22 Feb, 2018
Reading Time: 70 minutes
Laura pulled her cellphone out of its storage compartment and queued up the first video before wondering if she really should watch it again. They had, technically, only been in space for eight hours with another seventy-two yet to go and she’d already viewed the three-minute clip close to a hundred times. The little voice in the back of her head that said she would tire of it if she continued at her current pace was quickly silenced, however, once play was pressed…yet again.
“Hi mommy!” Kevin, who just turned six a week ago, smiled and waved at the camera while hovering over the birthday cake which Mike had decorated with stars, planets and a tiny replica of the Olympus Space Station. “I love you,” he continued.
“We both love you!” Mike called out from behind the camera. “Tell your mommy what you’re getting ready to do.” Kevin nodded in commiserative approval; his smile contagious. Laura, as with each watching, smiled as well.
“I’m going to blow out my candles.” Her son brushed the hair from his eyes…Mike always let him slack on the haircuts when she wasn’t there…and puffed his cheeks in anticipation of a large enough exhalation to extinguish six candles. Before he had a chance to blow, however, Mike caught him with another question earning something of a perturbed expression for his efforts.
“Why are you blowing out candles?”
Kevin’s perturbed expression shifted to one of outright incredulity. Seemingly the dumbest question he’d ever heard, the boy shrugged and threw up his arms. “Because they’re on fire, daddy.” His tone was deadpan serious, bringing involuntary laughter from both his dad, who was there, and his mom, who wanted to be there more than anything. It broke her heart to think of the special days she had missed spending with her husband and child: the birthdays, holidays and anniversaries; but that was part of a price that they all, as a family, agreed to. The bottom line was that they were both so proud of her that those things were easily forgiven. Most six year-olds would throw a fit if their mother didn’t attend their surprise birthday party but Kevin spent his bragging to the invited classmates about his amazing mom: Laura Hillman…the astronaut.
“No silly,” Mike corrected the boy. “Tell your mom why you’re blowing out these candles.”
“Oh yea!” Kevin finally understood. “This is the super-special cake that’s just for us.”
“Because the other one got eaten up at the party,” Mike added, his voice louder than the boy’s given his proximity to the microphone.
Kevin laughed in agreement, “Yea. I only got one piece.”
“But that’s okay because we’ve got this one for you and me and mommy.”
“And daddy says that this video will make it like you were here too and that I should tell you like I’m tell the camera…um…I mean…” Kevin tied his own tongue momentarily.
“It’s okay buddy,” Mike prompted, “she knows what you mean. I think you probably need to go ahead and make your wish. The candles are getting a little low there.”
With wax coming dangerously close to frosting, Laura’s child and, despite all her accomplishments, the best thing she had ever done, puffed his cheeks once again and blew them out with only the tiniest degree of spittle released. Mike kept the footage running as Kevin cut the first and largest piece which they set aside for her. It was to be freeze-dried and sent overnight to Russia where it would be included with the supply manifest for the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle launching with the Ariane-6 Heavy-Lift Rocket exactly thirteen hours after Laura and Dimitri’s Orion Capsule, The Daedalus, lifted off from Cape Canaveral. It all went according to plan, in three days’ time she would be able to sit down in her own private quarters aboard the OSS and eat a portion of the triple-chocolate cake while, most likely, watching this video again…for the thousandth time.
Mike set the camera down on the kitchen table and directed it so that she could see both the men in her life enjoying their cake together; repeating, “it’s good,” and “mmmm,” to each other repeatedly. When Kevin was down to a few bites, Mike drew his attention to some tiny detail in the frosting that the boy couldn’t quite see. Urging him closer and closer, her husband was somehow able to pull off the oldest gag in the book and mush Kevin’s face into the face, smearing his nose and cheeks with chocolate. Laura’s son was a rare breed who thought of other people first and practically never harbored ill will, and his reaction of laughter and then then hamming it up even more for the camera was exactly what she would’ve expected it to be. Every parent wanted to say that they had a good kid but in her case…well…she had a good kid.
The video would close with a clean face and Kevin offering up the sacred secrecy of his birthday wish without provocation. “You don’t have to say if you don’t want to,” Mike had assured him but his son insisted. Adamant about the fact that the wish was coming true regardless, the boy felt strongly that her knowing about it would help to “keep mommy safe”. In the final seconds of the video, with Mike’s strong arm around the kid, Kevin looks first at the camera and then back at his father before saying with complete sincerity, “My wish is for mommy to get to the Olympics Stadium okay”. It was and incredibly sweet moment and also very unfortunate that the clip ended when it did because she would have loved to have seen the look on Mike’s face. It didn’t matter how many times they had told their son that was the “Olympus Station” it almost always came back to them as the “Olympics Stadium”. It had gotten so many laughs out of them, at this point…the kid was probably doing it on purpose.
Laura sighed and switched off her IPhone before slipping it back into the console. She might not get tired of watching videos of home, but her battery would. It amazed her. The Daedalus was equipped with some of the most advanced circuitry in the world and yet…they couldn’t have put in a USB port? Admittedly, the Orion series weren’t exactly designed for luxury travel. Utilitarian in nature, the capsules were created for transporting goods and supplies and, in this particular instance, they were the ‘goods’. The astronauts, cosmonauts and French spationauts that used the four and two-man capsules weren’t exactly boxed away like cargo, but they weren’t flying ‘first-class’ either…or even ‘coach’ for that matter. Comfort seemed to come very low on the list of specifications the various agencies used in their creation. Significantly lower, at least, than things like ‘hull-integrity’ and ‘oxygen stability’. Keeping them alive seemed to be of higher priority than reclining seats and an in-flight movie. She wasn’t complaining.
She looked over at Dimitri who was sound asleep and found it remarkable that he could do so with such ease. While they had specific sleep cycles that they were try to adhere to, Laura had been unable to catch a single wink during her first four-hour shift. There had been too much adrenaline and norepinephrine surging through her system to even make it possible; it felt like two too many double espressos. She was in space! Dreaming of this moment since she was Kevin’s age, it was the fruition of everything she had ever wanted growing up. Her high-school yearbook quote was, “If I get to go to space, I will die happy” and she meant it. Breaking through the cloud-line, leaving the atmosphere behind and delving into the unimaginable vastness was like nothing she had imagined; and nothing like the simulations either. It was a rush! Giving birth to Kevin, marrying Mike, graduating to a gold-key NASA astronaut…these had been the defining moments in her life and now they all just seemed to pale by comparison. She would leave that part out when relaying the story to her boys.
Her co-pilot, however, did not appear to be as impressed. Dimitri Vladimir Kapirski had a few more season under his belt than she did, as a pilot-cosmonaut and a test-cosmonaut on thirty-nine different missions to space, including two two-year stints aboard the, now defunct, International Space Station. The man had logged more time in space any anyone who hadn’t retired; which was part of the reason why he was being made the Commander of the OSS. Dimitri had the type of serious temperament and fastidious eye for details that only came from being in the game for so long.
Most people that met him once thought he was a hard-ass but once you really got to know him…well, he was still a hard-ass; but he was honest and brave and intelligent and, frankly, there was no one else you’d rather have watching your back. Laura had first met the revered cosmonaut twelve years ago when she took an eight-week course he was instructing and he had intimidated the hell out of her at the time. He had seen something in her, however, and, two weeks into the program, pulled her aside out of nearly three hundred people who all had the same dream of being an astronaut or cosmonaut and told her, “you’re going to space”.
Unbeknownst to her, he had followed her career after that and it was he who put in the request to have her on his station crew. Laura knew he had given a recommendation but had no idea the extent to which he was responsible for her wildest dreams coming true. In three days’ time the adventure would really begin. Dimitri would be replacing current OSS Commander Jill Milner and Laura was relieving Alex Wang, both of whom would use the Daedalus to return to Earth after completing four year tours in space. Astronauts Nick Geary and Rukia Kanagi would be staying behind leaving a continued skeleton crew of four once the Daedalus departs again.
Theirs would be the final preparations that would need to be made in advance of the full crew arrival in three months’ time. The Olympus Space Station was a masterpiece of civil engineering and deep-space construction created as a long-term alternative to the archaic tin-can known as the International Space Station. Built to comfortably house a working community of two-hundred and eighty-eight people, Laura’s team was responsible for a large variety of nit-picking tasks. From inputting personal and medical data of all the incoming personnel to testing every system available to test, they would have their hands full, no doubt, but the heavy lifting had already been done. Dimitri would be the first OSS Commander to maintain the station at capacity and she would be one of the flight crew. It was all very exciting.
