“Sailors on a becalmed sea, we sense the stirring of a breeze.”
― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
For the first time in nine months, the Gyro-Shuttle’s cryogenic systems gasped to life. The lights of the cryo-chamber sputtered to life one by one, flickering coughs of light that sent fierce green and blues reflecting across the face of the patient inside.
Medical Officer James Davis of the U.N.S. Frontier was startled awake by the sound of breaking glass. He reflectively grabbed the edge of the desk to prevent himself from falling from his chair, sending small objects rocking to the floor, including his glasses. Eye surgery wasn’t expensive these days, but he thought the glasses lent him an air of wisdom. Now, in soft focus, he watched his wisdom fall to the floor. He sighed and crawled below the desk, his hands searching for the spectacles.
His hands finally found them, and he quickly ran a finger across the lens. A smooth, unbroken surface greeted his touch, and he let out a sigh of relief.
A sudden –thump- sounded from the desk above him. Once again startled, he raised his head instinctively to the noise, smashing his head against the bottom of the desk.
“Fuck!” he shouted, reeling backwards from the pain. He cleared the desk fairly easily and, after a moment to check that his glasses were still intact, glanced up at the desk, and the woman now atop it.
The woman was perhaps three feet before him of him, just outside of his range of clear sight, but close enough to make out that she was crouching upon the desk like a wild animal, bobbing and weaving in a peculiarly rhythmic way. As she leaned in her face closer to him, he got a full, clear look at what his mind insisted could only be a dead woman. The best likeness he could compare it to was staring into the face of a late-stage AIDS patient he had seen in old movies and photographs, before they’d eradicated the virus once and for all in 2078. Her face was pale, gaunt in a way that the cryo-chamber’s nutrient systems should have prevented. Upon both her cheeks two eerily symmetrical sores stood out in a fireman’s red of caked puss and blood, two near-perfect ovals of gore. Her hair seemed ready to fall out, and he thought if he just reached up and brushed it ever so carefully the whole thing would come away like a sticky, visceral toupee.
His mouth opened – although to say what, he hadn’t the slightest idea – and the woman closed her eyes. Her head reared back ever so slightly, as though she were recoiling in surprise. The skin of her forehead split open horizontally across her brow, revealing the skull below. The skull seemed to ripple like the surface of a pond for a second before splitting open with a sickening crack. It was an ugly break, two rows of jagged, sharpened teeth with a tongue of grey matter. The MO screamed, and suddenly a buckshot-burst of blood and brain and pus erupted from the hole, coating him in slime and ichor.
The MO raised his hand in alarm just in time to cover his face, and stumbled back in horror. As he fell backwards, the woman rolled on top of him, a motion that was something between a lunge and a drunken slump. Astride him now, her arms lunged forward to clutch his body, thrashing like a dying animal. He didn’t consider himself a particularly weak man, not with the excessive exercise regiments the crew took daily to ensure their muscles didn’t atrophy. Yet she held him with a grip that felt as though it would bruise his very bones.
This painful exchange went on for some time. It could’ve been minutes or mere seconds. Either way, he quickly lost track of all but this fight for survival. He dimly heard his own screams echoing back to him through the halls of the vessel.
Just as he felt himself about to faint of sheer exhaustion, the woman went suddenly and completely limp across his body. Seizing the opportunity, he pushed her off of him with every bit of strength he could muster, and the woman went skittering across the ground. He was on his feet in a second and grabbing desperately at the desk for anything with which to defend himself. His hand wrapped around a familiar paperweight – a novelty that he found funny given the ship’s artificial gravity – and spun wildly to the woman, lifting the heavy weapon above his head.
“Holy…. Davis!” A voice suddenly broke through the pounding blood that clotted his ears – perhaps, at this point, quite literally – and MO Davis looked up towards the doorway to the room. There stood Captain Firrus and two of the ships mechanics, staring on in utter horror. He allowed himself another glance at the horrible woman, ready for whatever horrifying sight awaited him.
There on the ground lay a woman on her back, completely normal in appearance save for a few bruises she’d sustained during the scuffle. Blinking, Davis looked from the woman on the floor to his sleeve. Not a single drop of blood or ichor coated any surface of the lab.
