Delathon Rent, a 28 year old technician on the Freya 13 space station, sits slumped in the Outer rim command pod with a gas hatch sealed behind him, video-phone in his lap, waiting for it to ring. He’s been waiting for about 10 minutes now, after intermittently placing calls himself to the Freya Commune for the last hour. He has an awkward itch in the corner of his right eye. He wants to scratch it with the machined tip of his blue biro, but he doesn’t. He’s afraid to even touch his eyes.
Instead, he taps the pen against the video screen nervously. It makes a high clocking sound. He starts shuffling his feet over the dry friction floor to accompany it. For a minute, he considers whistling, then thinks better of it. Whistling is for happy people, and he is anything but happy. He can’t forget Boli’s face. The moment the first of them burst loose from his fingers. Poor Boli, smiling all black-eyed and blind when it happened. Talking to his parents, maybe, or an old girlfriend. They’d left him to die, and so he’d died.
Image from here.
The phone rings. The video screen blinks halogen red, black, halogen red, black, as the buzzer wails WHEEEEEEE-OH, WHEEEEEE-OH. He has adapted it to get his attention at all costs.
He takes the handset from the cradle and watches as the video screen resolves from grey into the churning face of his friend Reg Doctrance. He gasps at what he sees.
Reg’s face is pallid and drawn. Around his head, his trademark tousled brown hair still jutting up like stalks of tangled cress, there’s a white and bloody bandage, strapped up tight with a big silver safety pin resting against the taut white flesh of his forehead. One of his eyes is so clouded with black venom it looks like a porthole out into deep space.
Beside him is Cay Seymore, the poor 19 year old intern they took on a week ago. She is half dead, ghost white, both her eyes are black like a pair of dead headlights, eyelids shuttering ineffectually. Her thick goth mascara has run down across her cheeks, into her wide open mouth, where her skinny worm of tongue is ululating aimlessly.
“Aw no,” says Delathon into the receiver, his voice echoing distant and flattened through the other end of the headset. “No.”
Reg’s face grimaces briefly on the screen, the emotion fleeting under the videophone’s chuttering screen rate.
“What’s up, Del?” rings his calm voice, unreal through the lines and into Delathon’s still and quiet space, bringing with it the endless bable spewing from Cay’s lips. “Everything OK?”
“Everything OK?” asks Delathon, half-laughing in panic. “What the hell happened to you guys?”
“Whoa,” says Reg, grinning, holding up his hands and taking a step back from the phone. “Chill out, nothing happened. You fancy some pool, or something?”
“You know,” says Reg, shrugging. “There’s nothing on in the Core now, I figured we may as well take some down-time while we can. I called up Cay but she’s not answering- must be sleeping off last night.”
Delathon takes a deep breath, puts his hand to his temple. “She’s right next to you, Reg,” he says.
Reg’s face turns quizzical. He looks to either side. ” He stares right through the mumbling malformed Cay beside him without any reaction.
“Ha ha, nope,” he says.
“You don’t see her?” asks Delathon.
“Ok, you want to play pool or not? I’ll get onto Boli if you’re not interested.”
“Boli’s dead, Reg,” says Delathon. “Don’t you remember?”
“What? Quit kidding around Del. I’ve got free time, so do you, and there’s a pool table waiting in the Windmill with our name on it.”
“Free time,” says Delathon sharply, “right, why are you on free time? It’s the middle of the day, you should be working!”
“Yeah, but so should you, right? But where are you? Hiding somewhere? Is that the Command pod behind you?”
“It is. What am I doing here, Reg?”
“More crazy questions, how am I supposed to know that?”
“Alright,” says Delathon, “alright. I’ll come play pool with you. If you do one thing for me first.”
“You got yourself a deal, partner.”
“OK. Now. Look at your right hand.”
Reg looks at his right hand.
“I’m looking,” he says brightly. “Satisfied?”
“Wait, you’re not doing it properly,” says Delathon, at which Reg’s face goes quizzical again. Delathon continues. “You’ve got to look harder. Real hard, like you would those magic picture things. Blur your eyes and lose focus. Can you do that?”
“You’re weird,” says Reg, then slowly, frames skipping with the lightning flashes in the backdrop, raises his right arm up to his eyes. The coloration phases in and out, frame rate skipping along, but Delathon can make out the blue and the green, mingling over the stub of Reg’s arm, skin bubbling where it fuses with the bucking Cay’s. He can see their arms conjoining at the elbow, skin leeching hungrily together, stubs of their forearms pumping inwards, shrinking, leaving empty skin gloves behind. A ball of swollen purple flesh like a giant rotten eggplant is building between the two, glistening in the dimming light, and Delathon feels sick. He can see the shadows of myriad arms and legs blooming inside.
“See man, nothing to worry about,” says Reg, grinning, waving the fat lump like a ball of cotton candy. “Right as rain.” Delathon thinks he can see the first shades of grey in Reg’s left eye, spreading.
“Where’s your ring, Reg?” asks Delathon suddenly. “Can you see your ring?”
“You goofball, on my hand, right here-” begins Reg, then stops speaking. Stares with mounting horror at his limp arm dangling from the purple protuberance, bright and bulging, and the wailing Cay, as if seeing her for the first time. He sees her black eyes, waggling tongue, tries to take a step backwards, but only staggers as her dead-weight moves with him. He pushes at his elbow, fingers pressing into the mucusy purple pod, but draws away aghast with pain.
