Deppea Splendens (Revised)

Infinity 7 on audible

Solid 4 Stars! ****

A Grown-Up First Contact Story

Infinity 7 is a story about a man casting one arm into the future while gripping a guilt-ridden past, and he’s doing it while battling unforeseen obstacles which threaten a lifetime of achievements and he has to do it in a space environment, which carries it’s own set of problems. Smooth, polished writing, a strong sense of pacing, tension builds well. Both the main character’s grief and the technology throughout felt authentic, as well as the rounded supporting characters. Smart characterization and plausible downward spiral in a scientific research environment. There were a couple spots I found circumstances eddied a bit too long for my comfort, and a loose end with the smarteye camera that I wanted tired up at the end. But the ending, although a bit abrupt, was strong and cleverly done. I’ll be thinking about this story and the concepts it introduced me to for quite some time. Fantastic voice talent performance. Worth listening to this one. I’d read this author again.

https://www.audible.com/pd/Infinity-7-Audiobook/B08CZVKRGJ

The Small River Man

I came upon the small man in a dream.

He squatted by a river teaming with fish. As he looked into the rippling waters, I asked him where he came from and he said, “It is a closed system. There was nothing before and something since. The idea was strong, intense and consuming. It took root in the soil of imaginings and grew by way of hopes and dreams, emotions, gradually taking form. This is the eye of man. It sees all in front of it, none behind and certainly not into tomorrow. It’s frightened by things it does not understand, is wary of new events, yet trudges on in hopes of finding sameness, a lack of pain, some joy, perhaps a feeling of enlightenment. Happiness even. It marvels at small acts of physical manipulation. It doesn’t know what’s best for it. And it dies, leaving behind that which it has created.”

“Do you mean to say I was born of an idea and am the eye of man?”

He looked at me with his white and tearing eyes, unable to make out my form and whispered, “Do you have a dime?”

I pushed him into the water and walked on.

Island Girl (part 8)

After a few minutes of staring at the bathroom door, the cracked and faded white paint ignited memories of summer nights spent with his wife in a similar cabin, on a similar island not quite two miles from where he lay. His wife’s soft features backlight from the window, her gentle smile, her delicate hands and long fingers as they found his. The familiar sensation of mounting sexual anticipation caused him to harden.

He heard water trickling onto the shower stall and it brought him back to the present. After a few minutes he hollow ring of the metal enclosure softened and he knew she stepped under the spout.

Her teasing had ignited strong desire, it ran through him like a thirst. But it wasn’t a desire for sex as much as a desire to travel back to a better time. It had been years since he’d been sober when making love to a woman, and now, in the next room, as she stood naked under that dribbling stream, as he imagined her skin glistening with foamy soap, it was all he could do to keep from going to her, ripping the plastic shower curtain aside, and taking her. Then he wished it was his wife standing under that stream, and shame came upon him. She was a stranger.

He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. Grief shrouded his heart and today. The desire for love thrust him back into loneliness. It ran through him like a current. Beaten down by memories that bit at him, he closed his eyes and felt the embrace of his wife. Her body warm and soft in his hands. The soft smell of her perfumed skin, familiar and perfect in his memory.

A bang against the shower stall caused him to open his eyes and stare at the wall in front of him. He could call the police, have them come to the island, but for what? She hadn’t broken any laws, and it was her word against her husband’s any abuse had taken place. He’d observed no bruises on her, except on her head. She could have hit that on anything. She was well-developed, no sign of an eating disorder or malnutrition. She appeared perfectly normal in most ways, except one. And that abnormal part, the compulsion to come back to his island and present herself to him, not only made him wary, but enlivened him, jolted his nerves and he feared the entanglements she might bring. Why should he get between a man and his wife? It didn’t matter if he beat her or not. Didn’t it take two to ruin a marriage? But he knew that was wrong. It only took one. The abuser.