He glanced at the paperweight, and the woman’s bruises, and the crew members who watched him, mouth agape.
“Look, I’m telling you, she didn’t look like that!”
Lieutenant Ricks stared across the tabletop at Davis. They hadn’t brought any sort of handcuffs – this was a science vessel, after all – but the polyplastic wrapping that bound him seemed to be working well enough. They were mostly used for patching hydraulic pump systems, and designed to withstand heavy strain. There was no cell to lock him in, and resealing him cryogenically seemed risky; Davis had somehow managed to shatter one of the cryo-chambers, and until Akina was through running the specs they couldn’t be sure what else the MO had sabotaged.
It was days like this Ricks regretted having a degree in psychology. It was all well and good for the crew to call him “Doc”, it was another thing when they named him the sole expert on psychology based on a degree he’d received almost twelve years prior.
“Alright, Davis, alright,” Ricks said, in what he hoped was a calming tone, “so tell me again what she did look like.”
“No, we’re not…” Davis growled with frustration. “We’ve been over this, Lieutenant. Ricks, it’s me, damnit! I’m not crazy. I know what I saw.”
“You saw her forehead open,” Ricks said, reading from the notes he’d made, “and spit out blood. At which point, you fell and she tackled you. The two of you scuffled, and the woman you described as…’having a gaunt, sickly complexion and frame’ somehow managed an attempt to overpower you.”
“Don’t you fucking belittle me, Ricks.” Davis pointed an accusing finger at the Lieutenant – with his hands bound, it was an awkward motion. It would’ve been funny, had the man not attempted to bludgeon an unconscious woman just hours before.
“I’m not trying to belittle, you. I’m not. I’m just trying to point out how it sounds.”
“Run a BioScan. You don’t believe me, go ahead and run the goddamn BioScan. You’ll see that she is-“
“Fine,” Ricks interrupted, “other than a few bruises and scrapes. And, unsurprisingly, completely human.” He pulled up the results on his Tab and spun it around for Davis to read. The medic leaned over, his eyes growing wider as Ricks went on. “No abnormalities in blood, no skeletal anomalies, no sign of contagion or disease. Or anything else that would suggest her forehead was capable of bursting open and spitting blood.”
“I… no. No, no, this isn’t possible.” The medic frantically scrolled through the file, every test, every scan, every blood sample. When he’d reached the end, he slumped back in his chair. “I know what I saw. This doesn’t make any sense. Not a bit of goddamn sense, not a bit. It makes no sense…” Davis continued on like this, and Ricks didn’t interrupt.
“Well, Doc, how’s our boy? Didn’t leave any sharp objects near him, didja?”
“Now that’s just not funny.”
Jorgen’s voice didn’t raise any argument, but his mouth slid into a familiar, boyish grin. As head pilot of the U.N.S. Frontier, he had the most downtime of any of the Gyro-Shuttle’s crew. Most of this shit was done by computers nowadays. He didn’t mind. It gave him more time to work out and listen to his music.
Lieutenant Ricks passed by Jorgen’s elliptical without another word, straight on towards the bridge. Jorgen shut down the machine and followed. Jokes aside, a crew member – their MO, of all people – going ballistic was pretty serious business, especially considering they had another seven months to go of their two-year flight.
The door to the bridge opened soundlessly, and the two men were greeted by the ever-stern face of Captain Firrus.
“Whaddya think, Doc,” Jorgen whispered, “is he happy to see us? I can never tell…”
Firrus turned to Jorgen with a face devoid of good nature or cheer. The tight, clenched lips and distant eyes had a way of soaking a room in severity. Jorgen thought it might be good to just let him win this round.
The stern man turned back to Ricks. “Report, Lieutenant.”
“He’s…” Ricks sighed, and handed the Captain the Tab full of notes as he continued. “MO Davis appears to have reached a state of catatonia. He is absolutely convinced that he saw Doctor Marsten-”
Jorgen couldn’t help but ask. “I’m sorry, who?”
Firrus glared at the pilot. “Do you ever read your briefings?”
“Not if I can help it, sir.” He grinned. “’’sides, most of my stuff has to do with, y’know, flying?”
“I can catch him up, Captain.” The Lieutenant chimed in. Ricks could be alright, sometimes. “Doctor Marsten is one of the world’s leading biochemists.”