He screams. It lasts a long time, and it’s far louder than Cay’s mumbling. When he finishes, he sucks a great long lungful of air in, then screams again, staring wide-eyed and white-faced at the twitching body of his former intern, hanging from the sodden alien flesh binding the two of them together.
After a while he stops screaming, and turns to the videoscreen.
“Ah no, Del,” he says weakly, left eye filling with grey now.
“The charges,” says Delathon urgently. “This is important, Reg. Did you place the charges?”
“The charges I sent you with. The ones you were going to put in the medians. Where are they?”
“Yeah I put them.”
“Where? Where did you put them?”
“I put them, all right! I put them put them put them, OK?”
“Are you sure?” asks Delathon, voice growing in urgency.
“What am I, Jiminy Cricket, I’m sure!”
“Right,” says Delathon. “Right.”
Reg shakes his head sadly. “Ah this is some mess,” he says, looking at his ruined right arm. “I mean, what’s this about?” he asks, pointing at the purple ball. “It looks like a bloody pom pom.”
“Reg, listen to me now. I want you to find an airlock. Find one, get in, and lock it. The meds from Freya Commune should be here soon. Don’t do anything else, don’t go anywhere, and don’t touch Cay. It’s going to be OK.”
“Whatever, man,” says Reg, apathetic. “That’s easy for you to say, you haven’t got an intern and an egg growing on your right arm, do you?”
“They’re coming, Reg,” says Delathon, lurching to his feet. “Get somewhere safe and they’ll be there soon.”
“Safe? There’s nowhere safe, man. I’m done. I’m breakfast. Remember to butter me up real good, I’m nice and juicy. Aw, I’m losing it again already.”
“Get to an airlock, alright!” barks Delathon, knuckles white against the videophones handgrips. “Just go!”
“Hmmmm,” says Reg, leaning in close to the phone, his pale face occluding the whole screen. “Boli’s dead, you said. I remember that now. Spiders. Was it OK for Boli? You say it’s OK, but was he OK when his pom pom burst? Pom pom where’s my mom? I’m going nuts, dammit! At least Boli didn’t know what was happening. Shit! That’s some ugly purple beach ball on my hand, man!”
“Dammit, Reg,” shouts Delathon into the phone. “You go quarantine yourself now or I’m telling your wife how you died.”
Reg’s eyes suddenly focus, stare for solid seconds unmoving into the video feed.
“That’s better,” he says, with a shudder. “Less of this OK shit.”
“I’m doing everything I can,” says Delathon, then watches as the four-legged, three-armed thing that was his best friend Reg and their new intern Cay stumble across the wire strewn deck, under the spluttering light, and out of video range. He watches the empty screen a little longer, then switches it off.
There’d been 5 of them in the rock core room when Boli’s bio-suit ripped. Everyone else on the station, some 97 people, scientists and command, had been evacuated almost immediately. The 5 of them, Boli, Reg, his 19 year old intern Cay, Delathon, and Marrakech, were placed under international quarantine. But that hadn’t been enough.
After the rip they’d all laughed.
“At last!” Boli had said, dropping to his knees and making a ‘praise god’ sign in the air. “We get to use the emergency procedures book!”
The others had laughed.
So Boli had cracked open the failsafe manual, and read about the lockdown protocols. They’d been surprised, it seemed like an over-reaction to a little space debris scratch, but they went ahead with it anyway. They hadn’t known then what was going to happen. They couldn’t have known that Boli was already infected and would be dead within 2 hours.
Boli adopted ‘extremely serious’ comedy emergency tones when talking to Command. It was funny to all of them in the core bay, but evidently not to Command, who replied in sincere earnest. Boli sobered after that, told them about the leak and the possible contamination (‘it’s just a dead rock, for god’s sake’, he protested afterwards). He advised evacuation, in line with the emergency procedures book. It all happened within minutes, back-dropped by the continuing hiss of Boli’s suit as his air-supply wheezed out.
Command said they’d send medical back-up from Freya Commune, 6 hours distant. The station as it was had no special apparatus or personnel for dealing with space-born contagion, so they’d just have to sit tight. So they had.
It had been a laugh at first. The 4 men were old friends, had been working the same roles in asteroid examination for years. Reg drilled the rock veins with the hand-held buzz-saw, providing samples for Boli and Marrakech to analyze chemically and radiographically, while Delathon rode shotgun to iron out any technical problems or hook up the computer into special search programs. Between them they’d catalogued some 375 chunks of rock cored from the Delian Fields asteroid belt. They’d discovered a few new heavy metals, and named them after themselves. For instance, there was now BoliAcetyl Carbon 25, and Regium Tin 643.
Not only did they work together though, they also went hunting in the computer simulations for deer up on Creek mountain, Idaho, a program Delathon wrote especially for them, and they went drinking together in the station’s only bar, the Windmill.
So when the doors were locked and the station evacuated, it was a strange but welcome break in the routine, and a chance to enjoy themselves in a relaxed work setting. Delathon toyed with the buzz saw, said ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ more than once. Boli aped dying of space influenza repeatedly, clutching his throat and cut hand. Reg fired ridiculous personal questions at Cay that made her giggle and blush, while Marrakech provided possible answers that made her blush and giggle even harder.