Laura wasn’t the only one to have high hopes for Olympus. The crew were coming from every corner of the world and through every space agency available, including private companies like SpaceX. There was a real emphasis on global cooperation and working together and it was hoped by many, in America at least, that the station would act as a beacon for the rest of the world to follow. There was a quiet optimism that the glorious utopia of collaboration orbiting above the rest of humanity might somehow ebb the rising tide of hatred and violence spilling over all borders.
Since the beginning of the nuclear age, the threat of mutual destruction has been the only thing keeping the peace between nations…supposedly. It now seemed, however, that the world was evolving into a different place with a different mindset. There were countries in the world with egomaniacal leaders who cared more about power than their citizens and some who were even worse; some that cared only for destruction. There were factions of generational wealthy who funneled ungodly amounts of money into creating propaganda, distrust, riots and eventually…war. To these people war equals money. They just don’t seem to understand that the world has the capacity for only one more war. At the very bottom of the pyramid was the majority of the planet’s seven and a half billion people…and those people were completely terrified; wanting nothing more than peace.
Part of the reason Laura finally decided to actually go into space and leave her family behind on terra firma was the hope that she was working to create a better world for her son than the one he currently resided in. With no eye for politics or the law, the only way she knew how to do that was through science and the idea that global resolution could come through mankind experiencing and thriving far beyond the bounds of any country or even the world itself. She didn’t know if her co-pilot and future Commander was going to Olympus for the same lofty idealisms that drove her, however. It was hard to say how he felt about the future of the planet or even, being unmarried and without children, his desire to be on it. ‘Heart to heart’s” weren’t exactly his strong suit. Motivations aside, there could not have been a better person available for the position.
Dimitri snorted loudly, breaking the silence of the capsule and causing Laura to jump in her seat, startling her from her thoughts. The older man wasn’t a snorer, thank goodness…that could have been maddening; but he did, on occasion, release an involuntary snort which, when it didn’t scare her half to death, tickled her to no end. She had heard a rumor in flight-school that he once had the nickname “Hot Sauce” but she was never able to verify its authenticity…let alone find out how he might have gotten it. Presumably it had something to do with hot sauce…hopefully for eating it. She watched him for a moment to see if the splutter was a solo…sometimes they came in pairs…and when she was satisfied that there wasn’t another coming she turned her attention to the beveled window known as “viewpoint six”.
The motion wasn’t terribly comfortable as she had to twist her neck somewhat to look over her right shoulder, but it was the only one of the six openings that provided her with a view of the Earth which was, for all intents and purposes, in their rearview mirror. The windows were actually three different frames of aluminum silicate infused glass, with the center pane adjusting for the dramatic difference in pressure between the vacuum of space and what they needed to survive the trip, so the view they provided wasn’t crystal-clear. That being said, it was still a breathtaking sight to behold.
Almost as if mother nature had coordinated for her benefit alone, the cloud-cover was practically non-existent. Even at the distance they had already traveled, the outline of the North and South American land masses were clearly discernable in the sunlight bathed side of the Earth, brown and green against the brilliant blues and aqua-marine of the oceans. They had, of course, traveled too far to make out any of the footprints of mankind: cities, monuments and the like…or so she thought. A flash of blinding light from somewhere on the US east coast flared out as bright as the sun leaving spots on the back of her eyelids when she reflexively squeezed them shut.
Her first thought was that it had to be weather related but logic quickly dictated that that couldn’t be the case. It was way too bright to have been anything like lightening, which shouldn’t be observable from space anyway. Could it have been a reflection of the sun’s light? A basic understanding of geometrics and the sun’s current location made that highly improbable. Laura’s mind was running through the logical possibilities…to the point of even considering breaking Dimitri’s slumber early for his opinion, when the communication channel designated “Tango” began flashing on the digital dashboard. It was accompanied by its own unique beep and the moment it went off, Dimitri woke up anyway, constantly tuned-in. It was an alarm they weren’t used to and probably shouldn’t be hearing.
There was there main line of communications, “Alpha”, which was the direct contact with their Mission Control at NASA in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The had regularly planned interactions but it wasn’t completely uncommon for either side to relay messages outside of the scheduled check-ins. “Beta” was a back-up com-channel which also linked to Mission Control in the unlikely scenario that the main line became compromised. Once you got past the first two channels, you had a dozen more which were direct lines to the various space agencies’ Mission Controls around the planet. Tango was so far down the list of probable contact that Laura had actually forgotten whom it connected to, having not used it since the early days of training. Not surprisingly, Dimitri knew immediately as he switched off the alarm and connected to the European Space Agency’s Mission Control in Darmstadt, Germany.
“This is Daedalus,” Dimitri began, his English thick with a Russian accent. Pulling up the confirmation codes needed for an unscheduled transmission from his console screen he continued, “Confirmation: Echo…Rainbow…straw-hat…seven…four…razorblade…”
“Daedalus there’s a problem.” The unidentified person on the other end cut him off, seemingly unconcerned about national security since Dimitri still had four more verification words left to read. “We’re getting reports…Oh God…I don’t even know how to…” The man’s voice seemed strained and disconnected at the same time, tones they weren’t used to hearing from their Earthly contacts, who were trained to maintain calming dispositions when dealing with their counterparts in space. The capsule-mates shared a bewildered look before Dimitri tried again.
“ESA…why are you guys contacting us?” His best guess was that they had some atmospheric questions or numbers for Daedalus to run for the unmanned supply launch that should be taking place within the hour. Perhaps an update on the launch itself. “Was there something we can help you guys with?” There was an extended silence, which was also unusual.
Finally, “Daedalus…when did you last report to NASA Mission Control? How long has it been?” It was Laura who replied.
“Approximately forty minutes ago. Due for next communique at oh-nine-hundred hours.” The ESA rep left them with an extended silence yet again and this time it was long enough for Dimitri to say, “screw this” and pull up the Alpha channel as well.
“Mission Control, this is Daedalus, do you read?” There was no reply and after a few minutes he tried again. “Mission Control…this is Daedalus…do you read?”
“You’re not getting anything, are you?” asked the ESA line who had been listening the entire time.
“What the hell’s going one ESA?” Julia blurted. They were both getting a little irritated with the situation. The astronauts could hear the man sigh and then begin talking to someone else that wasn’t them. It was mostly muffled but small bits of phrases would make their way through unscathed, like “have to tell”, “what if it’s true”, and “better off than we are” before finally speaking in a voice clear enough that it was obvious he was speaking to them again.
“Dimitri…Laura…this is coming strictly outside of the chain of command and…” Again the line went quiet and the informal nature of the way they were being addressed was, alone, enough to find quite disconcerting. They both had codenames that were to be used during transit. Once aboard the OSS, NASA or anyone else that wanted to make contact would be fine in calling them by their birth-names. It was protocol, however, that during the actual flights he would be referred to as “Handlebar” and she was “Teacup”. It was highly unusual to hear her real name coming from the tiny speakers in her flight suit when she had been hearing “Teacup” since day one of the mission’s training period and it make her squirm uncomfortably, strapped into her seat.
“What the hell is going on there, ESA?” Dimitri blurted out, seeming to recognize the difference between intentional silence and signal tangibility, which Laura was suspecting. The voice with German inflections finally replied but not before they could both hear a blood-curdling cry coming from somewhere else behind him. It was enough to send shivers down both their spines as they looked at each other, searching one another’s face for any sign of understanding; each hoping the other might have figured out what was happening.
“I’m sorry guys…things are going to hell right now. This is Dolph…Dolph Weiner.” They had both worked closely with the man in the past and it was somewhat surprising that neither of them had recognized his voice but, thick with panic, it was undeniably different now. Dolph, much like Dimitri, was very well respected for his experience and tenure in the space and aeronautics fields. Cutting his teeth at NASA, straight out of MIT, he bounced between government sectors and private corporations like Northrup Grumman and Boeing before finally ending up with the ESA as its Mission Control director for the sunset years of his distinguished career. For someone of his caliber to be the one establishing contact was just…wrong.
“I don’t want to be the one telling you this…but…somebody has to. Things have gone to shit down here. It’s…it’s war. The big one. I think NASA is gone.” Dimitri struggled to grasp what Dolph was trying to tell them but Laura immediately thought of the flash and knew.
“Gone?” Dimitri’s voice was confused. “What do you mean ‘gone’?”
“Nukes…Dimitri. The bastards are all using…” The signal went dead, its light extinguishing as well to signify that the man hadn’t just stopped mid-sentence. Laura twisted her head back to viewport six and released a horrible scream that echoed off the capsules walls long after it had ended in a tormented moan. It had only been a split-second. In that miniscule moment of time that her eyes were open and facing the glass they were bombarded with a series of simultaneous flashes so bright it seemed as though the Earth had, in fact, become the son itself.