Jorgen scratched his beard. It was getting quite long, now. “Why the hell would we need a biochemist on Pluto? We expecting to find sentient rocks?”
This time, Ricks did manage a thin, tired smile. “Heh. Maybe the boys back on Mars just wanted to play it safe.”
The Captain’s deep voice cut in. “The details of Doctor Marsten’s research are confidential, even to us. Suffice to say, our orders were to be sure that she survived the flight safely.”
“She was supposed to be kept in cryosleep the entire four years of the journey, and we were to ensure she remained undisturbed,” the Lieutenant said. “I personally think she was examining the effects of long-term cryosleep in deep space. To my knowledge she’s beat the record already. Nobody so far has made it past a year.”
“Enough.” The Captain handed the Tab back to the Lieutenant and turned sharply back to the control board. “It is not our job to speculate on confidential assignments.” His finger glided over a photonic switchboard, and various readouts and files slid to and fro about the panel. “Science Officer Akina, I need status update on the cyro-chambers.”
There was a brief burp of light (Jorgen couldn’t think of it any other way, given the strange smell that came off the screens), and Akina’s face appeared in a corner of the screen. The camera attached to her wrist primarily showed large, black locks of hair cascading across the camera, with the occasional flash of a face when she turned enough to speak to the device.
“Sorry, Captain,” the disembodied voice beyond the hair said, “In the middle of something. Unable to maintain visibility. But my hair would be more than happy to take a message at the sound of the sparks.” Right on cue, a brief burst of static crackled in the background as Akina tore out one cable or another.
Jorgen tried – and failed – to stifle a laugh. He liked Akina. Maybe if they got back to Mars in one piece he’d ask her out for drinks.
The Captain was less amused. “I hope you are being careful with my ship, Doctor.”
“I am,” came the voice beyond the hair, “but this particular cryo-chamber is fucked, sir.”
“How fucked are the others?” Jorgen asked. The idea of being awake through another two-year flight was less than thrilling.
“Relax. The rest of them should be fine. It’s the damnedest thing, Captain… It appears that Doctor Marsten’s particular chamber was on a separate filtration and life support system. Should have seen it sooner, really: this chamber is an entirely different model.”
“I’m sorry, a different model?” The Lieutenant leaned forward. “What do you mean?”
“Hey, what’s up, Doc?” The woman’s face appeared suddenly at the screen for the first time. “Didn’t know you were there. Long story short, I’ve never seen a chamber like this. The wiring is all wrong. Wired more like a gas chamber than a cryo-tube.”
“I’m sorry,” Jorgen said, “A gas chamber?”
The face disappeared behind the hair once more. “Has a lot of additional components you wouldn’t find in a standard tube. This was designed to pump something into the chamber, and it sure as shit wasn’t air. Say, is Davis alright?”
“He’s…” Ricks paused, glancing down at the Tab. “…It’s complicated. I believe he’s had psychotic break of some sort. Something that the psych evals didn’t pick up.”
“Well,” Jorgen, who had taken up reading the notes that Doc had made, “I don’t remember a question on the eval about smashing a cyro-chamber and attacking the unconscious woman inside.”
Akina’s face disappeared, and the hair took its place once more. “Well, I don’t know what happened, but Davis sure as hell didn’t smash this thing.”
The Captain’s brow somehow managed to furrow deeper than usual. “Explain, Doctor Akina.”
“That’s the thing, I can’t. This chamber was definitely broken from the inside out. I’ve been trying to find out how for almost an hour now. I… Goddamnit!” Another shower of sparks flew across the screen. “Look, I’m not exactly qualified for this… why don’t you just asked Doctor Marsten what happened?”
The Lieutenant started. “She’s awake?”
“It’s been over an hour, she should be fully stabilized. You haven’t checked on her?”
“She… we left Doctor Marsten in the medical bay.”
The face appeared again and, for the first time, Akina looked dead into the camera. “Noooo… you didn’t.”
“She isn’t in there?”
“She isn’t with you?”
Before anybody could answer, the image of the screen shuddered. A moment later, the ship was plunged into darkness.
“Goddamnit, is anybody reading me?”
