20. Crepitus

020crepitus

 

The suit was a bit claustrophobic, but it fit like a glove. There was a module on its back for what looked like a mechanical connection of some kind, and a screen built into the left wrist that powered on the moment Desanto slid the suit on. He looked inside the helmet in his hands and noticed the tiny communication device in the seam.

Gunnar, already suited up, grabbed a combitool from one of the equipment lockers. It was two feet long and had various jaws and blades designed for spreading, cutting, squeezing and pulling metal as well as other hard materials. He attached it to his right arm, slipping his hand into the control strap. Then he moved his arm around, testing the claw mechanism by clamping it open and shut. Desanto thought it made Gunnar look like a deranged, robotic crab fending off an attacking seagull.

Next Gunnar grabbed a level two multiwrench and handed it to Desanto. It was larger than the level one he was used to, and had additional features including a cold-welder head. Desanto had read up on his newfound/former vocation, and he recognized the tools from his research. But reading and real life were very different things, and he stared down at the tool in his hand, wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into.

“Just keep your mouth shut and follow my lead,” Gunnar said, obviously sensing his friend’s apprehension.

They left the locker room behind. With helmets and tools in hand, the two men made their way toward the airlock. They received a briefing on the way, the other Mechanics and Fabricators buzzing about to either give them pointers or wish them a good walk. Gunnar pointed to the woman they’d seen in the locker room in her underwear and said, “Her name’s Carrie, by the way. That’s what you miss when you don’t come out.”

Desanto shook off the comment, too preoccupied with the approaching spacewalk to think about anything else. Matthews, a black man Desanto was told was in his seventies even though he looked like he’d been born a fifty-year old and never bothered to age, met them near the far end of Deck Fourteen, just past the Fabrication Engines and only a few yards from the door to the airlock. He was the Senior Mechanic on duty, which put him and his partner- who was nearby, ordering a couple of apprentice-levels to secure some equipment- in charge of the spacewalk. “Alright, sweethearts, are you ready for a little extravehicular activity,” Matthews asked, chewing on a cigar he never lit.

“Always,” Gunnar replied.

“Good, because the sensor array is still jammed to shit. Before you even think about getting in close, make sure you send the Dorniers in to sniff around and see what you’re dealing with. I don’t need you two snowflakes coming back a tangle of assholes and elbows.”

Gunnar rolled his eyes. “Yes, dad. I know how repair walks work.”

“Of course you do, you volunteer for every damn cowboy mission that comes along.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Gunnar turned to Desanto. “Ready to saddle up, partner?”

Confused, Desanto said, “What about the Y-Plus th-”

With a motion of his glove Gunnar waved him off, clearly wanting him to shut up before he ruined something. Now Desanto really had to wonder what he’d gotten himself into. Matthews either didn’t notice or didn’t care, continuing the briefing while Desanto tried to absorb every word. It was difficult to concentrate with the pounding in his head, a fresh headache settling into the back of his skull.

“Any questions,” Matthews asked as Gunnar slipped his helmet on.

“Yeah, is your mom embarrassed by how ugly you turned out?” Gunnar’s voice was muffled by the thick layers of plastic and glass in front of his mouth.

“Next time I swing by Earth I’ll be sure to dig her up and ask.” Matthews turned his attention to Desanto. “And you? You ready for this, son?”

Desanto swallowed. “I would say something clever, but I’m just trying not to shit in my suit.”

“Good. At least one of you takes this seriously.” He patted Desanto on the shoulder. “Just keep Billy the Kid here safe and you’ll be fine.”

Desanto nodded. Then Matthews turned to address the room at large, his voice booming across the Engineering deck. “Alright, people, it’s go time. Now hustle up and clear the area. And someone tell the bridge we’re ready to cut the engine.”

As the others moved away, Desanto leaned closer to Gunnar. “I get the feeling you’re lying to one of us.”

Gunnar shook his head while once again testing his robotic combitool arm. “Our official mission is to knock loose whatever space junk is fucking up one of the arrays, but unofficially we’re going to have a look around, see if we can’t account for the extra nanometal while we’re out there. We’ll do what they need, and we’ll do what we need, get it?”

“That’s why you always volunteer for walks, so you can snoop around.”

Gunnar chuckled. “Well it’s certainly not my sense of civic duty.”