Then Boli had started to get strange. His space influenza mime suddenly wasn’t so funny. The blood flow from his palm had finished, it was just a small jagged cut from one of the rough ridges round the tail of the core, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was his eyes.
“What’s wrong with your eyes, man?” Delathon had asked abruptly, while Boli was hammering at the reinforced glass wall of the bay and gasping something about ‘air’.
“Nothing,” Boli had said absently, breaking smoothly from his hoarse throat routine. “But I am dying here. You got any air for me?”
“Yeah that’s great,” said Delathon dismissively. “Now about your eyes. Did you get new contacts or something?”
“I don’t even wear contacts. Why?”
“He’s right, man,” Reg had said, turning away from the red-faced Cay to study Boli’s eyes. “Your eyes look weird. Go look in the glass, see for yourself.”
Boli had gone, and come back with a cheery grin on his face, wagging his finger.
“You jokers, trying to freak me out,” he’d said.
Reg looked at Delathon, who looked at Marrakech, who was also staring at Boli now. Cay was still laughing unaware.
“You don’t see it?” asked Delathon.
“See what, they’re going blood red?” jokes Boli. “Or, let me guess, glowing with an inner fire? Maybe I can shoot lasers like superman, huh?”
“No man,” said Reg, seriously. “They’re going black.”
Boli had seemed disconcerted for a moment, unsure of himself, but it was for the last time. After that, as his symptoms had progressed, from blackening eyes to the purple swellings on his right hand, from total ignorance of these symptoms to total hallucination and ignorance of his environment, he hadn’t shown one further sign of distress or concern. Right up until the minute he started talking about his aunt Marcy and her terrible shingles, and what a nice house she had, he was joking with the others about their seemingly endless attempts to ‘freak him out’.
It all ended up with them being a lot more freaked out than him. Especially when they noticed that the purple clots on his hand were actually growing.
“What is that shit on his hand?” Marrakech had asked, as they leaned in closer to see.
“It stinks,” said Reg.
“But what the hell is it?”
“It must be just an allergy,” said Delathon slowly, carefully. “Some reaction to the rock core, an unusual heavy metal or something, fouling with his metabolism.”
“And making him crazy?”
Then something inside the lump moved, and they scrabbled back in horror.
“What was that?” asked Reg.
That’s when they decided to break their quarantine, flee into the Outer rim, and leave Boli locked up there in solo quarantine. There was nothing they could do for him anyway. They decided to get clear, then follow his progress on the internal monitors from Command, return if he needed them.
The videophone rings again. Black to halogen red and back again shocking Delathon from his reverie. He shakes his head, feels the comedown from adrenaline wearying his muscles, and keys accept. The howling WHEEEEEEEE-OH WHEEEEEEEEE-OH cuts off immediately, and the screen shifts to an empty room.
It is the station’s bar/restaurant, the Windmill, all lit up with its smoky yellow lamps hung like orbital suns round the crescent beer counter. Delathon can see the tables and chairs all perfectly aligned on the deep green baize floor, except for one table in the near picture, where there’s a beer bottle, an empty glass, and an ashtray with residual curls of smoke hanging like a question mark over the room.
“I can’t taste the beer,” says Marrakech’s bodiless voice abruptly. Delathon scans the screen again but sees nothing. An empty room they used to spend near every night in, huddled in the middle together, drinking away the boredom and distance of their outpost station. “Or the cigarette. I’d say it was like ash, but, well, I don’t know if it’s even that.”
“Where are you Marra?” asks Delathon.
“I put one out on my tongue,” replies Marrakech, his voice flat and monotone. “Can you believe that? Should feel like ash, right, but guess what? Nothing.”
“Why are you hiding?”
“Had a little run in with one of the things. Oh yes I did. One of Boli’s babies, oh it was so cute. It bit me here, and it bit me here, here, and here, and Del, I tell you, Del, I’m just acne-ridden now man. It`s prom night all over again.”
“I know it, brother.”
“They’re loose on the mid-rings, then.”
“That’s right. You better raise Reg and Cay, tell them to get out.”
Delathon sighs. “They’re already dead.”
“Oh,” says Marrakech monotone. Then he laughs, a dry woofing sound. “That explains a thing or two, doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, they must’ve come up when Reg opened the median corridor, right?”
“But he was only supposed to open it for a second.”
“That’s right. Supposed to.”
“You think he left it open? Even with Cay alongside him?”
“You do the math,” says the voice. “You think Reg was operating with a full deck when you sent him out. Huh?”
“I didn’t send him out.”
“You sent us both out, to our deaths,” says Marrakech’s dull voice.
“I’ve been thinking. Look at this picture, does it seem OK to you? Everybody is dead apart from you, Mr. Rent lives on, what a hero! It was your idea to use the charges. It was your idea to drop them into the median corridor. It was your idea and we did it and now we’re dead and you’re alive and whoop de doo for you.”
“You can’t be serious, Maz.”
There’s a silence. Delathon can hear the crackle of the videophone’s poor connection.
“Yeah, I’m just kidding with you,” says the dead voice eventually. “Sad to hear about Reg.”
“And Cay. Poor kid.”
“You’re right. And now you?”
“Me too. I tell you, Del, I’ve just been sitting here, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do, trying to enjoy some Beamer’s, figure out the point of these little bastards, you know, and it’s the funniest thing, but all I can think about is Lucy Grogan.”
