He isn’t sure where the sound is coming from. A strange gurgling rising above the hum of Infinity 7’s vibrant cabin. His eyes pop open and he realizes he’s been dreaming. Something about getting water from the O2 dispenser on board Infinity 7, but it wouldn’t give up a drop of liquid, only a thick, dark sludge oozing out like river mud. John unbuckles his chest and shoulders and sits up, turning around in his chair. There is that sound again. Perhaps it’s coming from inside Infinity 7 and he’d incorporated it into his dream.
Weightless and still strapped at the waist to his chair, he manages to turn and unbuckle completely. To his right, Dr. Lee is floating freely, his arms flailing back and forth as if trying to maneuver underwater. Hovering in front of him, as if inspecting a curiosity, is Lee’s new camera. The gurgling sound again, only louder this time. John pushes himself toward Lee, who is floating face down, toward the deck of the cabin. An alarm buzzer fills the cabin. Ground Control is trying to communicate.
Sputum and foamy vomit float in front of Lee’s face. His eyes are rolled back in his head, as he gasps for breath. John manages to get a hold on Lee’s arm and directs him to a chair. For an instant, Lee looks at John through watery red eyes, like he’d been choking or crying.
“Dr. Lee, can you breathe?”
Lee tries to speak but only gurgles.
“Are you choking? Can you breathe?”
Lee manages to move his head back and forth. No, he’s not choking.
Lee nods slightly and clasps his hand to his chest.
Ignoring the surge of adrenaline exploding in his own chest, John takes hold of Lee’s head and looks him in the eye. “Okay, Michael, I’m going to get you strapped in. What should I do?”
Lee grunts in pain and slowly raises an arm toward the med kit. Through clenched teeth he manages one word, “Nitroglycerine.”
John pushes Lee into his chair and secures the harnesses, then pulls himself across the cabin to the med kit. A barely perceptible, high-pitched buzzing distracts him and he turns to see the camera hovering near his face. “Get away!” He swings his arm toward the camera and it zooms across the cabin. He unlatches the med box and the kit tilts open, revealing white pouches of varying sizes, all wrapped in plastic and labeled with generic blue markings. John grabs pouches marked Aspirin and Nitroglycerine, along with a water packet. Struggling to open the plastic seal on the nitroglycerine, he finally rips it with his teeth and grabs a capsule. Positioning himself next to Lee, he takes a hold under his chin and lifts his head up. “Open your mouth, Michael.”
Lee’s jaw is rigid, almost fixed, and he can barely open his mouth more than a couple of centimeters. John shoves the pill in, then plunges a straw into a water packet and holds it out for Lee to drink.
Lee takes a few sips. “Aspirin,” he says, faintly.
John rips open an aspirin packet and Lee manages to get one down. John grabs an oxygen line and places the mask over Michael’s nose and mouth. “Slow and deep. Slow and deep.” Lee takes a deep breath, then another.
Suddenly aware of a flashing emergency alert, John turns toward the navigation console. “Code 7,” he reads aloud. The bottom falls out of his stomach. Loss of cabin pressure. “Computer, check cabin pressure.”
“Cabin pressure is within normal parameters.”
“Why are we experiencing a Code 7 alert?”
The computer doesn’t respond. John looks at Lee, who seems more comfortable now.
“Computer, where is the Code 7?”
“Code 7 indicates a breach of cabin pressure. Cabin pressure is normal.”
Ground Control continues to buzz in. John ignores them for another moment.
“Then why is the damn alarm going off?”
“I did it,” Dr. Lee whispers. “Wake you up.”
John feels foolish. Had he slept that soundly?
As if reading John’s expression, Lee continues, “Couldn’t move. Pain.”
“What else can I do for you?”
“Nothing to do. Keep calm. Better tell Control about my situation.”
With those words, John becomes aware of the comm buzzer, his own heart raging in his chest. Lee’s apparent calmness helps him, and he mimics his steady breathing, in and out, slow and easy.
He presses a button on the control panel. “Standby Control.”
Vomitus floats perilously close to John’s face. The smell overwhelms him and he nearly gags. He grabs a plastic utility bag and manages to trap most of the masticated sputum inside. As he captures larger chunks of partially digested food and seals it in the bag, the smell begins to dissipate.
“Man, what the hell did you eat?” John smiles and looks at Lee, who’s unnaturally still. John maneuvers over to him and realizes his eyes are wide, and he’s struggling to breathe. “What should I do, Doctor? Tell me!”
John propels himself over to the medical kit and finds a package labeled Thrombolytic. He remembers reading something about this medicine in an emergency medical course. He holds the package up for Lee to see.