The scar just above his left hip ached, and he moved onto his back. It had taken fifteen stitches to close the semi-circle of wounds, when he’d woken up from a blackout. It was in the alley behind a dive bar on 57th street, early last year. He bled in the cab on the way to the hospital. The driver kept looking in the rearview, his eyes wide, trying to see if that was actually blood, and swearing loudly about the clean-up he’d have to do.

The doctor at the hospital didn’t really care how it happened, but he had to ask anyway. Garrett didn’t remember, the truth at the time. Later, as he sat in bed, as the lidocaine wore off and his wound began to ache, he remembered the bet he’d made, with a drinking buddy, that he could pull his pants down and run across the alley, touch his hip on a lamp post and make it back to the bar in under ten seconds. He smiled as he remembered the look of surprise on his friends face when he’d actually pulled his pants down around his ankles and ran across the alley, his penis flapping, legs stretched far as possible, hindered by the pants. Then he remembered the fall and the sting of broken glass as it pierced his side. He thought it was funny until the pain set in and blood began to soak his shirt. When he looked up from his fall, still sitting in the alleyway, the small crowd that had gathered to watch the fool do his trick were gone. He was alone, pieces of glass from a smashed bottle of schnapps embedded in his side.

Now, as he lay waiting for his uninvited guest to exit the shower, it seemed ten years since that incident, instead of ten months, and he realized how closely he still teetered on that line he dared not cross. The booze would end him the next time he fell, of that, he was sure. If he started drinking again, especially here on the island, the one place he felt safe and himself, he didn’t think he could stop. 

The door to the bathroom opened, and she stood naked in front of him. He stared at her breasts, white-lined at the top where her bathing suit ended, then her dark nipples, slightly erect in the coolness of the room, at her stomach, flat and smooth, the skin darker then he’d expected, the small bellybutton, slightly protruding outward, and just below that, he followed the line of her inner hip through the tan lines there, down to her dark, neatly trimmed pubis. She smiled slightly and walked toward him. He sat still, his hands by his side, as she moved to him and stood close, her breast near his mouth. He pulled her close, sliding his face across her breast, his hands moving around, down to her hips. He held her there for a moment, his mouth on her tummy, breathing in her fresh scent, then turned his head away. “No,” he said, and pushed her back. She took a step away, looking him in the eyes, her expression openly confused for a moment before going blank. He turned his back to her and stared out the window. The yard was quiet. The breeze moved the tall grass. A chipmunk moved along the woodpile and disappeared in a crevasse of wood. Rose sat next to him and dried her hair with a towel.

“Put something on,” he said.

She silently got up and slipped into her clothes. He ached to touch her, could feel the want, like a sucking monster inside. It took hold of him and he thought for a moment he would go to her, but he let the monster stir, but die of neglect. His eyes never left the window. Thin clouds moved slowly toward the West.

5

Now fully dressed, she walked to the door and stopped to look at him. He felt her stare and looked up. She smiled, then walked out the door, leaving it slightly open. He sat in the room for a long time watching the clouds, the bushes angered by the wind. When finally he got up, the sun was almost directly overhead. He’d been sitting for longer then he knew. He stood in the doorway and watched her as she shuffled cards at the kitchen table.

 “Why did you come back?”

“I didn’t come back. I escaped him and this is where I ended up.”

“I can’t have it.”

She held the few remaining cards in her hand and looked at him, her eyes pleading. “He beats me.”

“Beside the point.”
“He’ll kill me.”

“Where are the marks?”

She threw down the cards and pulled the hair apart on the left side of her head. Just above her ear, the scalp was red. A curved welt revealed through her spread fingers.

“He did that?”

“His belt buckle.” She stared defiantly at him. Tears filled her eyes, but she wiped them with the back her hand and dealt the cards. When all the cards lay in a pile on the table, he sat down across from her. He sorted his cards until they were in a neat stack, then he threw down the king of spades from the top. She threw down the ace of diamonds and smiled. “You owe me a truthful thing about yourself.”

He nodded at her, staring into her strange light-blue eyes. “Go ahead, ask.”

She offered a slight smile. “How did you like it when I touched you?”

“You never touched me.”

“You wanted me to.”

“Did you want to?”