Chief Engineer Aimes smacked his wrist communicator in frustration. The damn thing had been on the fritz since they upgraded the system last week; seemed to him that all those techy upgrades did more harm than good. They could keep their systems and flashy screens, he’d take a pneumatic drill and a socket wrench any day of the week.
Still, the wrist computer did make a good flashlight in a pinch… and boy, were they ever in a pinch. He dragged his fingers across the wall of the narrow corridor, allowing the bluish glow to shine slightly upward as he went. Not like he needed a view of the floor – he knew every step of the way by heart. The piping above, however, was a different story. The last thing he needed was to knock himself out on a loose pipe just because he was looking the wrong way.
He spared a moment at an intersection to try communications again. “Repeat, this is Chief Engineer Aimes, asking for a status update. Over.” Only the sound of crackling static, too loud in the darkness. “Repeat, this is a pissed off Aimes, asking what the fuck is going on. Over.”
“Fuck this.” He took a sharp left, towards the upper levels of the ship. “I swear, I always have to fix everything on this god damn-” At that he paused, staring forward. The hallway suddenly seemed darker, as though the coloring had changed… he stopped, staring down at the wrist communicator. A single red droplet sat at the center of the screen, the blue light it projected suddenly a shade of pink.
“The fuck…” Aimes shined the light upward.
A naked woman stared down at him, clinging to the pipes above with her hands and feet. Aimes had just enough time to realize that the woman’s head was completely backwards before a thin red line formed suddenly along the woman’s back, running all the length of her spine.
Aimes opened his mouth to scream, and the red line suddenly cracked along the seam, sending down cascades of blood.
The hallway filled with thick pink light.
“I’m sorry,” The Captain said, “could you repeat that?”
Following the blackout, Captain Firrus had ordered a complete search of the ship for personnel. The U.N.S. Frontier was manned by fifteen crew members, including himself. Only six of them had been accounted for after an hour’s search. Only five of those six were alive, and none of those five were qualified to fix the electrical systems. Chief Officer Krieger, the ship’s second in command, had been found dead in the communications center, covered from head to foot in blood.
“I said none of this blood is his.” Akina snapped off the gloves. She had managed to activate the reserve generator for the medical bay, and had performed a quick autopsy on Krieger. “All of his blood is still in his body. Hasn’t begun to coagulate, either.”
Firrus frowned. “Is that normal?”
“Hate to break in, but… whose blood is it?” Jorgen asked, his eyes never leaving Davis. Firrus thought Jorgen was right to be wary. Whatever was happening here had something to do with the incident in the medical bay, and Davis had been at ground zero.
“That’s the crazy thing,” Akina said, turning to one of the computer screens. “According to the blood tests, this blood belongs to Aimes.”
“Chief Engineer Aimes?” The Captain frowned. “But his body was nowhere to be found.”
“Right,” Akina said, nodding, “which means that either somebody had to move the body, or… well, gruesome as it sounds, they’d need to transport his blood over a distance. Basically all his blood.”
Lieutenant Ricks grimaced. “No chance that he’s alive, then.”
“No,” The Captain agreed. “We have to assume he’s dead.”
“This was done on purpose, I can tell you that,” Akina added, “Even if Aimes burst an artery or something, it wouldn’t leave this much blood.
“Why, though?” Jorgen leaned back against the wall, staring thoughtfully at the ground. “Why douse poor Krieger in someone else’s blood? What kinda psycho are we dealing with?”
“It got him.”
They all turned to Davis.
“The woman. She was trying to get blood in my mouth. She was trying to get me to drink her blood.”
The others stared at each other, a wordless call for volunteers. After a silent conference, Ricks went over and crouched before the seated doctor. “Why would she try to do that, Davis?”
“She was trying to spread it.”
“What was she trying to spread?”
“It makes sense,” the MO went on, ignoring him. “It makes sense. Just like colds spread when a person coughs or Ebola passes through the blood. Except this is different. This is different.” His voice was rising, growing sharper, faster. “No, this one is greedy. This one doesn’t have the patience to wait until you get a cut. Nonono…It makes its own cuts. And it can heal them, quick as you like! I don’t know, maybe it’s a mutation, or something that happened in cryo-sleep, some virus or condition she had that changed under stasis. I dunno. I just know that it thinks. The woman was like an animal, but she was smart. She knew people were coming. She played possum, made me look crazy.”