“This? Should I use this?”
Lee is dazed but manages a nod. John holds out Lee’s arm and unzips the flight suit emergency access port. Lee’s arm falls free and John sets up an intravenous drip of thrombolytic. Lee’s skin is pale.
“Dr. Lee! Can you hear me?”
Lee’s eyes are glazing over.
“No, no, don’t! You can’t! Should I use the defibrillator?”
John pushes off the chair and glides across the cabin. Near the container of meds, in bold letters he sees what he is looking for: DEFIBRILLATOR is printed across a red canvas bag. After unraveling the cord and juicing-up the machine, he secures the portable defibrillator and pulls the electrode wires from the box. John moves back to Lee, who is motionless, staring, his pupils dilated and fixed, a puzzled look on his face, as if facing an enigmatic circumstance. John pounds Lee’s chest, then puts his ear to listen for a heartbeat, but does not find one. Lee stiffens and gulps air.
“Come on, Lee. Come back.”
John continues to pump Lee’s chest for several minutes. Lee’s body is still now, no more thrashing or gulping. John rips open Lee’s flight suit and attaches the defibrillator pads to his chest. Lee’s body convulses and flies back into his chair with each shock. After a few minutes, John realizes it’s hopeless. Lee’s lips are blue, his eyes empty.
Panic rips through him. How could this happen? Lee was in good shape, wasn’t he? John stares at Lee’s lifeless body, arms floating loosely in the near zero gravity.
John’s attention switches to the navigation/telemetry hologram in the center of the crew compartment and realizes that, travelling at such high speed, maneuvering to turn the ship would be too intricate. They’d already reached the halfway point fifty-seven minutes earlier, probably when John had dreamed of the bad water dispenser. He finds it odd that he would dream of a water dispenser, since they didn’t even have one on board. The dispenser he’d dreamed of was similar to the one on Metis 3. Infinity 7 has no such device. The memory of that oozing sludge and the blank, pale-faced stare of Lee combine into a nightmarish reality.
Sweat pours down his face and he wipes it away with the back of his hand. Water droplets float free and he chases them with a tissue. Had the cabin temperature changed? He pushes away from Lee, and floats to the navigation console. “Computer, cabin temperature.”
“The cabin temperature is currently sixty-nine degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Lower temperature one degree.”
“Acknowledged. Be aware: a decrease in temperature will result in two percent less energy consumption.”
“How about if a crew member dies? What energy savings then?”
“A saving of approximately—”
John realizes he has to tell Control something. He can’t put it off any longer. “Hold on Ground Control. Having a bit of a suit problem up here.”
Lee’s camera buzzes in front of John, then darts across the cabin. John stares at Lee’s lifeless body, his flight suit ripped open, electrodes attached to pale wires, like strange microtubules emanating from the spindle poles of some parasitic creature. Pale blue tinges the side of Lee’s face and lips, and exhibits pallor mortis: the drained, white look of the dead. Had he had a secret health problem? John hovers over Lee for a few seconds, trying to process what has transpired, then reaches into a cabinet marked Containers. He retrieves a thermal Mylar body bag, stored on board for such contingencies.
Despite his feelings of horror and dissociation, John can’t help but think of the negative impact this may have on whole Metis program. If Lee’s death, while on a mission, were to leak to the press, it would finish his quest for government funding. The anti-science factions would have a field day. The last time a crewperson died while on a mission, the accident with the moon rover, he hadn’t realized the potential repercussions. The story falling into the hands of the anti-science dark news media outlets ripped apart the Metis Program, and its pitiful mission of exploration and search for extraterrestrial life became fodder for blasphemy. It cost him dearly in funding and prestige.
In comparison, Karen’s fatal mission had been early on, and no one specifically blamed the Metis Program. Since the founder’s wife had been on board, they had taken mercy on him and the program. However, an esteemed scientist dying on this mission, albeit of natural causes, would be catastrophic. It would be spun endlessly in the dark media and used to illustrate the folly of space exploration. His life’s work would be in mortal jeopardy. Either he’d maintain control of Metis and all that he had achieved—the first manned mission to Mars, exploring the moon, and potentially finding alien life—or it would be diminished to one more untimely death, and destroy the whole program. The rover accident had fueled the wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-science sentiment among the politicians, and had forced him, after major cuts from federal programs, into finding private funding. Even now, the mining companies were hedging their bets, starting to develop their own outer terrestrial mining interests based purely on off-world mineral speculation. It was only a matter of time until space exploration—true scientific exploration for its own sake—would be diminished drastically, leaving only commercial mining enterprises.