“Not really,” she said, looking demurely down at her hand. She shuffled the cards again.

The wind picked up and something hit the side of the cottage. He went to the windows and looked out, following the trail with his eyes down to the dock. The bushes and trees swayed in the strong gusts. White caps dotted the bay. “The wind has shifted.”

He’d leave his traps for another day. He turned to her. She sat with her back to him, looking at her cards. “I was going to go into town to buy some supplies. You can come, tell your story to the sheriff.”

She scoffed. “Why don’t I just hang myself?”

“Well, why the hell did you go with them, then?”

“They’d blame you. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Maybe. But, you can’t stay here. Don’t tell the sheriff, it’s up to you, but I can’t help you.”

“Did I ask for your help?”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

She stood and threw the cards onto the table. The wind hit the cottage again. A loose windowpane trembled. After a few seconds she said, “I’ll go to town, but I’m not talking to the cops.”

“Fine.” He reached for the list off the table, but she snatched it up and began reading.

“Why an aluminum pole?” she asked.

“Ask your friend, Jack.”

“He’s Bill’s friend, not mine.”

“I thought they were brothers.”

“What does Jack have to do with the pole?”

“He tore down my antenna.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because it’s broken and he’s the only one who could have done it.”

He reached for his coat hanging by the door, then went to the back shed and got another jacket for her. She put on the blue windbreaker. It fit loosely around her frame and made her look small, fragile even.

He walked quickly, deliberately fast, like he was trying to get away from her. She followed him down the path leading to the boat, He held the small craft steady as she got in. Once settled, the wind blowing their faces red, their hair waving in the wild breeze, he pulled the starter and the engine coughed, then started, blowing blue smoke into the air. He reversed the boat, the waves slapping the stern, water spaying them. Finally, he thrust it into forward and they were off.

“How do you know which way to go?” she asked.

“I follow the path in the water, he said. ” She turned and smiled at him. He smiled back. “Can’t you see it?”

She turned back, and looked straight ahead, her face in the freezing wind, and said nothing else.

The small whitecaps rocked the boat and she held on, her hands gripping both gunwales, as water spray dampened her wind-tossed hair. She sat rigid, like a dog in the wind, he thought, staring straight ahead, never daring to move or look around.

When they reached the harbor and tied up at the public dock, he saw her hands were stiff and her face was cherry red. She rubbed her hands together and flexed her fingers. As they walked to his truck, he looked around for men who might be waiting for them, but saw no one of consequence. The small shack in the parking lot was dark. The man overseeing the operation was sitting with his legs up on the porch rail drinking coffee and chatting with another man, with whom Garrett was vaguely familiar. He waved to them and continued walking to his truck, the girl close behind.

They said nothing as he drove them into town, his old pick-up comfortable, if not a bit rocky. “You need new shocks,” she said. He grunted and kept driving without saying anything. They stopped in front of the Sheriff’s office. The girl looked straight ahead, as if they were waiting at a light. After a few minutes, he turned to her. “Do you want to go in?”  

“No.”

“Alright.”

He put the truck in gear and they headed to the hardware store.

After loading the truck with the new aluminum tubing and cable and other supplies, they headed for the grocery store. In the check-out line, as he was paying for their supplies, a tall man with dark hair walked into the store. He stood at the door, near the checkout and waved to Garrett. When the six bags were loaded into the cart, Garrett stopped next to Jim. “Jim, how are you?”

“Got a day off, been busy otherwise. Who’s your friend?”

Garrett turned to Rose, who partially hid behind him. “This is Rose. She’s my wife’s cousin, from Boston.”

Rose nodded at Jim. He reached to shake her hand, and his gun became visible under his jacket, on his belt. Garrett saw her bristle at the weapon and said, “Jim’s a Deputy Sherriff.”

“Off duty. Right now, I’m just a guy getting food for the family.”

After a few minutes of small talk, Garrett said, “Well, good to see you, Jim.”