“I know. Crazy, isn’t it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about Lucy Grogan. Aren’t you even listening to me? Man. She was beautiful.”
“Marra, let me see you.”
“Ha ha, not a chance of that. Besides, don’t you want to hear about Lucy?”
Delathon takes a deep breath, lets it out, thinks.
“I don’t Maz, and you know that. You’re angry at me, and I’m sorry for how it’s gone, but there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry that you’re going to die, but I don’t think it’s my fault. I did what I had to. Now please, Maz, tell me about the charges.”
“Charges shmarges. Didn’t I tell you I was joking about that whole blame thing? I’m not mad at you really. I’m just trying to tell you about Lucy Grogan. Now, she was very popular at school, which is why I was so surprised when she said yes to my prom invite, and-”
“Marra, please, tell me you planted the charge then you can talk about Lucy Grogan all you want. I hate to seem selfish, but I don’t want to die if I don’t have to.”
Marrakech’s voice drones on throughout.
“-the great thing about her was her arms, they had all these fine little hairs, and I always figured to myself, damn, I bet that’s lovely and soft, and-”
“I’m going to die too, Maz, if we don’t blow these bloody charges!”
“-and her eyes were like -shit Del we’re all going to die anyway everybody knows that- blue crystal, you ever seen that movie, what’s the name-”
“Where are the charges?”
“OK, let’s talk about charges.”
“You didn’t put it in the median?”
“Nah, man, I got it right here, keeping it cool between Lucy Grogan’s legs.”
Something dangles before the screen, flounders in the jerky feed, eclipsing the bar’s light. Delathon knows what it is. A shaped charge in a clear plastic satchel.
“Oh Maz,” he sighs.
“I know!” chirps Marrakech’s voice, suddenly bright. “I came through hell to get it here, not to mention resisting that little minx Grogan’s every charm on the way, trying to entice me down dark alleyways, feel me up when her dad’s not looking, the sly little thing.”
“The Windmill’s the wrong place, Maz,” protests Delathon feebly. “It’s supposed to be the lower median corridor on the Middle rim.”
“Not any more, bro. Like I said, I ain’t going out like Boli. You just go ahead and blow it now. I figure the blast’ll reach the appropriate place. Put that with Reg’s blast at the other end and hey presto, we got ourselves one big-ass spinning top in space.”
Delathon slumps lower against the gas hatch behind him, lets the video phone fall limp against his lap. Marrakech’s voice keeps on talking oblivious, and soon enough it’s back onto Lucy Grogan’s soft-haired arms.
He stares out along the corridor. Pretty soon, he figures, they’ll be chomping their way through enough doors, bulkheads, and they’ll find him cowering in Command.
“You want me to blow you up, then,” he says into the phone, speaking over Marrakech’s vapid monotone.
“If you wouldn’t mind. Better hurry up before one of these eggs I’m brooding over decides to pop out of my foot and bite my bloody head off, man.”
“There’s still time. The medical crew from Freya Commune should be here in a coupla hours, they can fix you up easy.”
“Not unless they got a cure for zits the size of basketballs man. Paint ’em pink and stick some nipples on, I’m a walkin’ wet dream. Lucy Grogan ain’t got nothin’Â on these babies. Now, quit stalling and finish off your plan. Let’s blow this Windmill to kingdom come.”
“It wasn’t the plan to kill my friends.”
“Well, screw the first plan, this is the new one. Innovate, you know?”
“I can’t,” says Delathon, tight-lipped.
“Thought you might say that. No problemo. I’ve got a cigarette lighter, right here. These charges just need heat right?”
“Don’t even think about it!”
“I don’t blame you, and I’m not angry with you. It just sucks that you get to live and I have to die.”
“Don’t do it.”
“Here I come, Lucy,” cries Marrakech.
The picture whites out.
A second later Delathon feels the blast. It thumps him into the air and 5 feet along the corridor, then drops him down hard on his back. The sound crashes through the station, first timpanic swell the explosion itself, followed by the endless drum roll of shrapnel hammering against the Command pod’s walls like hail-stones. Residual vibrations toss him like rice in a wok as the corridor bends and buckles to accommodate the force of the blast. Underlying everything there is the high keening whine of metal singing under pressure.
Shaken but thinking fast, Delathon leans forward, ignoring the spiky pain in his spine, and snatches up the jittering videophone, torn from his lax grasp during his air-borne migration. He quickly dials in the number for the remote on the other charge, eager to follow up one blast with another before the station’s stabilizers can cauterize the damaged zones, and presses send.
The phone blinks halogen red, black, then only blank white with a simple message flashing in black.
NO SIGNAL, says the screen.
“No,” he moans, his voice tiny against the ongoing barrage of detritus around him. He tries again, checking every number twice, and holds the phone up, extends the newly bent aerial all the way it will go, presses send.
Red, black, white.
He tosses the phone away and collapses to his side, face bumping against the bobbling deck, ears deafened with the full throttle roar of the blast’s after math.
“Lucy Grogan’s got nothing on me,” he mumbles, before passing out.
They watched the sleeping Boli’s swellings burst from Command, on the Outer rim, via security monitors.
There was no sound since the monitors were only visual, but the effect of the first birth rippled through them like a gunshot. Cay fainted dead on her feet. All three men gasped and held their hands to their mouths. Reg gagged but held it back.