The scream was one of physical agony and not at all pertaining to the emotional anguish which was far from setting in, even though her brain had realized what was happening. The thoughts of her husband and child being burned away to a pile of nuclear ash or even worse…living through the blasts…hadn’t set in yet. The shock of being so suddenly and completely…blinded kept everything else at bay.
With quicker thinking that Laura displayed, Dimitri activated the solar shields which blocked, very nearly, all outside light with the type of tint one could watch a solar eclipse through and unlatched himself from his seat to set about doing whatever he could to treat her eyes. Although neither of them were doctors, it wasn’t as if they were without medical training all together. Just about every person that went into space, especially those expecting extended stays, were required to learn just about everything first year med-students were taught.
Laura’s entire body vibrated with involuntary shaking, a physical reaction to the trauma of having her eyes open and not seeing anything but the assortment of flashing spots, over and over again. At the periphery there seemed to be some acuity but if she shifted her gaze to any area she thought she might have taken in a small bit of Dimitri’s movements, it was filled with the disruptive optical echo. In the thousands of times she had been required to spend extended time in the tiny, cramped spaces that being an astronaut required, she had never once experienced any claustrophobia and now, without warning, Laura was overwhelmed with the sensation of being trapped…in her own body.
Struggling for breath, she was vaguely aware of her co-pilot’s voice doing the best it could to calm her histrionics, but it was distant and foreign; the visual barrier somehow reaching into her mind to affect her cognitive abilities. It took several long minutes and his placing a medicated bandage over her eyes for his words to slowly sift into any recognizable form of communication.
“…solar retinopathy…know it’s terrifying…not permanent.” He placed one large palm on her forehead with his fingers drifting into her hairline and something about the warmth and pressure of it eased the hyperventilation and calmed the tremors from her body, much as Dimitri had intended it to. It brought back warm and comforting memories of her father who used to do the same thing when she was a small child. She wondered if there was any way the Russian could have known that once her mind returned to the summit of being able to process thoughts once again.
“Once we get aboard Olympus we’ll be able to treat it better and you could be seeing fine in just a few weeks.” Laura nodded her head to convey that she not only heard the statement but also that she was back in the realm of clinical response and Dimitri seemed to understand its meaning. “Good,” he continued; “okay…listen, I need you to keep your eyes closed for now and do your best to stay calm.” He sighed in a way she didn’t think she’d ever heard before, before finally asking; “Does it hurt?” She nodded. The two small bonfires beneath her eyelids kept her from little more than a responsive state while the shock momentarily held the rest of reality at bay.
She could hear him rummaging through something, airtight foil being removed, while she concentrated on the burning and flashing lights that inundated her optical nerves beneath closed and covered eyes. In a moment his voice had returned to her side.
“I’m going to give you a fentanyl dose.” She nodded again and when he gently slid the plastic tip of the nasal applicator for the synthetic opioid into her right nostril he said, “On three. One…two…three” Dimitri squeezed the bottle as Laura inhaled deeply and the medication began to do its thing almost immediately. Within thirty seconds she was granted relief with the sweet embrace of darkness offered by unconsciousness. Shortly after that she found herself in the loving arms of Mike with Kevin desperately trying to squirm his way from between them.
The three of them were in the double-king, canopied bed that Mike had insisted they spend way too much money on, wrestling and tickling each other and reveling in the unabashed and unrestrained joy of being a family in love and of being all together, which was a truly rare thing. Kevin would pretend to try to get away but only so much as to re-position himself at an angle to get at her weak-spot: between the ribs, just below the armpits. The child was getting stronger every year but with Mike’s assistance they were able to keep him between them and smothered with kisses. It was a moment that they would have all been happy to have last forever. It didn’t.
In unison, Mike and Kevin quit laughing and sat upright in the bed, smiles completely erased. Her husband and child each turned to face her and the expressions of fear etched upon their faces was enough for her to bolt upright as well. Perhaps it was a reaction to Kevin taking her hand or Mike’s saying, “I love you both so much”, but the fear they seemed to be feeling gripped her by the throat as well. Suddenly terrified by the certain knowledge that some impending doom was imminent, all she had time to do was shed a single tear when the bay window flooded the room with blinding and oppressive light. It consumed them and the smell of burning hair filled her nostrils before the wall of fire came through to wash them away.
It was a momentary relief when the psychological sledgehammer of a dream jerked her back to a waking state, but the moment was short-lived. Discovering, yet again, that she had been blinded…hopefully temporarily…the reality of her situation setting back in was just as horrific as the dream had been. She could hear Dimitri…and he was speaking to someone.
“I’m telling you there’s nothing.” It was Rukia Kanagi’s voice. Dimitri was communicating with the OSS. “We’ve scanned the entire planet, Sir. There are no signals of any type. We’ve gone over every known man-made frequency in the database. I think…Oh Dear Lord, I don’t even want to say it out loud.” Rukia was a communications expert, among other things, and she wasn’t exactly known for her emotional outbursts.
“It’s okay Kanagi,” Dimitri offered, using a voice with the same calming qualities he used on Laura; “you don’t have to say it.” There were a few minutes of silence and Laura wondered if she should let them know that she was awake when Rukia’s voice filtered through the speakers in her flight-suit again.
“Sir…given everything that’s just happened, I’m…uncertain…about bringing this up…but,” her voice became conspiratorially low; “I think there might be another problem that you need to know about.”
“Go ahead Kanagi,” he pressed.
“Well,” still at a whisper; “it’s been nothing more than talk at this point but…well…I thought you should know. It’s Alex and Nick…geez, I can’t believe I’m even having to say this but…they’ve been trying to convince the Commander that we shouldn’t let the Daedalus dock with Olympus.”
“What the fuck are you talking about Kanagi?” Laura cringed involuntarily; she had never heard Dimitri cuss before. She could only imagine what Rukia’s reaction was. It took a moment for her to respond.
“Sir…I can’t stress enough that they’re simply suggesting it as a hypothetical. I know these people and I can’t imagine that they’d really do it. It’s just…well, right now the food supplies are somewhat low. Even with reduced rations, there’s really only enough for four people to survive for a few months. Everything that we needed to keep a continued supply of food was supposed to be on the Ariane-six…all the seeds for crops and enough MRE’s to last three hundred people a decade were on that supply ship and…well…we’ve not been able to verify if it got off the ground before the shit hit the fan. Until it clears the Van Allen belts we’re not going to be able to lock into its signal and that won’t be for another six hours…assuming it’s even out there.”
Rukia went quiet again and Dimitri considered her words before asking, “So what you’re saying, Kanagi, is that if the Ariane never made lift-off then they’re not going to let the Daedalus board the station?”
“I’m so…sorry Sir.” Dimitri could tell the young Japanese-American astronaut was sickened by her own words. “According to Nick, the current supplies would last six people no more than a couple weeks. I don’t know what to say Sir except…I will die before I let that happen; you have my word. I have to go before they discover that I’ve contacted you. Maintain your course and the second I can, I’ll give you an update. God speed Sir.”
“Kanagi.” Dimitri caught her before she cut the transmission.
“Kanagi…Rukia…your father would have been proud of you.” Laura could hear the other woman’s breath hitch quietly, just short of an actual sob. It was a noise she often made herself when she needed to keep her composure in a haze of emotion. Although it was customary for commanding officers to refer to their crew by their secondary names, Dimitri had been doing it his entire career. It was a rare treat to hear your first name coming from his lips.
“Thank you, Sir.” Olympus cut the connection and, after a moment of quiet, Dimitri turned his attention to his bandaged co-pilot.
“You had nothing to add to the conversation, Hillman?” She smiled despite the grave situation; the man never ceased to amaze her.
“How did you know I was awake?” Her voice was dry and cracked and, before she could ask for water, he had positioned the flight-suits drinking tube into her mouth. The water tasted fine even though she couldn’t help but to think about the fact that a portion of it was her own reconstituted urine, much as she did every time she drank. The flight suits were equipped with ten gallons of water and an advanced filtration system for the astronaut’s urine which would stretch the ten gallons into the fifty or sixty that they would need to stay hydrated on the trip to Olympus.
“Your breathing,” he answered her question as she drank.
“Is it true?” she asked after finally satiating her thirst. “Is it all…gone?”
Dimitri shook his head despite her inability to see it. “I don’t know. I think…I think it would be unwise for either of us to make any assumptions.”