They nodded at each other and Garrett and Rose walked back to the truck. She slammed the door closed as she got in. Garrett loaded the back with the bags and closed the tailgate and got in on the driver’s side and turned the key. “We can get lunch over there if you want.” He pointed to the Woodbine Café, a place he frequented on trips to the mainland. She looked straight ahead and said nothing.

He turned to her and she looked at him for the first time. He saw fear and hate in her eyes, and he knew she was going to accuse him of setting up the chance meeting with the Deputy in the store. “I didn’t know he’d be there,” he said, wanting to cut her off before she said anything. “Besides, you’re on the mainland, you need to go. Find your family and stay there, they can help you.”

“What do you know about my family?”

“Look, I told you before-”

She got out, slammed the door shut and walked down the sidewalk to the street corner. She stood under the Woodbine sign, and bummed a cigarette from a young man as he passed by. They talked as he lit her cigarette. She seemed flirty, like she’d go anywhere with him and Garrett didn’t like what he was seeing. He shut off the truck and walked over to them. Rose turned away as he approached. He touched her shoulder. “Let’s get going, Rose.”

She looked at him, while closing one eye and taking a deep drag of the cigarette. The young man felt the possessive vibe from Garrett and silently turned and walked into the Woodbine.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Nothing. I’m not doing anything.”

“Get in the truck.”

“Really?”

“Yes, just get in.”

She tossed the cigarette and he placed his hand on her arm as they walked back to the truck. They sat silently, the engine idling. She turned on the radio. A rock tune blared from the speakers. She turned it up. Garett leaned in and shut it off. “I don’t know what your game is, but latching onto the first person you see isn’t a healthy thing to do.”

They let the irony of that statement sink in, then he added, “You lucked-out with me. I only want to help you. But others, they’ll hurt you, use you…” he involuntarily looked at her body and she got the message. She sent a message back. She knew the power she held over men. It was obvious.

They sat in silence for a while and when he took a breath to say something else she said, “He’s not my husband.”

“What?”

“We’re not married. Only in his head. He’s got a fantasy that he’s married to me because he said so. But we’re not married.”

“Oh.”

“I just want to make that clear. He has no hold on me.”

“He shouldn’t hurt you, either way.”

They sat staring out the front windshield. He wasn’t sure what to do, drop her off somewhere or take her back to the island. A cold front was moving in. The clouds were high and thready. People dressed in fall clothing walked the sidewalks, cars stopped and started, smoke rose from tailpipes. He couldn’t think of what else to say that wouldn’t spoil things, in his mind. He wanted her, and he knew he could have her. All he had to do was listen to what she was saying. Desire flamed up in him and he glanced at her knee. She wore jeans, but he they were thin. He wanted to touch that knee, slide his hand up to her thigh, feel the soft flesh there. These thoughts surprised him. He knew it was wrong. The whole thing was wrong. It was like she was a gift. One that could make him feel so much better, fill his emptiness, but he didn’t trust any of it.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. After a few minutes she added, “My sister lives in Portland, but she’s gone away with her husband for a week. They went to Florida on vacation. Guess I’ll go there when she’s back.” She turned to him and he saw her hopefulness. “Otherwise, I have nowhere else to go.” She touched his thigh, and smiled. “Besides, I can help you chop wood.”

She adjusted closer to him, and he could feel the heat of her. For a few moments, his crushing loneliness was replaced by her warmth.

“Let’s just go,” she said.

He nodded and put the truck in gear.

Dreaming Wide Awake (An excerpt)

The soft touch of her hand caressed the back of my neck as I sat upon the bed in the dim light of the evening lamp, a cool breeze coming from the open window, the street noises occasionally echoing in the halls of my room, the dull low rumble of the city layered below. Shivers ran down my spine and the hairs on the back of my head stood up. It was a perfect spring evening with the scent of cross pollination in the air. Budding trees held new shiny leaves just outside the window. She leaned into my naked back and her warmth met mine in perfect contour. She melted into me. I felt the dread of loneliness then. The emptiness of being one, alone, not sharing, no one to care what happens in my world but myself, and sometimes even I don’t care, capitulation being a long tradition running through my life. Scattered pictures of her embrace echoed in the darkness of my dream.

