was dry. She had no answer.
Nobody spoke as Mara was led into the Captain’s quarters. Davis escorted her to the Captain’s table while Atkins handed the Captain a sheet of paper. Mara was still shaking as the Captain nodded to the two crewmen. She barely heard the door close behind them.
“The good news is, Doctor Renault is going to be locked in his cabin as well,” said the Captain, after scanning the sheet and setting it down on the table.
“What’s the bad news?” asked Mara.
“I should think you’d have figured that out already.”
Mara said nothing. She stared at her reflection in the gloss of the table-top; at the deep purple circles beneath her eyes, and the pallid color of her cheeks.
“I mean, Jesus, Mara. From what Clarke says, it looked like you meant to kill the man. It was lucky she showed up when she did. For the both of you.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” said Mara, quietly.
“Well, whether you meant to or not, he’s in his own med-bay with a broken arm right now,” said the Captain. She rubbed the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “I know you were defending yourself. I do.”
“Don’t,” said the Captain.
Mara looked back down at her hands and fell silent.
“You are hereby to be confined to your room, pending a formal Company inquest. Davis will take over your responsibilities. Do you have anything to add to your statement?” said the Captain.
Mara opened her mouth and paused before speaking.
“He’s crazy,” she said.
“I know,” said the Captain.
They sat quietly. The Derringer hummed and muttered to itself in the background while Mara looked at her hands. When she looked up, it seemed as though the Captain were about to say something. But instead she shook her head and pressed the intercom.
“Davis?” she said into the metal grating, “Take the Chief back to her room. Send in Dr. Renault when you’re done.”
Mara went back to her room without resisting. Davis closed the door behind her, and Mara listened for the soft metal click of the latch override behind her. She stood for a moment, watching the spots dance before her eyes, letting the silence of the room fill her ears and the pure, heavy fatigue wash through her. Then she stumbled into the bathroom, leaned over the toilet, and vomited.
She sat on the floor of the bathroom and took deep breaths, in and out, trying her best to calm down. She wasn’t sure which upset her more: the fact that she almost killed a man, or the fact that she felt almost justified in doing so.
She’d never killed anyone. The Captain knew that. She’d never even hurt anyone—at least, not on purpose. There was no reason for the Captain to think she was lying—or worse, for her to think she was crazy.
Was she crazy?
No. No, she wasn’t crazy. The Doctor was crazy. The Captain was crazy for locking her up. This whole goddamn situation was crazy. She wasn’t crazy, she—
She was just seeing things, like the man in the hallway of the Ulysses.
Mara began to cry, quietly sobbing as she sat in the corner of her cabin’s bathroom. She snorted, laughing through the tears, thinking about the last few hours.
Maybe she was crazy. Maybe it was best that she was locked up, and kept away from everyone else. At least Renault would be locked up too, she thought. At least they could all just chalk it up to a bad trip and head home once the job was done.
She missed home. She wanted to feel the ground beneath her feet. She didn’t want to have to worry about holes in the hull, or radiation, or the million little things that could kill you on a job like this. She wanted to breathe real air, and feel real sun.
And God did she want to sleep.
At first, Mara didn’t know what woke her up, or how long she’d slept. All she knew was that her neck hurt and she was cold.
She looked around, and realized she had fallen asleep nestled next to the shower. The clock in the next room showed a dim, red midnight.
Then she realized, slowly, that she could hear the quiet hiss of the intercom.
She stood up, ignoring her stiff joints, and walked into the cabin. She stared at the grating on the door control and waited. There was nothing—no sound, no voice. Just the small white light, fading in and out. Someone on the other end was holding down the button.
Then, a breath.
“Do you know, I’ve almost pressed this button a number of times now?” came the voice from the intercom.
Mara sank backwards onto her bed. She didn’t understand what was happening. How she could be hearing his voice. How he could be speaking to her.
“And now that I have, I must admit that I’m not quite sure what to say,” said Renault. His voice was flat and detached, hollow as it poured through the intercom.
A finger of thick red dread worked its way into Mara’s stomach. She stood and walked to the door panel, held her finger over the intercom and opened her mouth.
Mara pressed the button. “What did you do to the Captain?” she asked, trying to keep her voice quiet and steady.
“The Captain?” asked Renault, then “Oh, the Captain. It’s a shame. It really, really is. I tried to tell her, I figured—I figured it was time to tell the truth, about what I found in my autopsies. She didn’t believe me. She tried to have me locked up, like you.”
Mara felt the nausea rising through her again, and swallowed it back. “Is she dead?” she asked.
“Do you know, I’m not quite sure?” said Renault. “I haven’t checked. It’s been awhile since she’s moved. I left, and came back, and she’s still here. I’d rather not know, to be honest.”
“Renault. Listen to me,” said Mara, fighting down the growing panic. “You have to listen to me. You’re… you’re not right. You’re seeing things. If you let me out, I can help. I can help you, Renault.”
“I’m not crazy,” came the voice through the intercom. “Or if I am, it’s the same type of crazy as you.”