The airlock door hissed, the two sides sliding apart with a deep, hydraulic whine. Desanto slipped his helmet on over his head, easily finding the seals to lock it to the neck ring. It was as natural as tying a shoe, and at least that small part gave him some comfort, as if he’d done all of this before and just had to trust his muscle memory. The moment the seal was made between the helmet and the suit, visual data popped up in front of his eyes, holographic data projected between layers of reinforced glass. Relevant text tracked with his eyesight perfectly. He looked over at his partner and noticed the name “Gunnar Larsen” hovering over the man’s head.

“After you,” Gunnar said, motioning to the waiting doors.

Desanto entered the airlock, a space large enough to fit eight men at most. It wasn’t men waiting for them, though, but half a dozen Dornier drones in power-save mode resting on the floor. The units sensed the men, their lights and motors coming to life. Desanto saw names over them, too, unit designations chosen after famous scientists. The doors immediately shut behind them. As Desanto looked around at the metal walls of the airlock, bare metal except for some equipment hooks and a screen displaying oxygen and pressure data, Matthews’ voice came over their comm systems.

“Larsen, Desanto, the bridge was nice enough to inform us that engines are at full stop. Are you ready?”

“Take my breath away,” Gunnar replied.

“Roger that, cowboy. Engaging airlock.”

The walls began to hiss as the air was sucked out of the room, the pressure quickly approaching zero. Meanwhile, Gunnar addressed two drones that were larger than the others via some modular attachments. “Newton, you’re on Desanto. Schrodinger, you’re with me.” Desanto was about to ask what he’d meant when the two units rose up, flying around the back of them and attaching to the backs of their suits. They tucked in, becoming more compact as they changed flight modes. A message lit up on Desanto’s helmet that read, Dornier Unit Newton found. Oxygen feed engaged. Propellant engaged. Battery at one-hundred percent.

“Can we trust these things,” Desanto asked, trying to glance back at the drone hugging his spine.

“Sure, I guess.”

“You guess?”

Gunnar snorted. “We can’t walk without them, so get used to it. If it helps just think of them as sled dogs. The Call of the Wild and all that.”

Desanto frowned. “The people usually die in those books.”

“Seriously? You barely know who I am, but that you remember?”

“I guess books are more interesting,” Desanto said with a shrug.

“Yeah, well I guess sug min kuk.”

“Knock it off, Larsen,” Matthews’ voice warned. “We’re disengaging the Graviton Drive.” A few seconds later the artificial gravity turned off. Desanto felt the strange sensation of his boots rising up off the floor. In a moment he was airborne, floating alongside the Dorniers, who began to engage their counter-balances. Newton and Schrodinger did the same on the men’s backs, keeping them upright and even-keeled. Without their help, Desanto imagined he’d be bumping and floating his way around the airlock right about then. Gunnar, two feet off the ground, showed him how to move. He leaned the way he wanted to go and the Dornier unit on his back picked up the movements and did the rest, engaging thrust as necessary.

“Now just picture this,” Gunnar said, “with a naked woman.” As he began to mime vulgar sex acts in mid-air, Desanto turned to the Dornier on his right.

“Humans,” he said. The drone, named Volta, simply tilted itself slightly and beeped back at him, not understanding his command. “Never mind,” Desanto mumbled. Matthews’ voice came over the comm again, informing them that he was opening the door for them. Desanto turned to face the massive door ahead as its pressure locks disarmed in a series of whirs and clicks.

Slowly, like a curtain opening onto an endless stage, the door opened until all of space was laid bare before them. A black void of mostly nothing dotted by a hundred billion burning stars. “You boys are clear to exit,” Matthews said into their ears. “We’ll leave a light on for you. Now go kick some.”

Gunnar nodded to Desanto. “Come on, partner. Into the breach.” The two men propelled forward, leaving the Ark behind with tools in hand, surrounded by their pack of drones.

 

\^/

 

Nicolai was still shaken by what he’d seen in the lab. The Vanessa girl was covered in bruises. She also had a hairline fracture in one of her ribs from when she’d been striking herself, trying to kill whatever was in her contamination suit. But at least she was alive. Sunn had run a full analysis on her and concluded she was in perfect health, despite some small fluctuations in her t-cell activity, which he accredited to the sting they’d found on her skin. Doctor Hannigan was playing it safe and keeping the girl in quarantine under heavy sedation until, in her words, all uncertainties became certainties. Nicolai fully agreed with the doctor’s decision, as did Officer Brigham, who had thanked Nicolai for saving her sister before barraging him with a thousand questions about the incident. Nicolai didn’t blame her. He would have done the same thing in her shoes- possibly without the thanks.