Part of Boli’s swollen purple hand ruptured and vomited green bile. Something spilled out. Spindly, blue, many legs, and faster than the camera’s frame rate could follow accurately. It spun across the floor in the slimy green wash, gained some kind of footing, then hurtled back at Boli, attached itself to his chest, and began to throb.
“I’m gonna be sick,” said Reg.
“What is that?” asked Marrakech.
“It’s feeding,” said Delathon.
Cay came round, took another look at the screen, then fainted again.
A half hour later all four eggs had burst, and Boli had stopped breathing. His chest was a pulsing mass of flailing blue limbs and blood. Cay had left the room for the bathroom, where she had been noisily retching since she recovered from her second swoon. Reg was making conspicuous gulping noises every few minutes.
“He’s dead,” he kept saying. “Boli’s dead.”
Delathon tried to raise the Commune on an adapted videophone, but there was no signal. Marrakech sat and stared at the screen, watching the aliens feed.
“I’d hate to go like that,” he said. “That would really suck.”
After another hour, the blue things moved to the glass walls. They were bigger by then, already. Their jaws, chitinous mandibles like a crab’s multi-tongued feelers, working frenziedly at the smooth perspex. It was gouged and torn away in minutes, and they were free.
The four of them watched in horror as the station’s cameras tracked the blurred creatures, too fast, racing along corridor after corridor.
“It’ll take them hours to get here,” Delathon said. “Even if they can eat metal, it’ll be hours yet. The whole station is locked down.”
“But what if they can eat metal?” asked Reg. “It may take hours, but then they’ll be here, and we’ll be just as dead as dead old Boli.”
“So we have to do something.”
“Do what? You think we can fight them? Or escape? All the ships were taken by the evacuation. We’re screwed.”
“Hang on,” Delathon had said. “They didn’t take everything.” Then he told them about the station’s layout, the 2 median corridors that held the Outer, Middle and and Inner rims together, and about the charges used for blasting wayward rock cores. They put the rest together themselves.
Delathon stayed behind in Command, because he was the only one able to troubleshoot the charges if something went wrong. Marrakech went to the Middle rim median, Cay and Reg, together because she refused to leave his side, to the Inner rim median. It shouldn’t have been dangerous, they only needed to open the median hatches for the time it took to set the charges in place. They wouldn’t be exposed to the blue thing’s environment for more than a few seconds. Besides, both groups were carrying the circular bladed core buzz-saws in order to cut through the lockdown, if Delathon couldn’t override the security doors remotely, or to defend themselves, if it came to that. Before they left, they practised a few experimental chops at the air.
“They come near me, it’s spider pate time,” said Marrakech.
“Ditto,” said Reg. Cay just smiled weakly.
At that point, doing something, making plans, it had really seemed like everything might be alright.
Delathon comes to and gets up immediately. The videophone is trembling on the shivering deck beside him, and he snatches it up. Dials in the number for Reg’s charge again, but nothing. Dials in the emergency frequency for the Commune, or for any ships approaching, but gets nothing, only static. He checks the SOS beacon he enabled on the Command deck, controls big and flashing red alongside all the monitors set to various points in the station. Several screens are missing, white snow where a corridor should be, a deck, a room. Marrakech’s charge took out a huge chunk of the Inner rim. Delathon flicks rapidly through all the remaining cameras. There are 22 remaining, 15 covering gas hatches, 7 in public rooms and spaces. The Windmill is definitely gone. The charge bay and the core bay and the simulation suite are all gone. He scans each screen, but can’t see any spiders, nor any sign of Reg and Cay. Perhaps they are in an airlock, he wonders. In that case, he has no idea where the charge is.
“Calm down, Del,” he says to himself quietly. “Think.”
He knows the things are on the Middle rims. They may not be at the Outer rim yet, but if Reg was leaving doors open on the median, why not to the Outer rim as well? Blowing the Inner rim free will do no good now, he realizes. So where is safe? He looks around the room. Here, he thinks, one place, plus the spaces left on the monitors not crawling with blue things.
He ponders the possibilities for a moment, then moves into action. He brings up screens of diagrams, the tectology of the Outer rim and the Command pod. He knows the Command Pod is inviolate and theoretically separable from the station. It’s not exactly a ship, but it can be used as a lifeboat. It has oxygen, and it has some motive power. But the mechanisms for release require manual, mechanical operation. He doubts if he can do all of it in time, and he suspects the explosion will have damaged the catches and cogs and rendered them useless.
“Idiot!” he says, realising if he’d thought of this earlier, they could easily have isolated the Command pod and set themselves free, without the need for charges or stupid trips back to the Inner rim. Everybody would be alive, except Boli of course. Now, everybody was dead.
He shakes his head, blanks out the guilt. Then he opens the gas hatch to the Outer rim with a hiss of exchanging air, exits, seals it behind him, and is off at a run down the corridor.
The explosion has twisted the station out of recognition. He’s heading for the spot on the Outer rim where he last saw Reg, but getting there is difficult. Access chutes that would have led him there are either too badly damaged to travel or simply gone. None of the lifts are functioning, and he can’t over-ride them. He gyres in and out of the concertinaed shrapnel of the station almost at random, recognising a room here, a room there. Out of the portholes he can see drifts of debris floating in waves, frozen now in the wake of the blast. They look like invisible hills littered with trash, glinting with reflected light, spread out around the point where Marrakech took his own life.