“Goddamn it, Renault!” shouted Mara, slamming her palm on the cold metal wall.
“Admit it,” said Renault, as if she hadn’t said anything. “You can hear them. I was so relieved when I learned that you could. You’ve probably seen them, too, correct?”
Mara said nothing.
“And do you know what they want, Mara? Do you know what they’re asking for?”
“I don’t care,” said Mara.
“They speak to me, and they say they need help. They say, ‘Please. Let us in.’ They’re cold, Mara. They’re so cold, and they need our help.”
“Shut up!” said Mara, jamming her finger into the console.
“I can’t turn them away, Mara. If I turned them away, what kind of person would I be? What kind of doctor?” said Renault.
“Shut up!” said Mara, pounding the wall with her fist, no longer even pressing the intercom’s button.
“And so that’s what I’m going to do,” said Renault. “I’m going to let them in. Goodbye, Mara. I don’t believe I’ll see you again.”
The intercom fell silent, and the small white light was extinguished.
Mara pressed the button, but nothing happened. “Renault!” she said, “Renault, what have you done? What have you done?”
There was no response. Mara stepped back and ran her hands through her hair, pulling at it, feeling panic crackling inside of her like fire burning hotter and hotter. She was breathing hard. She was breathing too fast. The world began to spin, and she fell to her knees and scraped at the floor, grabbing a small bag from beneath her bed, opening it and shoving her face inside, trying desperately to slow her breathing down.
She had to think. She had to think. She had to calm down, and she had to think.
Renault was crazy. That much was clear. He’d done something to the Captain, and Mara had no idea what had happened to the crew. She was trapped—she was locked in her cabin, with no way out. But she could work through it—she was smart. She knew she could figure it out.
There was something at the bottom of the bag. Slowly, with shaking hands, she reached inside and felt around. Her fingers brushed it, and she pulled it out—
A screwdriver. A Goddamn screwdriver.
Mara tried to say something, anything, but the words turned into guttural cry of triumph before it left her mouth. She scrambled to her feet and ran to the door panel, shaking out her hands and slowing her breathing, focusing on the tiny chrome screws on the corners of the panel.
With a yell, she tore the loosened panel off and tossed it aside. Modular blocks of buttons and components jutted out from the hole in the wall like beetles beneath a log. Delicately, she traced the tiny golden filaments from one to the next, until she found the ones she needed, then tore her bedside clock from the wall and smashed it beneath her foot. She yanked a wire free and stripped it; gently, trying her best not to shake, she placed the naked metal against the circuit.
Sparks flew. She squinted, and tried again. There was a pop, and the room went dark.
Mara cursed, loudly, and slammed her fist against the panel. Then, with a soft metal thunk, the latch withdrew.
The hallway was dimmed for the night cycle. Mara forced the door of her cabin open and tumbled outwards, into the prostrate body of Atkins. She knelt to check his pulse, and then he coughed. A thin trickle of blood ran from between his lips.
“I never thought I’d be so happy to see a crazy person,” he said, weakly.
Mara shook her head. “Where are the others?” she asked, checking Atkins for wounds. There was a hole in his shoulder, soaked red with blood.
“He locked the others in their rooms. I tried to get them out, but he’s got the Captain’s gun. Got me in the shoulder. I think I broke a rib trying to get away,” said Atkins, through short, gasping breaths.
“Is she—” Mara began to say.
Atkins shook his head and shrugged, then gasped in pain.
“Where did he go?” she asked.
“To the airlock. He’s doing something outside.” He coughed. “Mara—let’s go. Let’s just leave him. Please, I want to go home.”
“We will,” she said. “We’ll go home. I’ll get us home, okay? I just—oh.”
“The bridge,” said Atkins, slumping. “We’re still hooked to the Ulysses.”
Mara shook her head, and laid Atkins back against the wall.
“Do it fast,” he said. Then he closed his eyes.
The long tether of the gangway arced across the gulf of stars, disappearing into the great black maw of the Ulysses‘ silhouette. Mara sat, locking the boots of her suit together, scanning the length of it through the window for the Doctor.
She slipped the helmet over her head, sliding the catches shut with a click. She recited suit-prep safety checklist to herself like a mantra, repeating it over and over as she slid her hands into her gloves, listening for the snap of the catch. Never once did she take her eyes off of the empty gangway.
There was no sign of him.
She finished the checklist one last time, then took a slow, deep breath and hit the primer on the airlock release. The green light flashed. She closed her eyes as the air rushed back into the ship and listened to the hiss of air vanish in the vacuum.
The hatch released with the familiar, boot-shaking thud. Mara opened her eyes, and looked through the airlock to the stars. The sound of her breath rang inside her helmet as she stepped out of the Derringer’s gravity field.
She was shaking. She clipped herself to the guide-wire and walked to the first joint of the gangway, where she slowly, carefully, knelt down towards the red emergency release lever. She reached out her hand.
Her gloved fingers slipped off of it. It was too far away.
“Fuck,” she said, her voice ringing in the helmet. “Fuck.”