“It’s alright.” Ricks put his hands on Davis’s shoulders. “It’s okay.”
“You have to burn the body,” The MO whispered.
Captain Firrus had seen enough. “Nobody is burning any-”
“Don’t you see?!!” The MO rose suddenly, knocking Ricks’ hands away. “We have to kill it now, before it wakes up!” He jabbed his bound hands at Krieger’s corpse. “It’ll-”
“ENOUGH!” Firrus roared, charging forward to grab the man by the collar. “You will stand down, Davis. We are not going to be subjected to your insanity any longer.”
The MO, however, ignored him, looking past the Captain’s shoulder. Firrus and the rest of those in the room followed his eyes.
Krieger’s corpse had suddenly grown bloated, swelling up to nearly twice its normal size.
Jorgen began, “What the-”
The corpse exploded, caking the room in blood and gore.
“Goddamnit, somebody go after him!” The Captain managed between bursts of coughing and spitting.
Akina, who had been looking towards the computer screens at the time of the – well, at the time of whatever the hell had just happened – fought back her urge to vomit at the sight of the splatter and started after Davis, who had just disappeared out the door. She hated to leave the rest of them here, but right now she was the only one who could see clearly. “On it!” she shouted over her shoulder, plunging into the darkness of the hall.
Davis didn’t get very far before she caught up. Unable to reach his wrist light, he had stumbled over the slight elevation that marked the entrance to the living corridors.
“Don’t touch me!” He tried to writhe away from the light, his shrill voice echoing through the silent vessel. “Please! Leave me alone! Ohgodohgodohgod…”
She leaned over, attempting to grab one of his flailing wrists. “I’m not going to –ow, quit it! – hurt you, Davis! It’s me, Akina!”
Slowly, he wound to a halt, staring up at her. She watched as he warily removed his glasses – caked in the horrible blood – and attempted to clean them on his dirty shirt.
“Here.” Akina took them from him – eliciting a shuddering, fearful whimper – and wiped them on a clean section of her pants. “There we go. Look again. It’s me.”
Snatching them from her hands, Davis quickly put the glasses on his face again. Akina had missed a bloody fingerprint on the inside of the lens, but otherwise they seemed fine. The MO squinted up at her. “It’s really you? You’re not…”
Akina crouched down beside him. “It’s me. And nobody is anything but scared and messy.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head so hard his glasses nearly came off again, “Nonono, I saw it. The Captain got some in his mouth. He’s gonna turn.”
“Look, I know you’re scared. So am I. But we have to go back.” She started to stand again, but he grabbed her arm and yanked her back down.
“Akina. Amy.” Davis pulled her close. For the first time his eyes seemed without that spark of madness. “How many bodies have you seen explode?”
“You performed the autopsy, Amy. Was his body filled with explosives? Did his blood seem to be on the verge of detonating? Did his organs seem ready to rupture? Did anything, anything at all about that body seem like it would do that?”
She stared at him for a long moment, then slowly, begrudgingly, shook her head.
“You have to trust me,” he pleaded. “You have to. We have to get to the secondary module. I can fly it right back to Earth, and we can…” He trailed off, eyes widening. “Oh god. Oh no.”
Akina looked back over her shoulder to see another light coming, swaying on someone’s arm. Firrus’ head intermittently popped out of the darkness with each step. “Hey Captain, I got him. Don’t worry, I can handle this… Ricks and Jorgen alright?”
The Captain said nothing.
She frowned. “Captain? Is everyone alright?”
“It got him!” Davis suddenly stumbled to his feet and began lurching towards the hallway. “Akina, run! And don’t scream!”
“Don’t… goddamn it.” She rose, turning to Firrus. “Look, Captain, just stay there. You’re scaring him.”
The silent figure continued forward. Akina felt herself backing away, as though her feet sensed some danger that she could not. “C-Captain? Captain…you’re scaring me…”
She shone her light against the figure. She’d only seen his head as he walked towards her; now, she could see that his chest had opened like a flower, the pedals wafting lazily as though in a gentle breeze. The organs had spilt out to the floor, dousing the front of his body in gore, and they dragged along behind him as he started towards her again.