“But you tried all the channels?”
“While you slept…yea. I’ve scanned every frequency this little Orion capsule is capable of. That being said, we can’t afford to lose ourselves in hypothetic conjecture. Dwelling on what happened down there isn’t going to help us any up here. All we need to concentrate on is getting to the OSS.” She was incapable of taking that advice, however, and her brain vomited up the thought it had been tip-toeing around for as long as it could.
“Oh God…Mike…Kevin” She felt the already weak grasp on her sanity slipping away as the notion of a ‘rest of her life’ without her husband and child tried to take hold. Dimitri grabbed her shoulders and gently shook her, hoping to bring her attention back to the here and now.
“NO!” He screamed into her face. “You cannot do that right now.” His voice was compassionate but forceful just the same. “For one…you can’t cry if you want your eyes to heal. There’s no way around that. If something did happen to your family, then there will be time to mourn them later…on Olympus. Right now…I’m giving you a direct command: you are not to think about the conditions on Earth while you are aboard Daedalus. Do you understand?”
Technically he wasn’t her commanding officer until they were aboard the OSS and he had relieved Commander Milner of the position, but…she knew what he was doing, and more importantly, he was right. Nodding again, she did her best to wipe the anguished look from her face. The new one wasn’t a whole lot better but Dimitri could see the determination Laura was trying to convey. He could trust that she was, once again, a competent co-pilot and wouldn’t be slipping back into hysterics of any type…not yet, anyway. Although it took several long seconds, she somehow managed to compartmentalize the pain into a spot where it could be relatively ignored for the time being. It was an ability that she wasn’t aware she had and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
“Yes Sir,” she finally managed and then, after a few more seconds; “What about the Ariane-six?”
“What about it?” She wasn’t exactly sure what she was asking either.
“I don’t know…is there any way that we can track her? We’re a lot closer to it than Olympus.” Dimitri shook his head ‘no’ before yet again realizing that her condition made it moot to do so.
“Not without knowing her flight-plan. She’s unmanned so there’s nothing more than a beacon and without Mission Control to give us coordinates…well…the answer’s ‘no’. Olympus will find her before we ever could. All we can do now is continue on with our flight-plan.” Without her eyes, Laura found herself concentrating on the timbre and cadence of his voice more than she ever had before and there were no cracks. Still calm, still in control and still working the problem with a thorough logic that she couldn’t hope to achieve, given the circumstances. Laura knew her life was in his hands and…she was grateful.
“Do you really think they’ll exile the Daedalus?” It seemed unimaginable…but then again…so did this entire situation.
“No. No I do not.” She could hear the certainty in his voice.
“How…how can you be so sure?”
“Because I know Kanagi and Commander Milner won’t let that happen. Wang and Geary had a knee-jerk reaction. Panic and fear makes some men revert to base instincts, but…they will come to their senses. It’s been my experience that those who make it to space generally have a strong reverence for life.”
“Okay…I believe you,” …and she did. They sat in silence for thirty minutes before Dimitri broke out their meal-injections. Being that a toilet was one of the amenities the Daedalus lacked, solid food consumption was out of the question. A pre-launch colon-cleanse combined with the injections that contained all the vitamins, proteins and nutrients their bodies required made the process possible. Which wasn’t to say that it was pleasant in the least. Several days of tapering off the injections and slowly re-introducing food to the system was required afterwards and it could be several weeks before your stomach was ready for a spicy burrito again.
Fortunately, they were privy to the most advanced supplies available and their nutrient-shots came in MIT-engineered devices which injected their “food” without needles, delivering a high-velocity jet of liquid that breached the skin at the speed of sound. They included appetite suppressants as well which kept the tummy from rumbling its disapproval at the unnatural attempt to sustain its needs.
“Everything a growing cosmonaut needs to become big and strong,” Dimitri said as he depressed the injection into his neck. It was the same thing he said every time they “ate”. His consistency was doubly reassuring in that moment and for the umpteenth time she thought, thank God for Dimitri. Although he offered, Laura was able to handle her own injection. Ironically, it was just the day before that she told him she could have done it “blindfolded” and now it was time to put up or shut up.
Dimitri did the honors of cleaning the dishes and informed her that it was time for her to sleep. Without her vision to provide a framework of her surroundings, she was losing all sense of time; after the last, drug-induced, chainsaw of a dream she was in no hurry to return and put up a bit of a fight as well. After all, he hadn’t slept since she had…and they both needed him to be as his best…or at least better than he would be if sleep deprivation took hold. Her arguments held no sway, however, and he pulled premature rank on his capsule-mate once again.
Finally, she agreed…she was tired…but she declined Dimitri’s offer of more fentanyl. Her eyes weren’t burning nearly as badly now and, frankly, she couldn’t take another dream like the last one. Before attempting to sleep, Laura did something she hadn’t done since she was a small child: she prayed. It was the first time the adult version of her had done so without feeling like a hypocrite and it was a short, simple request. There were a great many things that probably should have been prayed for more…she knew that…but she only asked for a moment of peace, an opportunity to sleep safe from the torment of pain. Her prayer was answered.
Falling asleep quicker than she had thought possible, her mind remained mercifully blank. The burning thoughts she had been holding at bat, the ones that wanted to rip away at her soul, were enveloped and replaced by the soothing balm of utter blackness. It was impossible to say how long she was cradled by the nothingness, but when Dimitri put his hand on her shoulder to wake it her felt like only a few minutes. When he told her it had been six hours…it was a shock and, had it been anyone else, she wouldn’t have believed him. He said that he would’ve let her sleep longer had they not been anticipating an update from Olympus on Ariane-six’s status. That and he wanted to change the dressing on her eyes.
They were mid-way through the process of removing the bandage and cleaning her eyes for the new one when Olympus’s signal went off. Multi-tasking, Dimitri switched on the com and addressed the OSS while finishing the task.
“Go ahead Olympus,” he stayed somewhat official, unsure if he’d be speaking Rukia again or not.
“Oh God Sir.” It was Rukia. She sounded unusually frantic. “They’ve…Oh God…I can’t believe…”
“Kanagi!” Dimitri barked with authority pulling the Olympus communications officer back from the edge of panic.
“Right. I’m sorry Sir.” Her voice returned to it normally stoic tone. “It’s mutiny Sir. Wang and Geary have cordoned the Commander to the brig because she refused to side with them regarding the Daedalus.”
“You mean us?” Julia asked.
“Yea Rukia, it’s me.”
“Oh Julia…I’m so sorry. Commander Kapirski told me about your eyes. Don’t worry…we’ll get you fixed up.” It had been a number of years since the women had seen each other but they had always considered each other ‘friends’.
“How are we going to do that if we can’t come aboard, Rukia?” Silence took a full half-minute from them before Dimitri took control again.
“Kanagi, what is your standing with Geary and Wang?”
“Um…It’s not great Sir.” Dimitri chuckled seemingly getting the answer he was expecting. “The sons-of-bitches know I’m not going along with them either, however, it would seem I know Olympus’s electrical grid a little better than they do. I’ve managed to lock myself down in E-wing and until the morons figure out how to manually override the door controls, I should be okay. I’ve re-routed communications and most of the central systems so that I can control them from here.” Dimitri was impressed. For that matter…so was Julia. She had always thought of Rukia Kanagi as a competent scientist and advanced electrical-engineer who, most likely, had a kind heart…but this fierce loyalty and bravery was really showing her something. In the wake of extreme tragedy, people’s true colors were bleeding through the facades they liked to present and Rukia’s were downright…admirable.
“You’re a smart girl, Kanagi,” Dimitri offered what they were both thinking.
“Well Sir…I don’t know about that. I may have control of the OSS right now but the one thing I have absolutely none of…is food. I’ve got maybe four days tops before I’ll have to turn the station back over or risk dying and having the whole place go down as a result.”
“Kanagi, can you control the docking ports from your positon?” Laura broke in and Dimitri, knowing where she was going, nodded in agreement. It was the only way any of them could go without resolving themselves to disagreeable deaths.
“That was the entire reason why I stole control of Olympus, Laura. At your current trajectory, you should be here in fifty-six hours…I’ll make it that long. That’s not the only problem though. Even if I get you hooked up to the station that doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to keep Geary and Wang from greeting you at the door as you come in.”
“You don’t need to worry about that Kanagi,” Dimitri’s iron tone put it to rest. “All I want you to do is to keep yourself safe until we can get there to help you. Do you understand?”
“Yes Sir…Commander Sir. I will not let you down.”