Metis is the last scientific program dedicated purely to scientific discovery. A handful of other programs exist—the Chinese, the Russians, and the Japanese—but John’s is the only program not entirely dedicated to the raping of off-world mineral wealth. No, there will be no deaths on board any of his missions. Not if he can help it.
John releases Dr. Lee from his restraints and lifts his body into the Mylar bag. He pulls the zipper closed, carefully pushing Lee’s head forward, smoothing his thick, gray hair clear of the zipper elements. Once the bag is secured, he presses the Evacuate button and a whooshing sound indicates the air is being sucked from the bag, leaving a distinctly eerie outline of the corpse. Dr. Lee will be preserved, frozen if need be, and brought back to Earth for his untimely death. There will be no evidence of it ever occurring on board Infinity 7.
“Ground Control, this is Collins. So sorry. We’ve had a malfunction with Dr. Lee’s suit. He’s had a bit of a mishap, stomach issues. We’ve taken it offline. Will update as soon as practicable.” John doesn’t wait for a response. He disconnects the comm, silencing his connection to Earth, and turns toward Lee.
Golden light reflects from crags and peaks of the death wrapping, as John hoists the ghostly bundle through the cabin. He unlocks cold-storage locker B and slides Dr. Lee’s corpse inside. Bowing his head in reverence of his friend, he turns the lock and seals the door. John turns away, not wanting to focus on the sadness of the situation. Lee’s pipe floats freely nearby. John drifts over to it. Teeth marks dot the mouthpiece. Lee’s habit had been a benign one: John had never seen him actually load the pipe with tobacco or smoke it. John reopens the locker and places the pipe inside before turning the key once more
“Rest easy, Michael. I’m so sorry…” John bows his head and tears fill his eyes.
A small chunk of masticated and partially digested pork floats in front of him. John captures it in a plastic bag, seals it, and places it into a recycle container for later redistribution. Realizing his mistake, he tries to retrieve the bag, but it is locked in place in the recycle chamber. “I’ll have to remember to retrieve that bag,” he says aloud. They’ll pull it from recycle and wonder what it is. Ask questions.
Everything is being recorded.
A wave of anxiety sweeps over John and he begins to hyperventilate, then realizing his breathing is off, he consciously takes slow deep breaths. In for five seconds, out for four, in for five…After a few minutes, his head begins to clear.
“Computer, hold all visual transmissions.”
“All visual transmissions on hold.”
He knows the recordings will not be seen right away as they get further from Earth, due to the transmission lag.
“Computer, halt all personnel vital signs transmissions and scramble all future health transmissions, authorization Level 3.”
“Transmissions halted. All health data transmissions have been scrambled.”
“Show me the last transmitted visual image from Infinity 7 to Command.”
A holographic visual pops up in the center of the cabin. In the projection, Dr. Lee is busy working on the navigation console. The lights are low. John is asleep in his chair. Dr. Lee turns and bends over. He clutches his chest and appears to convulse, then vomits spews across the cabin. It snakes around into the air in front of Lee, then holds in place. The visual stops. Lee is freeze-framed, bending over the console. A time stamp runs across the bottom of the visual: less than an hour ago.
John’s heart pounds as he sits in his chair. “Computer, send the following message, unscrambled, to headquarters: ‘Dr. Lee’s motion sickness is under control. Having problems with suit health monitoring capability. That function has been disabled. Standby for updates.’”
John wipes moisture from his eyes. A tear floats up in front of his face and lingers in front of his nose. “How long until rendezvous with Metis 3?”
“Six hours and fifty-three minutes until scheduled docking.”
He snatches up the tear and places it onto his suit.
A blur in the corner of his vision, above and to the left, is Lee’s camera, hovering a few feet above the console, coding a 3D holographic record of the whole mess. John pushes off his seat and reaches for the hovering object, but it moves to the left, then buzzes to the opposite side of the cabin. The camera repositions itself, the lens now focused squarely on John.
The camera emits a gentle hum.
Again, the teardrop synthetic polymer-encased robotic camera doesn’t respond.
John moves toward the camera. The object simply moves away in equal measure. It’s as though the thing is alive, instinctively aware of some unknown peril. What did Lee call it?
“Uh, camera…uh, Smarteye, move three meters to the left.”
The camera darts right, across the cabin and turns to face him.
“Smarteye, pause recording.”
The red light on the front of the camera continues blinking.
“Smarteye, shut down.”
The camera does not respond.