She couldn’t help it.
She opened her mouth to scream.
Davis tossed aside the polyplastic bonds as he ran and quickly turning on his wrist light. He’d gotten out of the damn bonds an hour ago, but kept them on for appearances. Now it was just him. Just him and the sickness that festered in this ship.
He turned the final corner of the corridor and froze.
The woman, Marsten, was there, in front of the door to the module. It seemed she, too, had done away with pretense. Her body had rearranged itself in horrible ways. Sharpened bones jutted from her hands and wrists like spiked gauntlets. The skin of her torso slithered about her like a living being, sometimes splitting to reveal still-pulsing organs below. The leg muscles had relocated to her back, morphed into tentacle-like appendages that attached to her back and anchored her to the ceiling. Only her head remained partially distinguishable, staring at him with intense and hungry eyes.
He was left with only one option.
Taking a deep breath and covering his face, he ran towards her. He felt hot liquid blast against his forearms, his legs and body, but his head was well shielded. Just when he knew he was going to run into her, he tucked into a roll beneath the monstrosity. Again came a hot, gruesome spray from above, but he continued on.
Coming up from the roll, he grabbed the handled to the module and swung it open. He hurried inside and slammed the door behind him with a solid thud, locking it.
He didn’t bother to wait and see if she would try to follow. He ran to the control board and began activating the systems.
The launch module silently detached from the rest of the ship. There was no massive explosion. No broken hatches, no jammed locking mechanisms. There was no shortage of water, fuel, or oxygen. Just two infinitesimal specks parting ways in the vast emptiness of space.
Sitting in one of the control chairs, hearing the computer’s navigation programs chart their way back towards earth, Davis activated the ship’s recording devices. He reclined the chair and stared upward. The ceiling soothed him, even with that little smear of blood sitting on his lens. He didn’t wipe it away. It seemed fitting that his vision should be filled with the blood of innocents. He spoke.
“Let the record show that Operation Pluto was a failure.
“Let my conscience show that it has it has taken the lives of fourteen crew members.
“Agent 22-C produced anomalous results. It would seem that the substance did, in fact, cure Doctor Emily Marsten’s pancreatic cancer. BioScans conducted upon her awakening indicated no presence of the tumor, not even on a cellular level. So we did it, people. We cured cancer. We did it by creating something worse.
“Perhaps we’ll never know what went wrong. The evidence is lost, consumed by the void of space. All I can theorize is that the Agent somehow mutated the cancer into something unrecognizable, something alive. It was able to literally shift the cells of a body in any way, growing and healing and morphing at will. I fear what other mutations, what evolutionary jumps it might have made, had it been given more time to grow and learn. Fascinating as it was, I expect – and hope – we shall never see its’ like again.
“I sit here with blood on my hands. I could not expose Operation Pluto’s true intentions, and thus needed to deceive my colleagues into believing me mad. I know that I could not risk putting the health of millions – perhaps billions, down the road – at stake for the lives of fifteen men and women. Nor could I throw the United States to the ethical gallows of the United Nations.
“Still, I tried. If only I’d waited a moment longer, perhaps Akina…”
He trailed off, staring at the small, dried blot of red.
“I return to cryo-sleep now, for the long trip home. God willing, I might just live long enough to warn others of the dangers of Agent 22-C.
“For the U.N.S. Frontier, this is Medical Officer James H. Davis, signing off.”
In the frigid cold of the cryogenic chamber, something moved.
Within the chamber lay a frozen man in a frozen suit with brittle, frozen glasses.
The blood, which should have been frozen solid several hundred degrees ago, slowly – ever so slowly – coalesced into a small, spherical drop.
It dripped down to the cheek of the frozen man and began to slither towards his open mouth.
Michael John Weldon insists on using his middle name because Michael Weldon is already a mildly famous cook or something, and anyway the whole ‘middle name’ thing always makes one think they are reading a work from somebody far more accomplished. He lives just outside of DC, ignoring all of the art and culture that flourishes about him in favor of his porch, where he writes and does improv comedy without an audience. You can check out more of his stories, poems, or random thoughts at http://mweldon28.wix.com/