Sunn had also done a full scan on Nicolai, but the tests came back clean. Considering he hadn’t come into contact with anything, Hannigan agreed with the results and cleared him for general population. The Chief Inspector had ordered him to get a Psych Eval before he could return to duty, but so far he had ignored that order. He didn’t need some Psych Doctor digging around in his head, trying to drudge up all his bad feelings about an obviously bad thing.

But the truth was, he couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen in that Decon Room. The black, arterial tentacles scrape-oozing across the ceiling. That greenish-yellow cat’s eye watching him through a slender, black slit. Rees and Mitsuko hadn’t seen it, but that didn’t surprise him. From their limited angle they couldn’t see much, and the thing moved so fast he’d only caught a glimpse of it by pure luck. It was still out there somewhere, escaped without a scratch into the ventilation system. It didn’t feel like a coincidence that it was the same ship’s system into which Baptiste had disappeared, even if it was a different part of the Ark. Based on what he saw the thing could easily squeeze through tight spaces, which meant it could travel to pretty much every area of the ship. It had attacked one person already for certain, seemingly unprovoked, and in all likelihood had before, and would again.

Then there was a possibility Nicolai didn’t even want to consider: that there could be more than one of them. Considering a full-grown man had been dragged away into the vents, that was very likely. It was either that or the creature was exceptionally strong for its size. Both choices were frightening. And then there was a third possibility: that there were more things out there, things other than the one Nicolai had seen. Bigger things.

He didn’t like that choice, either.

That thing was all he could think about. What was it, and where did it come from? Could they have picked up an alien life form in their travels? In all their time in space they’d never recovered anything beyond anecdotal evidence of life, the strongest of which were just perfectly square rocks that confused a few Scientists, yet what if something had gotten onto the ship? It could have started as bacteria tracked in on someone’s boot, something the Decon scanners missed. He didn’t know enough to discredit the idea, but his instincts told him it wasn’t the answer. Something about the events on the Ark over the last week or so felt orchestrated, like someone was pulling the strings. The most twisted, isolated puppet show of all time. He couldn’t begin to imagine who that could be or what their goal was, but he certainly didn’t like the fact that Captain Ashby had barely been seen in the last few days. Either she was in on the plot or she was standing by and letting it happen. Neither one sat well with him. And yet he didn’t dare accuse the Captain of something like that until he had irrefutable proof of her wrongdoing. For now she was just one more person, one more factor to keep an eye on, just as he was doing with Zane.

Zane. That psycho was high on his list of suspects, if not the top spot then certainly near it. He’d been watching Zane as closely as he could without being too obvious, him and a few other Peace Officers taking turns on surveillance, but as crazy as Zane was he was smart, and he seemed to have caught on. At first he’d been meeting openly with his fellow kooks, but recently he’d been more and more secretive, choosing to gather behind locked doors, to the point where just before the incident in the lab, Zane had disappeared altogether. Could the attacks be what Cornelia had warned him about? Was this how he was going to open people’s minds?

With all those questions in the air, there was only one thing Nicolai knew with absolute certainty: the Ark was in trouble, and as of that moment, they were completely unprepared for whatever was coming.

He decided it was time to talk to his partner.

Nicolai found Kash at his desk, filing a report on an Environment Caretaker who had collapsed at work. “Nothing interesting,” Kash said, sounding disappointed. “Doctors are sure it was exhaustion.”

“Did they check for stings or bite marks?”

“I asked. They said no, just severe lack of sleep.”

“The nightmares,” Nicolai concluded. There must have been something in his voice that betrayed him, because his partner suddenly looked up at him with a rare look of concern on his face.

“What about you,” Kash asked.

“What about me?”

Kash frowned. He wasn’t good at interpersonal, human interaction. In fact he probably concerned himself less with it than Sunn did. At least Sunn was trying to come across as human. “Don’t make me drag it out of you,” he said. Nicolai glanced around the station, making sure no one was listening in.