Taking his bearings from the rubble outside, emanating from the Windmill, he weaves his juddering way through the station’s warped shell. He sees doorways and sections of wall chewed upon and left gaping, teeth marks as sharp and smooth as gouges in flint. How big are they now, he wonders. How fast can they move. How many of them are there.
He comes to the Inner median corridor and finds nothing but the video-phone transceiver, primer for the charge, lying stripped and black on the floor, red and yellow wires trailing from it like insectile antennae. The hatch to the median corridor is wide open and untouched. There are no teeth marks, no trails of blue saliva or green bile. Delathon knows for sure how the Middle rim was infected so quickly. Reg left the hatch open.
He wanders along the Middle rim, following the trail he thinks Reg might have taken. He fingers the transceiver nervously. He remembers planting the thing in the charge only a few hours earlier, handing it to Reg, sending him out. He is walking in a quiet daydream, hands trailing limply along the buckled corridor walls, when he hears the singing. It is high and soft, childlike, but he recognises it as Reg with a sick turn of his stomach:
‘Rockabye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Round the next corner, slumped in an airlock with the door wide open, is what’s left of Reg.
Most of his right arm is gone. There is no Cay. In his left hand, fingers curled slack against the handle, is his buzz-saw. It is rimed with dried black blood and flakes of bone. His eyes are open and staring, black as pitch, and his mouth is open and his thin pink tongue is lolling softly against his lips.
His stomach is bulbous with a translucent purple swelling. It is fat and slimy and jellied inside. He looks like a pregnant beaten drunk, sotted in his own waste. There are many blue sticks waving like seaweed inside him, shiny through the too-tight skin. The whole airlock stinks of pus. Delathon vomits immediately.
“Reg,” he says, softly, pinching his nose and mouth as best he can. “Reg, man?” But there is no response, and the singing continues faintly.
“You’re a mess, man,” says Delathon, then kneels beside him, gagging, and picks up the buzz saw. “My fault.” Then he stands, pulls the cord, and the saw revs to life. Flecks of gristle spin off. The blade is like a spinning top, flashing with red and silver. Delathon leans over and plunges it into Reg’s stomach. The massive boil erupts and a flood of half-baked spiders washes out, along with a stench that causes Delathon to vomit again, right over his hands and the gaping hole in Reg’s unpeeling stomach. He continues sawing all the same, through watering eyes, churning the blue sticks and purple flesh to shreds. Blood and yellow pus wash over his hands, his feet, his arms. Spatters fly everywhere.
Then he stands back, and stares. The spider’s legs are jumping where they were dismembered. He grinds them beneath his boot heels. He becomes aware of the scream of the buzz saw, and powers down the motor. The echoes assail him, ringing through his ears, but he is sure there is another sound, weak, beneath it. He steps back, eyes up and down the corridor, but nothing. The breathy sound continues. Trembling with fear, he stares back at Reg. He sees the burst man’s tongue still waggling ever so slightly in his pink mouth hole, mirroring the effervescent flailing of the legs in the new hole in his stomach. He sees the memory of himself vomiting onto Reg. The final phrase of cradle and all whispers out. This terrifies him more than anything else.
He casts about quickly, panicked, desperate to be gone, and spies the charge wadded against the door frame, the wrong place, missing its transceiver. He works it loose, pockets it, and runs from the carnage as fast as he can.
On the way back to Command he sees the shell of Cay. Most of her body has been sucked into the purple egg on her left side, now split and disgorged of its contents. He can just see the stub of Reg’s sawed off arm waving from the other side. He checks the buzz saw in his grip, and sprints away.
Splitting the charge into tiny chewing gum sized wads, like buds of cotton wool, he spreads them in a dot to dot circle in the corridor around the Command door, wedging them into crevasses in the metal freshly cut by the buzz saw. Each bud is enough to blow a section of wall, he guesses, but not enough to spread beyond that and do any damage to the Command pod. He spreads them in one meter gaps, all the time staring up and down the rim in fear of seeing blue legs scampering towards him. His vision of Reg haunts him and he can’t forget the waving pink tongue like a baby’s arm, outstretched, begging for help.
He shuts off the memory and plants the last charge, sets the transceiver inside, then retreats into the Command pod. He checks the communication array, but there is no word from the Commune. He notices purple bumps on the fingertips of his right hand as they dance over the control pads. He stares at them aghast. He flicks one of the screens to black and stares at his face in the near mirror-like reflection of the glass.
There is Reg’s blood all over his face. Across his forehead, trailed with sweat down round his eyes and nose, across his lips and down his chin. He stares hard, and thinks he can make out faint grey specks in his eyes. He is infected.
“Lucy Grogan’s tits,” he whispers, and darts an involuntary glance over to the buzz saw by the sealed gas hatch. He turns back, and takes the videophone up in trembling palms, dials in the number for the charge. The tips of his fingers are painful over the keypad. He presses send, and waits.
He feels the first shock, hears the sound of the first explosion, then, weak with fear, passes out.
He’s playing pool with Reg, Boli and Marrakech in the Windmill when the wailing WHEE-OOOOOO WHEE-OOOOOO sound invades the room. He is disturbed and looks up at the other three, who continue as if nothing happened.