“I know that Kanagi. You never have.” After a short moment of reflection as they all instinctively wondered if this communique were between the last friends any of them would have again, Dimitri asked; “Do I take this to mean that there’s been nothing from the Ariane-six?”
“No Sir,” Rukia lamented, and, after a moment; “But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Without any communications with Earth…well, we just don’t know. I tried to explain that to Alex…I mean ‘Wang’…but with Geary breathing down his neck, he just wouldn’t listen. There are a million different things that could have changed about the launch-time or flight-plan that would affect our ability to locate it. There’s no way to know for absolute sure that she’s not coming until the damn thing’s only twelve hours away or closer. So it will be…what…like two and a half days before I can narrow the search enough to say, definitively, one way or another.”
“Rukia?” Julia piped.
“Do Alex and Nick know that you’ve been in contact with the Daedalus?”
“Not yet…no. Wang isn’t the complete idiot Geary is however. It won’t be long before he figures out how to, at least, monitor the com. I’ll know if that happens though so…oh shit.” Rukia cut the communication completely and Laura’s first reaction was to re-establish the channel. Dimitri said “no” however and, being blind, there was little she could do about it.
“What the hell?” Laura demanded, serving the dual purpose of questioning both Rukia’s abrupt exit as well as Dimitri’s refusal to find out why. A full minute passed without an answer when she reiterated the question. This time it earned her a “Shhh”, like she was a child to be shushed. In any other situation she might have taken offense but in this instance: it worked. After a few more minutes of silence, Dimitri said; “It’s Morse code.”
“Kanagi…she’s using the channel’s connection light to communicate in Morse code. I thought maybe it was broken but…okay, wait…here’s the beginning: L, I, S, T, E, N, I, N, G, D, O, C, K, B, A, Y, S, I, X. She wants us to dock in Bay Six.” Dimitri clicked the channel off and on to acknowledge the received message. Shortly after that, the channel opened again.
“Daedalus this is Olympus, do you copy?” It was Rukia again, formal this time. “Daedalus, I have your docking information.” She was obviously attempting the lay the trail of crumbs for Geary and Wang.
“Roger Olympus, this is Daedalus. We copy.” Laura replied since she was technically the com-officer in the capsule.
“Roger that Daedalus. We’ve got you docking in bay twenty-five. Do you copy…bay twenty-five?” There were only 25 docking bays so she was giving them as much distance as she could without making it obvious by putting them in the first few bays. Rukia really was a smart girl.
“Copy that Olympus. Bay twenty-five. Over and out.” Dimitri flipped off the signal and sighed. The next two days were going to be that much longer if they’d be unable to speak to Rukia anymore…unfettered, at least. What had started out as an expedition based in science and the advancement of the species had turned into a Darwinian nightmare where, hopefully, it wouldn’t be ‘survival of the fittest’ but rather ‘survival of the smartest’. With the advantage of knowing what it was they would be walking into, they had approximately two days to formulate a way of making sure they ended up on top. It was Dimitri’s contention that there was a significant difference between what the two men would do if they actually made it aboard the Olympus. There was more than a fine line between leaving them to their own devices by denying the Daedalus and committing cold-blooded murder in person and he seemed fairly certain that the Olympus astronauts were incapable of such an act. She wanted to believe him.
For Laura, the next two days passed like two months. She had never realized how acutely integrated her sight was with her sense of time. Her inability to monitor the clock and the distance travelled seemed to mess with her sanity more than anything and it required Dimitri’s having to talk her back from the edge more than once. Every five hours they changed her bandage and Dimitri cut his sleep times down to ninety minute intervals. Those hours and a half segments were the worst, teetering on the edge of her seat while he slept and straining her ears for any one of the one-hundred and three different noises the Daedalus might make to let them know if there were an issue or if the course needed adjustment. Those short periods felt like days unto themselves and she was grateful for those rare moments when he would release one of his sleep-snorts. Rather than surprise her like they normally did, they felt like Dimitri’s way of saying, “you’re okay” while he slept and brought her back from the sensation that she was all alone and floating aimlessly through space.
When they were within twelve hours, it would have been procedure for the OSS to make contact with the Daedalus every forty-five minutes but Olympus made no more contact. Rukia, knowing that the gig was up, no longer attempted the routine B.S. and concentrated solely on her survival and keeping tabs on Astronauts Wang and Geary through the OSS security cameras. At least that’s the message she conveyed in her last Morse code transmission around the twenty-hour mark. When they were a mere four hours away and riddled with adrenaline-fueled anticipation, they did receive a transmission from Rukia. It was short…and it gave them no time to respond before the connection cut again.
“Commander…Julia…they’re coming through the door. I can’t hold them back any longer. Automated docking routine Epsilon-Epsilon-Seven-Nine-Tango. God speed.” Dimitri did try to re-establish contact this time but there was no raising the station. Rukia had done everything she could to give them a fighting chance of getting aboard the station. The Daedalus was at a decided disadvantage, no doubt. Without someone to make the tiny rotational adjustments to the OSS that are usually needed…not to mention Laura’s inability to monitor the capsules gyroscopic readings…well, Dimitri would have his hands full.
What he did have, however, was the exact pitch and roll the station would be in along with the remarkable gift of being able to fly any vehicle designed for zero-gravity with the precision of a machine. From time to time, including his current approach, he was known to say “Han Solo eat your heart out”, but the Daedalus wasn’t exactly the Millennium Falcon and Laura wasn’t sure she wanted to be thought of as Chewbacca. She did her best, throaty “ggrrrrlllhh” impression of the Wookie regardless and Dimitri unleashed his first authentic laugh since they had left Earth. There wasn’t much to it but it was a moment they both needed; the tension palpable and suffocating.
Olympus was enormous. It was the first trip for either of them and it could be seen by eye at nearly five hundred miles. The closer they got the more Dimitri marveled at its size and struggled to verbally describe it to Laura. Even though he knew specs by heart, it was so much larger in person than he had imagined. At five hundred yards it was like navigating the capsule above a large city; a city which was rotating at fifty miles per hour. Bouncing between his manual controls and Laura’s gyro readings, Dimitri was a one-man dynamo. Navigating the Daedalus like it was an extension of his own body, he somehow made the piece of unwieldy metal and its twenty-four opposing jets control like a sleek, flying sports-car. Even without her eyes, Laura was impressed.
Dimitri had to circle the OSS twice in order to bring the Daedalus into alignment with Docking Bay Six and then rotated and additional four more times with the station before making sure the capsule was locked into the magnetic hold with an airtight seal. Once the green light for the first stage of decompression came on they knew they needed to move quickly. Bay Twenty-five was at the far end of the station but if Wang and Geary had regained control of the surveillance system then they probably already knew that they had been fooled…if they had been fooled at all.
Dimitri stood and handed Laura the one of the only two weapons they would be armed with: their doctored nutrient shots. The usual sustenance they contained, however, had been removed to make room for their homemade roofie-cocktails…or, at least, the closest facsimile they could create without actually having any Rohypnol on hand. Instead, each injector was repurposed with the entire supply of fentanyl, promethazine and diphenhydramine they had on hand. In theory, it was both a non-lethal and quick acting solution to possible aggression which should put a man three times the size of Dimitri down for the count. It was hard to say how long they would be unconscious, but all they really had to do was to get the men behind bars. They could decide what to do with them later.
Laura stood behind him, keeping her hand on the shoulder of Dimitri’s flight-suit as they made their way through the capsule’s door and into the short decompression tunnel which led into the larger world of Olympus. Unlike Dimitri, who seemed solid as a rock, her legs were weak and shaky from sitting in zero gravity for so long as well as being unable to see her foot-falls now that gravity had returned.
They shared a moment of legitimate concern while waiting for the tunnel to decompress once the capsule was sealed off. It remained unspoken, but they both knew that if Rukia had lost the station’s controls to Nick and Alex, this would have been their ideal opportunity to see to it that they didn’t make it aboard. If they had really regressed to the primitive point of being cold-blooded killers then now was the time to get it done without dealing with the actual blood, cold or otherwise. Two and a half, very long minutes later they were able to breathe a combined sigh of relief as the door to Olympus slid open. Rukia came through for them.
Bay Six was large, to say the least. Not designed for receiving personnel, it was crammed with robotic, assembly-line loaders and unloaders as well as a lot of empty space. It made sense for Rukia to have them come in this way if they were trying to be discreet, but it wasn’t the easiest route to navigate with a blind woman in tow. Not to mention that they had really been hoping to see the lockers they would have found in the docks made for receiving crew. They were both anxious to get out of their flight-suits which, no longer free of gravity, had become quite cumbersome. Taking longer than he’d hoped but quicker than he’d expected, Laura and Dimitri found themselves before the enormous set of electric sliding doors that let into an equally large hallway which would, in turn, open up into one the station’s main arteries.