“Not good. Not good at all.”

Kash picked up on his partner’s vibe and leaned over his desk, lowering his voice. “What’s up?”

“No one’s taking my report seriously. Inspector thinks I’m exaggerating, that my recollection is clouded.” He took a deep breath. As much as Nicolai knew what they needed to do, no matter how much he cared about the safety of his fellow passengers, he also hoped he wasn’t about to hand a bowie knife to a toddler. “I think we should talk to someone about those weapons of yours,” he said. Kash was silent a few moments. Then a smile spread across his face.

“It’s about goddamn time,” he replied.

 

\^/

 

“Goddamn it,” Abigail whispered.

She was, in no uncertain terms, in big fucking trouble. After kneeing James Crick in the balls, and striking another cultist across his sweaty face, a whole swarm of creeps had overpowered her. They dragged her to the center of the room, past that disgusting vat of holy whatever-the-shit they’d been dancing and fucking around, and tied her up to a steam pipe with her hands behind her back. They creeps had been unnervingly quiet at first, but now they were positively buzzing about something happening in another part of the ship. She didn’t understand what they were talking about, mainly due to their whispering and the strange way they talked to each other. Furthermore, she was still way, way too hungover to be dealing with life, let alone anything like this.

Zane was busy talking to another man, but not the one from before. That one seemed to have slipped away in the chaos of Abigail being discovered. He’d disappeared before she got a chance to see his face, though she swore she’d made out the shape of a Deck Officer’s uniform. “Even if they find the heretic it will be too late to save him,” she heard Zane say. She didn’t know who he was talking about, but she hoped it wasn’t Gunnar. She needed to move things along, figure out a way to get out of there and warn the others. Whatever the creeps were up to, it didn’t sound pleasant.

“I know who you are, by the way,” she said loud enough for Zane to hear. He ignored her, continuing to talk to his fellow weirdo. “I’ve heard all about you. You’re the ones who worship Howard Blackwood, right?”

Zane turned at the mere mention of Blackwood’s name, his eyes laser-focused on her.

“Hey, it’s fine. I’m down with Blackwood,” she said. She needed to keep his attention on her. Maybe he could be reasoned with, or at least tricked. Blind belief made for the best suckers she’d always found. “I don’t think he’s a god like you do, but he’s a cool guy. A bit of a personal hero, if I might say.”

With only a look Zane dismissed the one he was talking to. He approached her slowly, and she kept the talking going. “Maybe you can let me go and we can chat all about him, like a couple of teenagers talking about their first crushes.”

Zane oozed across the dark room, studying her up and down. It wasn’t the usual way guys looked at her, though. His intentions were much worse. “What is it you like about Blackwood,” he asked calmly.

“Well, he’s a genius, obviously. He created all this. The Ark, our way of life. We owe him everything.” She squinted, pulling on her ropes. “I can’t say he would appreciate what you’re doing here, though. In fact, stop me if I’m overstepping but I say we thaw him out right now and see what he has to say about your little club.”

Zane stopped within a foot of Abigail. “We owe him everything,” he echoed with a smile.

“Exactly.”

“He put us on the path to Eden.”

“I…yeah, I guess he-”

“The false path.” His face twisted into a carving of deep hatred. “Blackwood isn’t a god, he’s a failure.”

Well, shit. She’d played the wrong hand on this one.

“He spreads liars among us. Sends false prophets to test our faith in The Reclamation.”

Abigail strained a smile. “I was just kidding, you know, about liking him. He’s always been a bit overrated to me.”

Zane reached into his pocket and pulled something out, showing it to her. It was a knife. It looked hand-made, with strange writing carved into the handle. One symbol repeatedly showed up, a dissected V with a small arrow, like a wedge, in the center. “Do you believe in it,” he asked, “do you trust in the power of The Reclamation?”

“I…I’m sure with time I could-”

He moved closer, coming within inches of her, and brought the knife up toward her face. She drew a breath in as he pressed the blade to her cheek. “Liar,” he spit. “Another heretic in a den of heretics. You’ll say whatever you need to just to continue your lost, little lives.” The tip of the blade touched the bottom of her eyelid, and she held her breath. “I used to hate people like you, you know. I was angry that so many undeserving people had been given the chance to give themselves over, to be Reclaimed on the day of glory.” Now he began to trail a line with the blade, moving it slowly down her cheek and over the edge of her jaw, down to her neck. Abigail froze. One fast move on either of their parts and her throat would be cut. “Over time,” he continued,” I came to appreciate the heretics. Do you know why?”