“What’s that sound?” asks Delathon, watching as Reg sinks a stripe.
“Shouldn’t worry about that, man,” says Boli. “Probably just another false alarm.”
“Yeah, we been getting them all the time, ever since the heavy metal thing, remember?” says Marrakech. “It was you that spotted it, after all.”
“Oh yeah,” says Delathon. “I remember.”
They play on. Reg misses a stripe and hits a spot instead. Boli laughs out loud, calls the two free shots rule.
“That was never first contact,” says Reg, “come off it.”
“That was first contact like Zephran Cochran in a warp ship,” says Boli, “no doubt about it.”
“Star Trek?” scoffs Marrakech, quietly sipping his beer. “We’re not playing first contact anyway, are we Del? Del?”
Delathon is half listening to the dispute, and half listening to the wailing siren in the background.
“You don’t hear that sound?” he asks, joggling his little finger in his ear. “It’s loud.”
Boli circles a finger round his head, whispers “crazy”, and Reg snorts in agreement.
“I’m just gonna go check,” says Delathon, and puts down his beer, heads for the door.
“I wouldn`t-” begins Marrakech, but it is too late.
Delathon opens his eyes. The videophone is wailing black and red light over his face. WHEEEEE-OOOOOOH WHEEEEE-OOOOOH. The sound is louder here. He lumbers to his feet, and instantly sees the fat protuberance on his right hand. It is the size of a baseball, and pulsing. He stares at it, intrigued and disgusted. The flesh of his forearm seems to be melding into it, flowing up and running like old candle wax into the clinging purple wad. It stinks. He pokes it with his left hand, and instantly howls with pain. It is as sensitive as an open wound.
“Pom pom,” he whispers, voice cracking with exhaustion, then crawls over to the videophone. There is a communication from a Freya ship. He answers.
“Hi,” he says, when the image flickers to life. A man’s head that he doesn’t recognise turns to face the screen, and is immediately contorted in shock. He can hear many gasps, whispers.
“Dear Lord,” says the man.
“I know how it looks,” says Delathon, grinning slightly, only vaguely aware of his body and only half caring. “I’m infected. I`ve seen it in four other people now; they’re all dead.”
The man’s face, he must be a captain, is agog.
“What the hell happened?” he manages. “We thought it was just a protocol.”
“This,” says Delathon, holds up his purple baseball and shows it to the video-screen. More gasps and the captain’s face shades paper white. “It’s an egg, and there’s something alive crawling inside it. They’ll break out in an hour or so, then bite and infect anybody else nearby. My whole body will be sucked up into the birth. Amputation is useless, one of my friends here tried. He’s dead now.”
“Jesus,” says the captain. “Well, we,” he begins, then turns around, faces the crew behind him. “One second,” he says, then signals for audio transmission to be cut, but continues speaking anyway. Delathon can see his lips moving. It reminds him of Reg’s face. Reg’s face smiling and sinking the black ball, as Marrakech drinks beer and Boli dances mock-romantic with the stumbling Cay on the brushed wooden dance floor. They’re listening to Moon River, and Boli keeps going down on one knee to sing the chorus whenever it comes round, all `Moo-oon River, and me`, arms spread up wide to Cay, who stands nervously, unsure of what to do, bobbing from foot to foot and giggling.
“Everything OK?” asks Reg, looking up at Delathon. “You look a little pale, man. You never seen a man clear up the whole table before? Now, pay up!”
“What’s the bet?” mumbles Delathon.
“Blah blah blah, what’s the bet. Beer, as always.”
“Right,” mumbles Delathon, then shakes his head, rubs his eyes, and is staring at the captain again.
“Can you hear me, Mr. Rent?” he is asking, voice urgent.
“Beer,” says Delathon, trying to clear his head.
“Can you hear me?” repeats the captain.
“Unhhuh, yeah, I can,” says Delathon, struggling to force words through his thick lips. “It’s difficult. Hallucinations. I’m going over, shouldn’t be so long. What did you say your name was?”
“My name is Reg,” says the captain, brandishing his pool cue. “Now where’s my beer?”
“Reg?” asks Delathon, shocked.
“I said Captain Oreco,” says the captain, face bewildered. “We’re coming down for you now. We want you to be calm when we come in, and try to relax. You’ll be OK.”
“That’s what I told them.”
“I said, that’s what I told Boli. Reg knew. Now Boli’s dead.”
“Who is Reg?”
“We’re coming now.”
“Maz said we’re all going to die,” says Delathon. “Maybe you guys too. Maybe you shouldn’t come down here. You should blow me up. I’d do it myself, but I’m all out of chewing gum. Like Marrakech. Crazy old Maz, what a guy.”
“We’re coming, please, calm down.”
“You bet,” says Delathon. “One beer coming right up.”
2 weeks later, Delathon is sitting in a cafe drinking lattes in Freya Commune with Boli, talking about the hallucinations and the craziness of it all.
“So they’re saying it was just a heavy metal,” says Boli, stirring liquid sugar into his steaming frothy cup. “A new one, they named it after me. Boliasterone. Lucky, eh? Well, when it hits the brain, they say it triggers some protective dopamine, something like that, and blocks out all incoming sensimotor and proprioception information, gives the body time to sweat it out itself.”
“Kinda like LSD?”
“Kinda, but to the nth power. You should talk to Maz, he’s the chemist after all.”