They kept a steady pace towards the doorway until the motion sensor slid the barrier aside when Dimitri came to an abrupt, unanticipated stop which sent Julia smacking into his back. His body felt rigid.
“What is it?” Julia whispered from behind him.
“Two men…waiting. Them…I guess.” Dimitri did not lower his voice which seemed to imply that they had been made. “Be ready.” She knew exactly what he meant and clutched the tranquilizer in her hand, ready to depress the button at a breath’s notice. The stood quietly for several long seconds before he spoke again, this time much quieter than before. “They’re not doing anything…just sitting there on the floor next to the door.”
“Do they see us?”
“I thought so…but…maybe not.”
Laura wasn’t sure what to do with that and; “Is there another way around them?” was the best she could offer. She was, more than any point before, infuriated with her inability to contribute more to the situation. Hell…she would’ve been happy just not being a detriment, keenly aware that Dimitri would take responsibility for not just his own safety…but hers as well. If something were to happen to him because he was trying to save her…well…it was another one of those thoughts that needed to be packed away somewhere in the deep, dark corner it would share with Mike and Kevin.
“No…it’s the only way through. One is moving…I think he may see…” Dimitri went quiet and then Laura could hear another man’s voice, coming from not too far ahead.
“No…no fucking way. Who the hell are you?” There was genuine shock in the man’s voice…or perhaps insanity and the next few moments came in a rapid flurry of frenzied activity. She could hear the man scramble to his feet and run headlong towards them while screaming; “I don’t believe it! You’re not real!” There was a thud from all three of them when he made contact, sending Laura to the floor while Dimitri seemed to be wrestling with his attacker. “You’re real! You’re real! You’re fucking real!” the crazy man cried over and over as Dimitri struggled to subdue him. There was no way she could tell but from the Russian’s grunts, but he may have been losing.
Laura struggled to get back to her feet and still keep a firm grip on the injector when she heard the other man call out from the end of the hall.
“It’s open Alex! You have to come NOW!” She did her best to try and target the second man so that they wouldn’t be able to double-team Dimitri and was going to put herself between them as best she could when the struggling astronauts made contact with her once again, sending all three of them to the floor this time. Somehow she found herself atop the sweating, panting mad-man and, with a deftness she hadn’t imagined possible with her blindness, she plunged the tranquilizer into his neck. Almost instantly he ceased moving and his breathing became calm and even. It had worked.
“Dimitri?” she whispered and from beneath her, he replied.
“Wrong guy,” was all he managed to gasp and she suddenly realized that she was feeling the cosmonaut’s flight-suit on her palms. Dammit straight to hell…she had injected Dimitri. She was trying to help…wanted to help…but it had all been so disorientating. She could only hope that he wouldn’t blame her later; assuming there was a ‘later’. There was no time for guilt in that moment, however, as her mind calculated the math equation of what two crazy guys plus one her would equal. Laura climbed over his sleeping form as gently as she could, only to fall over once again on yet another unconscious body. Dimitri had apparently gotten his shot in after all and crazy guy number one was out cold as well. While that was a good thing, she supposed, it made her feel twice as bad about drugging the man that had been keeping her alive. If she had only left well enough alone, he would have been fine and they would still have another shot for the second psycho.
Once she finally found her feet, which was no easy task, Laura had absolutely no sense of her bearings. She might as well have been back in space for the ocean of darkness she was swimming in, no idea what direction her assailant would come from. Every nerve tight, every hair standing on end, she battled to keep her breathing slow and steady if for no other reason than not to overpower the ability to hear her immediate environment. Locating the remaining aggressor by sound was already hard enough with her heartbeat pounding in her ears like a jackhammer; she didn’t need to add hyperventilation to her growing list of impairments. Her muscles screaming in agony beneath the weight of the flight-suit; they could barely maintain the unrelenting tension they were being kept in.
Despite what she thought to be a heightened sense of awareness, when he grabbed her shoulders from behind it caught her completely off-guard and she screamed like eight-year-old Laura screamed when Freddy Kruger jumped on screen for the first time. It was a cry of pure, unabashed horror and the fear only got worse as he began to drag her down the hall. The most terrifying thing of all was that, no matter how strong an effort she wanted to put into fighting him, she was no match for his strength. Being out of zero-g for less than an hour and given everything she had already endured in that short time, her body was in no condition to challenge him.
The man said nothing as he drug her, slightly squirming, body and it seemed that he had gone a considerable distance. They had obviously made it into Olympus’s main hull but she had no idea where he was taking her. After several nightmarish minutes of feeling like a fly being pulled away by a spider, he seemingly found a place to his liking and, after hearing a door slide shut behind them, Laura found herself being lowered into a seat. The man left her there and she could hear him rummaging through things on the far end of the room. She considered making a run for it but the futility of the act which was likely be more comical than successful kept her in her place. Before too long his heavy breathing was back her side and he had returned with a metal tray of clanking items…weapons? With fear and exhaustion playing ‘tag’ with her psyche, a quick snippet of her wedding vows shot through her mind like oddly-timed lightening and Laura knew it was time to “speak now or forever hold her peace”.
“What…” her voice was dry and cracked, the little saliva she had a thick paste. “What are you going to do to me?” There was no part of her that wanted to know the answer. The question was really just a last-ditch attempt at conversation and the highly-unlikely scenario that she could talk her way out of not dying…or, at least, not being tortured before she did. The man was quiet for a moment and Laura hoped he was reconsidering whatever perverse avenues he had planned to go down. Finally, he gave a long, guttural sigh, sounding nearly as tired as she was, and spoke.
“I’m going to try to save your life…and mine while we’re at it.” The man’s voice was deep, with a hair of British inflection, reflecting his nearly thirty years removed from the English territories. “But for now, we’re going to start by having a look at your eyes and getting you out of that zoom-bag.” This was not what she was expecting and it put her off her second line of conversation completely which was to start begging for her life. “And since I answered your question,” he continued; “I appreciate it if you’d answer one of mine: exactly who the hell are you…and how the hell did you get here, Miss? I guess that’s two questions.”
Given that nothing else in the last four days had been remotely close to…normal…it didn’t really come as too much of a surprise to see the trend continue. She was confused, to be sure, but more than that…she was relieved. Not being tortured and killed in the depths of space, where they say screaming isn’t heard terribly well, put her mind at ease considerably.
“I’m Astronaut Laura Hillman…and I got here on the Daedalus with your new Commander, Dimitri Kapirski.”
After another moment of silent pondering her unseen companion blurted out; “psycho-bitch!” and Laura flinched instinctively. The man put his hand on her knee, perhaps to comfort her, and she nearly fell out of her seat trying to pull away, suddenly quite wary of her imminent safety again.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized several times over as sincerely as he could. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I realize you must think I was talking about you…I wasn’t.” He sighed. “Listen…I’m Nick Geary. You can call me ‘Nick’. I’m the medical officer on board the Olympus until the crew gets…” Nick trailed off, realizing his own mistake. “Well…I’m the medical officer. If you’ll let me, I’d like to take a look at your eyes and see if we can’t get you fixed up. After that we need to get you changed into some real clothes…and, as much as I hate to be a pain, we probably need to do these things at an expedient pace. I don’t think it’s wise for us to stay here too long.” Every time she thought she was beginning to grasp the situation…it just went right out the window. Her head was swimming in confusion.
“I don’t understand, Nick…we were told that…well, that you had taken control of the station and were denying access to the Daedalus. We thought you were there to…I don’t know…do something to us. We were only trying to defend ourselves.” Nick’s response was a dry chuckle that didn’t sound like real laughter.
“Well…we were told that the Daedalus never made lift-off from Earth before…you know.” The doctor reached for Laura’s bandage and this time she didn’t flinch or pull away. It was due more to her being captivated by his words than her no longer being afraid of him, however. It was hard to fully trust anyone when you couldn’t read their face.
After a brief inspection, the man who claimed to be the station’s doctor agreed with Dimitri’s earlier assessment of solar retinopathy as well as the cosmonaut’s confidence in its ability to be treated. This was very welcome news given the intensity of the distracting flashing that flooded her visual senses while the bandage was off, the intense light of the Central Medical Bay playing havoc with her optical nerves until Nick reapplied a new bandage, bringing back the merciful darkness.