She tried to speak but the words didn’t come. Instead she shook her head, just barely enough to say no. He smiled, his eyes shiny with tears.

“Because we must love our sacrifices.”

He jerked the blade. Abigail gasped, dreading the moment the knife would penetrate her throat. Instead, Zane brought the blade to his other hand and made a cut in the thick pad of his thumb right in front of her face, so she could see. As Abigail half-laughed, half-cried from relief, she watched the blood rise up from the cut and spill down his thumb. Zane’s eyes never once slipped out of focus, his face never losing control or betraying the pain as he brought the bloody thumb to her face and began to paint on her forehead. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but it felt like he was drawing the symbol from his knife on her skin, the dissected V.

“You say you want to thaw him out, to see what he has to say,” Zane said, drawing his thumb away. “I couldn’t agree more. We intend to revive Blackwood, to make him answer for his blasphemies.” He stepped away from her, cleaned the blade on his pants and slipped it back into his pocket. “I was going to kill you, Abigail, but now I think I’ll keep you around. I want you to see what becomes of your hero.”

 

\^/

 

Once Desanto got past the idea of something going wrong, leaving him to drift off into space and slowly suffocate in the unending void, the spacewalk was actually kind of nice.

The sensation of weightlessness was unlike anything he’d ever experienced, or rather remembered experiencing. It was like dancing on air, with the stars his stage. The Dorniers, meanwhile, had spread out around him and Gunnar, their instruments scanning and taking in data at incredible speeds, beaming the relevant stuff to the men’s displays.

“Work on controlling your breathing,” Gunnar said. “We only have about five minutes of air.”

Desanto froze. “What,” he asked in a panic.

Gunnar burst out laughing. “Just fucking with you,” he said, tapping the modified Dornier on his back. “Rebreathers. We’re good for a few hours.” He started laughing again, saying he wished Desanto could see his own face. In his other ear, Matthews was bitching that they needed to stop screwing around and get on with it.

Anything he said only made Gunnar laugh harder, so Desanto decided to let him laugh it off while he took in the sights. Slowly, he spun around to look at the Ark. Seeing the ship that way, all at once from a distance, it was an impressive feat of technology and human ingenuity. It stretched on for a hulking mile of twisting, gray metal and sealed windows, blinking lights and instruments peering out into the darkness. Seeing it altogether like that, a contained city floating through space, he realized that somewhere in the back of his mind, he’d never quite believed where he was, that it was actually a spaceship. Somehow the sight of it spread out before him was comforting. Being able to trust his own eyes was a rare treat.

Gunnar was done laughing, which meant they could get on with the mission. Their helmet displays showed a trail of holographic light toward their target, a faint line leading to the sensor array on the bottom of the Ark, and they leaned forward to propel along the highlighted flight path. When they’d gotten within ten meters of the array, which was larger than Desanto had first thought and hinged to move and track, Gunnar sent in two Dorniers to check the area. “Einstein, Curie, search the sensor array for a blockage,” he said. They zoomed off, like hunting dogs running toward a foxhole.

Desanto was having a little difficulty realigning his sense of up and down now that they were under the ship and facing it straight-on. He imagined all the people inside standing sideways to his current orientation, and his brain didn’t appreciate it. As he tried to ignore the instinct to reach out and stop himself from falling, which he’d been told would fade over time, he heard the unmistakable sound of a man whispering in his ear.

Not now, he thought. Not out here. The last place he needed the visions to return was out on a spacewalk. He hoped the whispering could be explained, but turning his comm line to Matthews off and on had no effect, the whispers continuing. As subtle as he could be, he propelled to a position where he could see Gunnar’s face. His friend, who was watching the Dorniers’ progress, clearly wasn’t moving his lips. Desanto tried to ignore the whispers, to pretend he was only concerned with a simple repair, but he doubted he was doing a good job of covering his fear.

“What the hell is that,” Gunnar asked.

Desanto’s jaw nearly hit the glass. “You…you heard it, too?”