She reached behind her and patted the tool-belt on her suit. There was nothing there. Her wrench was where she’d dropped it, on the floor of the Ulysses.
“Fuck,” she said, her voice cracking.
There was a crackle in her headset. Renault’s voice faded in through the static, singing quiet nonsense words to himself in his nasal tenor.
A square of light appeared in the distance, near the center of the Ulysses‘ silhouette. Mara looked up.
“Birds singing in the sycamore trees,” sang Renault, his voice clearer now. “Dream a little—”
“Mara?” he said, over the general band. “What—”
Mara stood, then looked over the railing at the emergency lever. She tugged on the guide-wire, then tugged on her harness. Then, with a whimper, she threw herself over the side of the gangway.
Her stomach lept into her throat. The stars around her jumped and spun, but she didn’t dare close her eyes. The side of the gangway rushed towards her; she grabbed furiously at it as the hard metal plating rammed into her chest, gasping as the wind was knocked out of her. She scrambled for a hand-hold. Then, with a bark of terrified laughter, she pulled the emergency release lever and felt the gangway shudder under her hands as the first explosive was primed.
“Mara, what do you think you’re doing?” shouted Renault. His voice shook as he shouted over the commlink. “What are you doing?”
Mara climbed upwards, hand over hand, pulling herself back over the railing. She swung her legs back to the gangway, then looked at the Ulysses—on the opposite end, clambering towards her, was Renault. He wasn’t alone.
Behind him, the light from the Ulysses‘ airlock was filled in by a moving, pulsing darkness. In the distant glow of the Derringer’s spotlights, Mara saw limbs grabbing the railing of the gangway. She saw hands grasping at the shoulders of the Doctor’s suit. He pulled forward, and they began to move across the gangway towards her.
“I don’t want to shoot you, Mara, but I will!” said Renault.
She saw him raise his arm—the unbroken one—and suddenly there was a flash. The bullet crashed into the side of the Derringer somewhere above her, and she was showered by sparks.
Mara ducked to the other side of the gangway and leaned over the railing. She spotted the lever, lit by peeling reflector tape. Her hands gripped the railing and she made to leap, but something held her back, binding across her abdomen.
The guide-wire. It wasn’t long enough.
Another bullet smashed into the gangway, rebounding off of the Derringer with a silent spray of light. Fragments of shrapnel tore tiny lines in the fabric of her suit. Mara reeled back and turned towards the Ulysses, and saw that the Doctor was more than halfway across. She realized she could see inside the mass of shapes, to the twitching, pulsing bodies. And the steady, staring eyes.
“No,” she said, turning back to the railing. “No no no. Oh, God, I don’t want to do this.”
With shaking hands, she unclipped her harness from the guide-wire. Another bullet smashed into the Derringer. She flinched, then tensed her legs, wrapped her arm around the railing, and jumped.
Her feet left the gangway. The fabric of her suit pulled against the railing as she spun. The universe was a roiling mass of inversion and nauseous spinning stars, but the lever was nearer now, and nearer, and she reached out her free hand towards it, and then a bullet smashed into her arm.
The pain was impossible, and everything vanished before it.
She let go.
In the last panicked corner of her mind, she realized what was happening: she was loose, she was flying, lost—
And her free hand snagged the lever, wrenching it outwards. She pivoted and smashed her wounded arm into the underside of the gangway, and the agony made her scream until her voice snapped.
Thirty seconds until the charges detonated.
She repeated the number over and over again, hauling herself back over the gangway. Thirty seconds, she thought. The atmosphere hissed out of the hole in her sleeve, taking tiny, weightless spheres of blood with it.
Thirty seconds, she thought. She threw herself onto the bridge and scrambled to right herself, noticing the withered skin of the figures, noticing the panic in the Doctor’s eyes as he pulled closer, now just a few yards away.
Thirty seconds, she thought, throwing herself into the airlock. Sparks erupted against the back of the room as the Doctor fired at her again and again.
She slammed her hand onto the airlock’s door-control, and the hatch sealed shut with a boom like thunder. In the porthole, Mara saw the Doctor ram the hull of the Derringer, his eyes wide, his face pale.
“Mara,” he sobbed, in her headset. “Mara. Please. Don’t do this.”
She stumbled and fell backwards, her eyes locked on Renault as he was shoved this way and that by the gaunt, staring faces of the others.
“Mara,” he screamed, “Let us in! Please, Mara, let us in!”
It was impossible to catch a breath. There was no air. The saliva in her mouth began to boil.
Thirty seconds, she thought.
The Derringer shook. Suddenly, Renault’s screams were swept away, fading into static. Through the porthole, Mara saw nothing but stars. Not the figures. Not the Ulysses. Just stars.
The air was returning to the airlock chamber. It hissed in through the vents in thin white columns. As the atmosphere returned, Mara could hear pounding—she turned her head and saw the faces of her friends crowded around the inner hatch, slamming their fists against the airlock door, shouting.
They would be let in soon, she thought. Nothing to worry about.
Mara closed her eyes.
They would be let in soon.