Nick took a swab of the inside of her mouth for Laura’s DNA and fed the sample into one of the most expensive pieces of machinery on the entire OSS. It was a one-of-a-kind, bio-processor with a sixteen-digit number as its only ID, but which its makers had affectionately dubbed “Prometheus” for its ability to restore life to humanity and perhaps even achieve immortality. Prometheus, unimaginable for most of humanity’s tenure, was science fiction become science, creating synthetic stem-cells on a nanoscopic level which could combine with specific DNA or RNA to create cures for nearly every conceivable ailment from the common cold to cancer to fifth degree burns.
“We honestly thought we were the last people left…” Nick gently patted her head like she was made of fine China while they waited on the amazing machine and she could hear the reverence in his voice. “I’m really glad you made it here. I don’t know how you did it…but I’m really glad you did.” It took a remarkably short amount of time for Prometheus, with some specifically inputted instructions, to produce the solution which, once painlessly injected, would reduce Laura’s healing period from several months to a day or two.
Nick helped her get out of her flight-suit, clean up and change into better suited clothes and Laura, beyond the point of modesty, let him. It had nothing to do with her being blind or his being a doctor either. Given the circumstances…it just didn’t matter. They spoke as she changed and she kept getting the impression that she wasn’t moving nearly quickly enough. Nick’s increased cadence and high rising intonation gave every word a thinly veiled sense of urgency and, without seeing facial expressions, it was the only way she had to ‘read’ him.
He explained the Alex had not been trying to attack Dimitri at all, but had slipped into a state of mental delirium and wanted nothing more than to verify their reality with his own sense of touch. The situation escalated quickly between the two men and it was unfortunate for them all the way it turned out. Apparently the strain of the last few days had been too much for Olympus’s main engineer and he had snapped long before the Daedalus made port. It hadn’t helped any that the two men had been led to Bay Six by a false alarm touting blockage in a ventilation shaft, and then trapped there for the last two days without food, water and a toilet of any kind.
“You can bet your ass that there’s some blockage in that shaft now,” Nick joked and had she not been standing nearly naked it would have qualified as “T.M.I.” but instead it produced a real chuckle from both of them. Astronaut Geary was somewhat crude with the mouth of a sailor but she could tell by the time she had her clean, OSS jumpsuit on that she really like the man. He didn’t seem to have much of a filter between his mind and his mouth, not mincing his words in the least, but he seemed to be a straight-shooter which was part of what she loved about Dimitri so much…and Mike. Once she had her boots laced up he was insisting that they leave the Med Bay…that they were most likely being watched. Laura refused to budge this time without some answers first.
Where were they going? Why were they running? Who were they running from? On top of all of that, she was demanding that they go back and help Dimitri. Yea, they may have still been alive, but they couldn’t just leave him passed out on the metal docking platform…and Alex too, for that matter. Nick could see her determination and, by her best guess, was probably too exhausted himself to drag her any further. With the frustration plainly evident in his voice and a sigh after every other sentence, Nick did his best to explain what he could.
For starters, he didn’t know where they were going…just that they had to keep going or risk being trapped in whatever room they happened to be in. More than forty hours ago, he and Alex had contemplated trying to access they only real weapon aboard the OSS: a 9mm handgun locked in a safe in the Commander’s office but the only way in was with a numeric code only known by the acting Commander. The idea had been nothing more than a viscous tease to them but Laura made a mental note: Dimitri would know that code. It was another reason they needed to go back and get him…if not ‘sooner’ then definitely ‘later’. Nick paused and promised more answers if they could just start moving to a new location…any new location.
Laura reluctantly agreed and let him lead her, hand in hand, out of the Med Bay and towards the housing units. It was his contention that, being some of the only areas without cameras, if they could get into one of the apartments unseen, they could finally rest and formulate some sort of plan. He repeatedly stressed the need for stealth but she could only be so covert, shuffling along, at his side and slightly behind. Nick held her left hand while she traced the cool, metallic wall with her right. She tried to work through the conundrum in her head and to her, their antagonist couldn’t have been more obvious.
“Commander Milner,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. Without slowing his pace, Nick looked over his shoulder at her.
“What about her?” He shared her hushed tone and Laura found that she actually preferred it in her current state of blindness. There was something about the tone and volume of the words that came her way which affected her ability to process them properly. Having to rely solely on an auditory palate for the world to color itself from had created unique and surprising effects on the way her brain was re-wiring itself but this was hardly the time for a scientific analysis. For that reason alone, she hadn’t even begun to wonder why all the abstract hums, beeps, whirs and other background noise that made up the station seemed to drift through her mind as vibrant colors instead: a cacophonous kaleidoscope of Olympus’s soundtrack. It made her dizzy if she let herself focus on it.
“That’s who we’re running from…Commander Milner. I bet she went off the deep end…like Alex, except worse. She deceived all three of you and tricked you into doing exactly what she wanted you to. I mean…I haven’t got it all figured out yet but…it’s something like that, right?”
This did seem to halt Nick momentarily, and just as she was sure he was about to confirm her suspicions, he said; “Are you hungry?” Offbeat and random seemed to be the man’s forte and Laura’s mouth literally dropped open. In point of fact, however, she wasn’t. It would be another twelve hours at least before her body would be ready to start accepting solid foods again.
“I can’t eat…I just boarded. Didn’t you say you were the Medical Officer?” She was teasing with her jab. Under the current circumstances, anyone could be forgiven a large degree of ‘scatter-brain’.
“Of course,” he agreed; “however…I’m hungry.” As if one que his belly rumbled in confirmation. “I helped myself to a Nutrient Shot back in Med but we hadn’t eaten in a couple of days. I’m going to need a little something.” Laura had no great alternate plan to propose so she simply shrugged her shoulders as if to say, ‘whatever’ and allowed him to adjust their course accordingly. They shuffled along quietly together for some distance before Nick finally revealed what had been troubling his mind.
“Commander Milner…” His voice was soft and low and conveyed a somber seriousness; “made sure that everyone called her ‘Jill’. She was unlike anyone else you’d ever meet. She was a pioneer and in my personal and professional opinion, she could have been one of the greatest deep-space astronauts of all time. The Commander was something of a hero of mine…I would have given my life for hers without deliberation.” The anguished pain she heard at the edges of his sentences sounded like it might break into sobs at any moment and she totally understood when he needed the time to collect himself.
Within a few minutes they found themselves in “Kitchen C”, just outside of “Cafeteria 47” otherwise labeled “The Rainbow Room Bar & Grill”. Nick’s mouth had been watering for something significant but he knew he would have felt like a hypocrite if he had taken the time to fry a steak or whip up some bacon and eggs when he had pressed her so hard about their mobility when she was struggling to get out of the modified spacesuit. Instead he pocketed several of the NASA distributed granola-bars which were designed somewhere underground by DARPA and tore into one immediately. They didn’t taste bad with their genetically engineered oats, synthetic chocolate and hundreds of chemicals designed to improve production. By his recollection…the ones from Walmart were worse.
While slowly sipping her water, Julia stood and listened to him lip-smack his way through two of the questionable “health food” bars and she couldn’t help but to think about her Commander again.
“Everything a growing cosmonaut needs to become big and strong,” she said more to herself than anything. It did earn an “Hmm?” from Nick, however, whose mouth was too full to say anything else. “Oh…it’s just something Dimitri liked to…you know what, never mind.” Now was not the time for nostalgia. Once she felt certain that the ex-Brit’s mouth was empty enough to speak, she put a little more pressure on what she knew was an already sore spot. “So Nick…Commander Milner. You got so upset because of what she’s done…right? I mean…you would have laid down your life for her and now she’s trying to kill you? Believe me, the hellish irony isn’t lost on me…I can understand how painful that must be.”
Laura waited patiently for Nick to respond, hoping for some continuation of the story. There were still so many questions that needed answering. Not the least of which was: where the hell was Rukia in all of this? She had been wary to bring up the subject of her friend since the last time they’d heard from her she painted quite the picture of opposition between herself and Nick, in particular. As she waited, his unspoken seconds turned into minutes and the longer it stretched, the more uncomfortable she began to feel. She would have given anything to see his face. There was no way for her to know exactly how much time had passed before Nick cleared his throat and broke the silence or that he had been spending those minutes fighting to keep his emotions in check, but it was long enough that she would’ve said something herself had he not beaten her to it.
“You’ve got it wrong, Miss Hillman.”
“Laura,” she corrected him; “Laura’s fine.” It wasn’t so much that she felt the current situation dictated less formality…which it did…but rather a case of her really not wanting to hear her last name, “Hillman”, said aloud. It was the name shook took from her husband and shared with her child and, unfortunately, she might never be able to hear it again without thinking of them both involuntarily. It was yet another unanticipated idiosyncrasy in the brave, new world that was the rest of her life.