“How could I not,” Gunnar scoffed, “it’s creepy as shit.” Desanto couldn’t believe it. For the first time, someone else had heard what he’d heard. “Hey Matthews, did you guys pick up any weird whispering just now?”

“That’s a big negative. You could be picking up an overlapping radio frequency,” Michaels replied.

“I really, really hope so.” Before they could discuss it further, an alarm suddenly began beeping. It was the sound of an excited drone talking to them over the comm, and the other agreeing with it. “Sounds like the Dorniers found something,” Gunnar noted.

Whatever they’d discovered was wedged between the ship and the sensor array. The two men moved in closer, trying to see the bit of debris that was jamming up the instrument and keeping it from normal operations. All they could see of it was a bit of white material caught in the Dornier’s light, a small shape floating in the shadows.

As they got closer, they made out the shape of a boot.

 

\^/

 

Monika left her husband napping in their quarters, taking a trip down to Engineering while he was snoring away on the couch. The first person she ran into in Engineering was Carrie Colton, a Mechanic Monika noticed Gunnar had taken some interest in lately. From her expression, Carrie was surprised to see her. “I thought you and Dez were off today,” she said.

“We are. Wy food recycler’s broken, I just wanted to pop in and grab a few tools.”

“A Mechanic’s work is never done,” Carrie said with a smile.

“Call it Vocation security.” Monika looked around, not noticing as much activity as she’d expected. “Isn’t there a spacewalk going on today?”

Carrie nodded. “You missed the exit by about twenty minutes. It’s a quick one if you want to stick around for reentry.”

“That’s alright.” Monika quickly shelved the idea, wanting to get back before Dez woke up. “Who’s out there anyway, full crew?”

“Just two. Desanto and Gunnar.”

Monika’s eyebrow shot up. “Gunnar, huh?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Nothing. Just, you know, watch out for him,” Monika smiled. Carrie clucked her tongue.

“Woman, what are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s a great guy, and he’s cute, but he’s a ladies man. I see he’s set his sights on you.”

“Actually, believe it or not he wouldn’t shut up about some woman in Recycling. April, or something.”

“I don’t believe it.” Monika had never seen Gunnar focus his attention on one woman for more than a week or two.

“It’s true,” Carrie shrugged. “I think he’s trying to set me up with Desanto.”

“Interesting.” Monika leaned in. “He’s cute, too. A little weird, but cute.”

“Anyway, enough about that- I see Phoebe made up her mind.”

Monika frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Just that I saw her a little while ago. She was by the Fabrication Engines. I guess Dez won this one, huh? You have a future Fabricator on your hands. It’s a shame, but I know she’ll be great at it, especially with-”

Monika waved for Carrie to stop. “Hold on, I’m sorry- Phoebe was here?”

“Yeah, she was with a guy I’ve never seen before. But don’t worry, it didn’t look like they were together or anything, just showing him around.”

Something wasn’t right. Phoebe had said she would be with her friends on a nature hike on Deck Ten. In fact, Phoebe had asked twice if her and Dez were working today. She seemed overly concerned by it, even if she’d feigned teenage detachment over the whole issue. Monika’s stomach started to tie itself in knots as the pieces of a very bad puzzle began to come together. Monika said her goodbyes to Carrie, then went off toward the Fabrication Engines to look for her daughter.

She peeked in on Fabrication, but she didn’t see her daughter anywhere, which was somewhat of a relief. Just as she was about to move on, possibly call up her daughter’s screen and interrogate her on why she was showing up to Engineering with strange men, she found something that didn’t belong. A metal storage case was tucked behind one of the Fabrication Engines, in the corner where most people passing by would never see it. Her stomach was tying itself even tighter now, and she was wishing she hadn’t stopped into work.

Carefully, one latch at a time, Monika opened the storage case. Inside she found what appeared to be a mining charge, the kind they used to blast apart meteors.

It was hooked up to a timer.

 

\^/

 

“Matthews, we have a problem.”

Gunnar stared at the boot sticking out from the point where the sensor array met the ship. Illuminated by Dornier lights, he could see the leg of a spacesuit attached to the boot, and nothing more. It was a fine fucking how-do-you-do for Desanto’s first spacewalk after coming back, and Gunnar wasn’t enjoying it, either.

“Roger that, I’m seeing it on your vidfeed. We’re all a bit confused in here,” Michaels said.