Perhaps the batteries will die soon, John thinks. Although he’s doubtful. Crystal batteries last months. “Smarteye, stop recording.”
The camera emits a faint hum. John pushes forward and tries to swat it from the air, but it darts away. On the side of the camera, he sees the recharging port. Devices like these are made to recharge by capturing energy up to one foot away from any charging outlet. John pushes off the chair, floating over to the med kit. Among the white packages, he spots one labeled Scalpel. He opens the package and pulls out the sharp bladed knife. If he can only jam that recharging port. As he pushes off toward the camera, the little beast races to the top of the cabin, continuing to record.
That’s enough. He’ll catch the camera later. He replaces the scalpel in the med kit and pushes himself back into his chair. Resting his head on the support, and taking a deep breath, he begins to relax a bit, then buckles himself in. From his zippered sleeve pocket, he retrieves two Lorazepam. They dissolve quickly in his mouth. The camera hovers near the top of the module, darting left, then right, all the while emitting the little buzz that says it’s still working. He’ll deal with that little beast once docked at Metis.
A tear trickles from the corner of his eye and he dabs it with an absorbent tissue before it floats away. His eyes sting. Perhaps the air is too dry. Or is it that his trusted friend is dead, stuffed into a body bag and placed in a storage locker? The thought that the brilliant Michael Lee is stuffed into a golden Mylar bag makes him feel unimaginably sad. The stark realization of being alone, absolutely alone, in space, in life, in the universe, washes over him. He unbuckles and pushes off from the chair. He floats freely in the cabin, away from the instruments and the chairs, away from the shame and the guilt and the adrenaline coursing through him.
The feeling of weightless compounds his isolophobia, overpowers his thoughts, and he imagines himself outside Infinity 7, soaring untethered, thousands of miles above Earth. The bright blue ball below reflecting blinding light as the sun bursts around the earth’s crust, illuminating the hydrosphere in blinding rays. Brilliant silver sunbeams reflect off the Pacific Ocean, and a startling array of multi-colored lights dance around the planet. These remarkable electromagnetic interactions rise up, beckoning him to join in the fluid dance. Alone in lifeless space, he imagines inhaling these cosmic beams, taking the electrical charges into his body. The warm currents dance through him, bounce off the walls of his throat and stomach, and course through his chest. They snake around his beating heart and massage his ventricles, arteries, and veins, gradually returning his heart muscles to a slow, steady beat. Ultimately, the cosmic rays diminish, washing away like oil in a stream, dissipating in colorful hues, gently fading away until they are gone. He is alone, floating peacefully in a silent, colorless void.
A droning echo awakens him. Red lights flash on the communications panel. He wipes his eyes and stares at two lights flashing in unison below him. One indicates Ground Control is calling. Still floating near the ceiling, he pushes off the wall and glides over to the panel, taking hold of a handgrip to steady himself. The other flashing light, he realizes, is a navigation warning signal. He’s approaching Metis 3. “Computer, cancel alerts.”
“Show Infinity 7’s position relative to Metis 3.” The holographic navigation screen appears in the center of the cabin, depicting a three-dimensional representation of the station as it orbits the moon. A small dot indicates Infinity 7 as it approaches. A digital readout indicates the ship is two hundred kilometers away from the space station.
“Comm, open a channel to Metis 3.”
The computer replies, “Comm open.”
“Metis 3 Space Station, this is Dr. John Collins aboard Infinity 7. Initiate your computer Link-up Control for docking.” John waits a few seconds, but hears only the electronic hum of the ship. “Computer, link to Metis mainframe and prepare for assisted docking.”
The Infinity 7 computer’s voice breaks in. “I cannot find the Metis 3 station mainframe.”
“Link to spider-comm. Any other channels active out there?”
“Negative. All navigation link-up channels to Metis 3 Space Station are blocked.”
“Blocked? What do you mean?”
“All Metis 3 channels are firewalled at this time.”
“Metis 3, this is Dr. John Collins of Metis Command. I am approaching in Infinity 7, as scheduled. Please initiate LUC for docking.” A few seconds of silence. “Computer, are they getting my signal?”
“Output signals are at full strength.”
“Why aren’t they answering me?”
“Response variables depend on—”
John stares at the communications panel. Small white lights pulse in unison. “Is this firewall one that we programmed at Command?”
“I do not have any information pertaining to the firewall.”
The hum of the ship seems louder now, almost invasive. He hadn’t prepared for a manual docking. Variables such as velocity and sheer could make a manual docking next to impossible, even for the most seasoned pilot. “Computer, navigate as closely and safely to Metis 3 as possible, nearest to Docking Station 1. Keep sending comm alerts. If they answer, put them through immediately, acknowledge.”