Dream State on audible and Amazon/Kindle.

August Chase is an ordinary man plagued by extraordinary precognitive dreams. When he foresees the brutal murder of a young woman, he tracks her down to warn her. His warnings go unheeded, and the dreamed murder becomes a reality. The victim’s sister, frustrated by slow police work, enlists August’s help, and he is launched into his first case as a private investigator. Delving deep into the victim’s life, he soon discovers a common thread in the shadowy world that may have claimed her. This is book One of the August Chase Mystery Series.


5.0 out of 5 stars
 A mash-up somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Doctor Strange.Reviewed in the United States on April 3, 2017Verified PurchaseI quite enjoyed Charles R. Hinckley’s novel, Dream State.
The psychic detective genre, in general, is a tricky one, a mash-up somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Doctor Strange. Hinckley pulls it off by writing well. He grounds his characters solidly in a New York I could recognize, and gives them realistic, often humorous dialog. This makes the fantastical excursions into August Chase’s pre-cognitive “dream state” more compelling. On top of that, the writing is extremely visual, forcefully propelling Chase through a complex series of interrelated encounters in both this world and the next, and bringing it all to a satisfying resolution. It’s a book worth your attention. Dream State: The Sleeping Detective Series Book One

Powerful and compelling, “Infinity 7” by Charles R. Hinckley is a riveting psychological sci-fi adventure

Reviewed by Reader Views

Powerful and compelling, “Infinity 7” by Charles R. Hinckley is a riveting psychological sci-fi adventure that readers won’t soon forget!  When suspicious communication comes from the Metis 3 Space Station requesting a team to investigate malfunctions and the possibility of alien life forms, astronaut and astrophysicist John Collins knows he is headed back to space.  Developer of the Metis Space Program, Collins has dedicated his professional career to this project, at great personal cost, and will do whatever it takes to keep the funding flowing for this research. Discovery of alien spores found in soil samples have been mishandled by Forrest, one of the techs, putting the entire station in danger of contamination.  Strange behavior from the crew and the mainframe computer system suggest alien forces have taken over as an entranced crew member is determined to destroy the space station.  Fighting hallucinations and madness caused by exposure to the spore toxins, John Collins is in for the fight of his life and the future of the earth.  This story is a fantastic read!  I really enjoyed the writing – Hinckley has a talent for creating vivid, colorful, life-like descriptions in every paragraph, and not a word is wasted. The plotline is complex without being overwhelming; the various layers of the story are sophisticated and round out the entire story as a whole.    The author’s imagination seems limitless as the creativity displayed in the scenes and the settings compel the reader to plow through the pages.  The hallucination scenes are frightening, the nightmarish-like sequences had me questioning reality right alongside the characters. Somehow, even though Hinckley paints clear visuals, he also leaves enough room for the reader to incorporate their own visions as well, and that is one of the things I love so much about a well-told story.  And the characters – wow!  From the creepy camera that follows the crew around (yes, the camera is life-like and so deemed a character), to the sexy holographic woman that was “enhanced” by one of the techs, to the crew members and a mysterious old man – all the characters have dimension and personality – even the alien spores! The protagonist is realistic and likable – he’s a single dad trying to raise a teenage daughter while grieving a monumental loss.  He’s also flawed and has questionable motives throughout but is definitely someone readers will want to succeed. Overall, I found this to be an incredible read and I think the story sets itself up nicely to be on the big screen one day.  Readers of sci-fi and psychological thrillers will enjoy “Infinity 7” by Charles R. Hinckley.

Infinity 7 (Part 5)

space suit

5

 

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.

“Heart attack?”

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—”

“Stop.”

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.

Shit.

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.’”

“Message sent.”

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.

“Camera, pause.”

The camera emits a gentle hum.

“Camera, stop.”

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.”

“Alerts cancelled.”

“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—”

“Never mind.”

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.”

“Acknowledged.”

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?”

“Negative.”

“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?”

“Computing…”

“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.”

“Really?”

“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.”

“Very well.”

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.