“Are there any suits unaccounted for,” Desanto asked. It was a damn good question.

“Someone’s checking now.” There was a pause on the line as Matthews muted his microphone and screamed out a few orders to the others. Then he came back. “Alright, uh, can you tell if it’s empty?”

Just the question Gunnar had been wrestling with for the last minute or so. The suit leg wasn’t wrinkled or deflated, which meant something inside was keeping it properly filled. “All I can tell you is, it doesn’t look like it from here,” he summed up.

“I’m afraid we need better than that, Larsen.”

Gunnar sighed. He ordered the Curie unit to get in there and retrieve the suit. The drone flew in closer, extending its arms before grabbing a hold of the boot by the ankle. Then the unit reversed its thrusters, trying to pull the suit back with it, but it was met with strong resistance. “Is any of this oddly fucking familiar to you,” Gunnar asked Desanto. Desanto just nodded back with that same, haunted look in his eyes he’d gotten used to seeing on his buddy. Two bodies in a week. Two fucking bodies in one fucking week. And not just another body, but practically the same scenario, with him and Desanto being the ones to discover and drag it out. What were the odds of history repeating itself so soon?

Not likely. Not goddamn likely. He didn’t care if being an active volunteer, a cowboy as Michaels put it, made him more prone to run into bad situations when they came up, this went well beyond a simple law of averages. This was some blatant bullshit.

Curie beeped a sound of resignation. The data on their helmets said she was unable to clear the blockage.

“Balle,” Gunnar cursed. “We’ll have to go in manually.”

“I’ll go,” Desanto offered.

“No. We’ll both go.”

“There’s no reason both of us need to take the risk.”

“Yeah, there is. Where you go, I go, get it? No lone wolf hero shit out here. Partners.” He stared at Desanto, his eyes dead serious.

Desanto nodded inside his helmet. “Alright. Partners,” he said.

Gunnar and Desanto leaned forward, propelling together toward the ship. As they approached the mechanical joint, they noticed no name was displayed in their helmets, nothing projected over the suit, which they hesitantly took as a good sign that it wasn’t actually a body.

The two of them slowed down as they drew within a few feet of the sensor array. From their viewpoint they couldn’t see the face of the helmet at the top of the suit, even with one of the Dorniers still illuminating the area. Gunnar ordered the unit to back off. As it did, it managed to bump into Gunnar’s shoulder, pushing him off-balance. “Watch it, Einstein,” he warned.

They drew with a few feet of the suit. Gunnar reached in with his combitool and carefully grabbed a hold of its arm. It felt solid, not giving under the light pressure, and the two men exchanged a look. Then he turned it over so they could look inside the helmet. Both men prayed they’d only found a lost suit, some decommissioned equipment that had somehow skipped Recycling and been ejected from the ship.

No such luck. A man’s face was behind the glass. He had thin eyes, the lids shut. His skin was pale and mottled with bruising and radiation exposure, and he didn’t appear to be breathing.

“Dead,” Gunnar concluded.

“Whoever he was, he didn’t have a tracker,” Desanto pointed out.

Gunnar got a closer look at the man’s face. He had black stubble and an old scar under his eye. “Hold on, I know this guy. Svarog I think his name was.” Gunnar remembered approaching him at some point, on account of being a fellow Swede, but he’d quickly given up all ideas of befriending the man after a few minutes of conversation with him. The guy was too weird, even for Gunnar.

“How long do you think he’s been out here,” Desanto asked.

“No clue.” As Gunnar studied the man’s face, the eyes suddenly opened. Gunnar shouted, his arms flailing a bit. Svarog, apparently very much alive, looked back at them with wide-eyed wonder, as if he were at heaven’s gate, looking in.

“The vessel is here,” the man said, his smile full of pure worship and glory. Gunnar felt a chill wash over him. A moment later, their ears were filled with screams, the sound of panic and fear coming over the comm.

The screams were cut short by a deafening blast.

An explosion rocked the ship, emanating from somewhere within Engineering. The men turned to see fire and light and debris burst from the airlock they’d floated free of just minutes earlier, light that was quickly snuffed out by the uncaring vacuum of space. Shrapnel and ash spread out in all directions as the airlock vomited out the contents of its belly.

The comm in their helmets went dead, and with it all sound.

 

To be continued…

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