“Where is Maz?”
“He’s off hunting with Reg and Cay. Me, I don’t fancy any more simulations for a while, you know? I spent long enough in my own.”
“You were under for 6 hours straight,” says Delathon, sipping his latte. He can hear Ben E King’s Stand By Me playing somewhere in the background. “That’s some time. What did you see?”
“Oh, dumb stuff. At first it’s kind of two realities blurring together, you know? I’d be with you guys horsing around in the core room, then someone would kind of morph into something else, and I’d be laughing about my aunt and her shingles, god bless her soul, man she used to go on about them all the time man. I guess you guys saw none of that?”
“Nothing. You just started talking to yourself.”
“Yeah, well, there was good stuff and bad stuff, you know? Scary things and nice things. I saw my mom cooking apple pie. I saw my first girlfriend for the first time again. I must have been 6 years old. But then I also saw my dad dying again, but with lots more blood than when it really happened. Car accident, you know. Then there was a bunch of heights, I was flying, but I’m terrified of heights, so it wasn’t so great. How about you? What did you see?”
“Spiders. Big blue spiders.”
“Huh. I talked to the Commune shrink about mine, he says it’s all stuff from your life, like, if you’re afraid of heights, like me, that’s what you’ll get, or if you really liked your old aunt Marcy, she’ll come popping back in with her ailments. Old memories and stuff churning as the body sweats out the metal. So, you afraid of spiders then?”
“That’s the funny thing. I wasn’t, before. Now I’m terrified of them.”
Boli chuckles. “You should talk to the shrink too, man.”
‘whenever you’re in trouble baby, sta-a-nd, by me,’ sings Ben E king.
“I was only under for a few minutes, I hardly had time to be taken seriously by them,” says Delathon.
“So what? You still had some bad stuff happen, and looks like the makings of a new phobia. Trust me, you should go talk to him. He knows what he’s doing.”
“Yeah, maybe I will. What’s his name?”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Well, the boys have been talking about him a bunch these last few weeks, you know. He’s been through all of us already, there’s just you left.”
Ben E King sings ‘when the night, has come, and the land is dark, and the moon, is the only, thing we’ll see.’
“You hear that?” says Delathon. “They’ve got this song on repeat or something.” Boli ignores him.
“So you sawed Reg right open, eh?” asks Boli. “Sawed him right up the belly and puked on him and everything?”
“What?” says Delathon. “How do you know that? I didn’t tell you that.”
“And he just kept on singing? God, that must have been funny. Wish I could’ve seen it.”
Delathon backs up an inch in his chair.
“Where you going, man?” asks Boli, reaching a hand across the table, takes Delathon’s in his own. “Don’t you wanna talk it all out?”
“There’s nothing to talk about!”
“How ’bout that buzz saw, then, huh? You got that by your side, you think? You think maybe you got the balls to finish what Reg started?”
“That was a hallucination, Boli,” protests Delathon, feeling Boli’s fingers digging into his wrist like a vice. “You just told me, dopamine or something.”
“I been sayin’ lots of things, man. Hey. Wanna see a cool trick?”
“Check it out!”
Boli blinks, and suddenly his eyes flash to dead black spheres.
“Shit!” whispers Delathon. Looks down at the hand clawing at his wrist, sees only a blobby purple spit-wad conjoining the two of them together.
“You wanna talk about nightmares, Del?” asks the sickening Boli. “You wanna talk about spiders? Why don’t you open your goddamn eyes and see some for yourself!”
“Oh shit!” says Delathon, and opens his eyes.
There is pounding at the gas hatch. He can see a strange blue light cutting through the metal, drawing a rectangle onto the wall.
“Can you hear me?” he hears the voice of Captain Oreco buzzing from the videophone. Everything is a watery blur, through a grey mist he can scarcely see. “Can you hear me, Mr. Rent?”
“I got you,” says Delathon. “Where are you?”
“Thank God, the men are outside, they’ll be there in a minute, just sit tight!”
Delathon looks at his right hand, the ripening orb of grapefruit flesh too taut already and knows that a minute isn’t going to be long enough.
“Dopamine!” he shouts, the first words out of his mouth, then lurches up to kneel over the buzz saw, rests his foot on it to keep it steady, and pulls the cord with his left arm, his right swinging limp by his side. On the third attempt it starts.
“What are you doing?” cries the captain. “It’s OK.”
“Spiders,” mumbles Delathon, and takes the roaring buzz saw in his left hand, stands, turns it on his right wrist.
The pain is nothing compared to the visual horror of sawing off his own arm, and the vibrations juddering through his whole body.
His arm drops after clogging a second through the bone, and he turns the blade on the egg at its tip. He minces it up, and the wriggling myriad limbs inside. Then he collapses on the floor.
Boli is sipping his latte, smiling.
“You did real good, Del. We’re all proud of you.”
“Your eyes were black,” says Delathon, looking all around him.
“Yours too. Maybe now you’ll be OK.”
“I’m sorry we left you.”
“Hush that fuss. There was nothing else you could do.”
“I’m going to die.”
“Maybe. Just try not to infect anybody else, OK?”
“Alright then. My aunt’s calling for me, I better get going.
“Bye,” says Delathon, and is left in a white space, with nothing and nobody.
You can see all MJG’s stories here:[album id=6 template=compact]