John glides to the navigation station console and straps himself into the chair. He flips up the NAV GRIP switch and two black handles pop up from the panel. He places his hands on the handles and squeezes the soft, rubbery grips. They quickly mold around his fingers. Safety straps automatically secure around his chest and waist, as a 3D map lights up in front of his face. Smarteye hovers just out of reach, its red light flashing.
“Go away, you little bastard.”
As if on cue, the camera moves aside to reveal the 3D map image of Metis 3, and Infinity 7 on approach. A blinking speck, thousands of meters away from the station.
“Zoom in on the map 400 percent.” In the enhanced image, Metis 3 appears pitched at an odd angle. “That doesn’t look like standard attitude. Computer, is Metis 3 listing?”
“Metis 3 Space Station is listing approximately 2.5 degrees starboard.”
“Has the station deviated from standard orbit?”
“Has orbit eroded since last transmission to command?”
“Orbit appears degraded by fifty kilometers since last transmission.”
“How much has orbit degraded since…uh, let’s say last August?”
“While you’re computing, tell me what would cause the station to list like that?”
“A navigational malfunction on port side thruster foils could cause listing, if thrusters on starboard side were engaged without reciprocal bursts.”
“That’s my first instinct as well. Would a malfunction of port thrusters explain the degrading of orbit?”
“Orbital integrity could be compromised.”
“So, why haven’t they reported this?”
“I do not know the answer to—”
“I want you to launch a Starlus surface probe to Metis 3. I want a complete analysis of the outer shell. Specifically, any defects in structure, electromagnetic or carbon emissions build-up at the thruster ports.”
“Probe is prepped and ready for launch.”
“Launch Starlus probe.”
“Probe successfully launched. Calculation complete: Metis orbit has degraded, adjusted, and degraded again a total of approximately five times, adjusting ninety-five cumulative kilometers since transmission August 15th of this year.”
“Considering how unstable she is without full thrusters, I would have expected at least that.”
A low hum emanates from the comm panel, followed by a cracking whip sound. A soothing female voice, with a standard American accent, fills the cabin. “Hello Infinity 7. This is Metis 3 Docking Capture Program 7.5–327. We are tracking you. Please maintain present speed and course. Metis Link-Up will take navigation control in three minutes.”
“Hello Metis 3. Maintaining speed and course,” says John. Relieved to finally have a response from the station, he loosens his tight grip on the NAV Controls. The pliable, slightly sticky surface of the grips reluctantly release his hands. “Metis Computer, I was worried. You should have been in contact twenty minutes earlier. How are things on the station?”
“All systems are running at peak efficiency.”
“Infinity 7 trajectory is on target for docking in approximately forty minutes. Relax and enjoy the docking, John Collins.”
“I’ll grab some popcorn.”
The Infinity 7 computer chimes in, “Popcorn is maintained in Freezer Bin 19. Shall I pop some for you?”
“No, thank you.”
John rolls his eyes and almost chuckles at the obsequious program. The Southern accent takes a bit of getting used to. Most computers speak in a brisk standard American accent. The Dixie twang is unusual. His smile instantly melts when he glances toward Dr. Lee’s temporary resting place, the cold-storage locker B.
Twenty years of dedicated work, first as an undergrad, then as a starving graduate student, then the fellowships, and his entrepreneurial exploits, fighting for funding and patrons, arguing for the active search for extraterrestrial life, fighting the big money men, the mining companies, the autocracy of government regulations and funding, has led to this moment. The moment it may all end. If funding is cut off now, it will be a disaster. There are plenty of mining ventures, but only Metis is fully vested in the search for extraterrestrial life. The mining exploits are only meant to pay the bills. He is not going to let an unforeseen mission mishap, or even the death of a friend and colleague, collude to end his dream. Dr. Lee’s demise will come at a place and time of little consequence. On Earth. He will see to that.
“Metis 3, I want to run a diagnostic of your mainframe. Link-up, please.”
The Metis computer breaks in, “Request compliance uninitiated at this time. Prepare for docking.”
“Uninitiated? On whose authority?” No response. After a few seconds, he says, “Metis 3, engage mainframe link-up protocol.”
“Mainframe link-up is currently unavailable, John Collins.”
A slight vibration runs through the ship as a super-laser tractor beam envelops Infinity 7. The Metis 3 Navigation System begins to guide the ship toward the docking station. As John sits back and waits for the operation to be completed, Smarteye hovers just a few feet away, a blinking nuisance.