“Laura…right, of course,” Nick agreed before releasing his hundredth sigh in the last hour. “There’s really no easy way to say this…so I guess I’ll just say it. The Commander is…” Nick didn’t get to finish his sentence…or if he did, she was unable to hear it. Without warning, a vibrating alarm filled the room, echoing off the kitchen’s metal walls and creating the effect of two or even three sets of competing digital beeps. It was accompanied by flashing red emergency lights she was unable to see and when Nick spoke again, he had to do so at very nearly the top of his lungs.
“It’s a lockdown!” He screamed. “She’s found us…we have to go now!” Grabbing her hand, he jerked her towards the door with significantly more force than he meant to, almost sending her to the floor again. As difficult as it had been to trying to navigate her environment without the benefit of sight, it was unimaginably worse now that her hearing was being taken away as well. The simple act of just placing one foot in front of the other became a Herculean task and Laura allowed herself to be pulled more than progressing by her own volition. One foot shuffling behind the other, she prayed she wouldn’t trip over anything…including her own feet. Well aware that she wasn’t being expedient enough, it didn’t help when Nick called out something from in front of her, most of which was lost to the audio assault. All she was able to make out was “…need to hurry…” and “…trapped for good…” She felt like she had a pretty good idea what he was trying to get across.
They made it out of the kitchen just before the doors sealed themselves and the blaring echoes behind them, apparently locking in the process, and part way through the Rainbow Room before the familiar alarm erupted again. The open space and linen-draped walls of the dining area absorbed a large portion of the mentally grating blasts, allowing her to think…and walk…a little straighter than she had in the confined spaces of the kitchen. Moving much quicker as a result, the motley pair easily made it out of the “lounge”. Oddly enough, however, the alarm stopped as soon as they did, ceasing the exact moment they crossed the threshold. The door didn’t close and lock and they stopped just outside of it.
“She’s fucking with us,” Nick concluded and after a moment; “I need you to hang tight for just a second.”
“What? What the hell are you talking about?” She didn’t sound happy.
“I dropped my bag…I have to run back in and get it.”
“I had a bag with some supplies: food, medicine and the like. I’d been grabbing stuff as we went and it must’ve fallen off my shoulder back there. I think I see it…it’s not far. It will only take a moment to run back in and grab it.”
“What about the door?” Laura asked; “The alarm?”
“That alarm is nothing more than a twenty-second warning of a lockdown. Even she shouldn’t be able to over-ride it. If it goes off again, I should have more than enough time. I’ll be quick.” He pulled softly and, reluctantly, she let his hand slip away. She couldn’t have really stopped him anyway. As hard as it was to accept, the fiercely independent woman she had been was having to come to terms with her current state of vulnerability and it was having to do it so damn fast that it probably wasn’t good for her psyche. The state of dependence she’d been forced into was bringing back emotions not felt since early childhood and random thoughts that were better suited keeping their distance. Don’t leave me, Daddy…I’m scared of the dark without you.
She followed his hustling progress as well as she could with his offering; “Almost got it”, “Here it is”, and “I’m coming back now” to aide her as he went. Laura could hear his heavy breathing again once he was only a few feet away but he never quite made it back to her side. The door to the Rainbow Room’s main entrance did close and lock…without warning…sealing off the space between them with an airtight and soundproof glass door. If she hadn’t lost the ability to see, the sight of Nick screaming and pounding on the other side of the door, eyes wild and panicked, would have probably made her sick. Instead, her only awareness was of the low, vibrating hum of “Concourse Delta” and the complete and utter helplessness felt in the pit of her stomach. It was 1979 again and all she wanted to do was to pull the sheets over her head to hide from the monsters under her bed and in her closet. Laura could feel herself regressing exponentially and she was getting dangerously close to the point of not coming back.
“Laura?” A voice broke through her psychological swan dive…a familiar voice…and the joy she felt upon hearing it played a crucial part in holding back the madness. There was still the fear that it may have been an auditory hallucination and when she heard, “Oh God, Laura…it is you,” her chest swelled as she tried to keep her ailing eyes from producing any tears.
“Rukia!” she cried towards the direction of the voice and then the women were clutching each other in a warm embrace. It seemed like a lifetime since they had been together face to face and yet…neither of them wanted to let go.
“I was so worried about you Rukia. I thought maybe Commander Milner had done something with you.” Laura whispered as they hugged.
“I’m sorry Laura. I couldn’t say anything until I got you away from Nick. I’ve been monitoring you guys and waiting for a chance to isolate you. You have no idea how lucky you are.” Laura pulled back and shook her head.
“I don’t understand. Nick was trying to help.”
“No Laura…you don’t understand.” Rukia’s voice had something of an edge to it. “I don’t know what Geary said or did to you but…he’s a master liar. If I were to tell you what he had planned for all of us it would sicken you. The man is a lunatic; I probably saved your life.” That was so hard to believe. Nothing anyone was saying seemed to make a lick of sense. Laura made a half-hearted attempt to sort the drastically different accounts when she remembered the most important thing.
“Dimitri! We have to go back and help Dimitri.”
“Yea,” Rukia agreed; “we do. I already moved Wang to a secure location but Commander Kapirski will still need our assistance. I managed to get him on a stretcher but haven’t had a chance to move him. I thought it was more important to stay close to you and Geary…watch for my opportunity. I…I don’t know what I would’ve done if he had hurt you.” Laura could hear the sincerity in her voice and it did nothing but further cloud her ability to judge the situation. If she could just get a clear picture of exactly what was happening on Olympus, it would make dealing with it a whole, hell of a lot easier.
“Where is Commander Milner in all of this?” Jill Milner felt like the missing piece of this puzzle. “In the last communication you said she’d been put…what…in the brig? Is she still…I mean…can we find her?”
“Definitely.” Rukia squeezed Laura’s hands which she’d still been holding. “I got her out of lock-up shortly after I was able to free myself. We can go see the Commander right now.” Not what Laura was expecting, the revelation came as a genuine shock and, despite the other woman’s words, she couldn’t stave off the feeling of mistrust she had for the OSS’s, should be former, commanding officer. Maybe it was just the fact that she was the only crew member Laura had yet to encounter but ever since the first signs of chaos aboard the station made themselves known, she stayed behind the scenes. It seemed logical to presume that she was the one pulling the strings behind the crew’s animosity; she was the Commander, after all.
“Okay…let’s do that.” Laura was still wary but…she needed to know. Commander Milner, or “Jill” if she believed Nick, could either be a strong ally if there was a schism in power here…or…or she will have found the mastermind behind all their current troubles. Rukia said, “Okay” and Laura let her lead the way, making better progress than she did with Nick insistence on sneaking but amazed, nonetheless, that her muscles allowed her to continue on at all. The fear of dropping at any second and passing out from exhaustion was a legitimate concern.
For that reason more than any other, Laura remained relatively quiet as they went, the majority of her cognitive abilities spent concentrating on continuing to place one foot in front of the other and staying upright. Rukia remained relatively distracted as well, the tablet which she kept constantly in hand consuming most of her attention with its readings on all of Olympus’s operations. The current situation had obviously forced her into a role with a lot more responsibility than that of a Communications Officer and it seemed the station only continued to function properly through her diligence. It would have been impressive as hell if Laura had a spare synapse to fire off a thought about it.
Laura didn’t bother to ask where Rukia was leading her and Rukia never bothered to tell her. In her current state of exhaustion, bouncing from one frantic situation to another, she had given herself fully to the notion of now being safe. Having been found by her old friend, learning that Dimitri was no longer laying on cold steel, and that both Alex and Nick…dangerous or not…were contained and alive was incredibly cathartic. It gave her well-worn adrenal glands a much deserved break.
They weren’t required to actually walk but for a short distance before Rukia was steering them into a mobility chamber: a glorified elevator than ran horizontally as well as vertically. It was probably a good thing too as, even with transportation, it took nearly twenty minutes to arrive at their destination. By the time Rukia was sliding her onto the hard, metal stool, Laura was so grateful to take the weight off her feet that it felt as good as a Lazy-Boy. The stool was attached to a table which Laura surmised to be a dining area and she put her head down on her arms like pre-school nap-time. All she wanted was to sleep. The second she quit fighting it she was out.
When she finally came back to her sleeve was wet with drool and it felt like it had probably been a significant amount of time. Much like her time in the capsule, however, the ability to properly detect and measure increments of time was impaired beyond the point of any degree of reliability. Her body’s internal-clock had always been a source of consistency and it came as a shock to discover how closely tied it was with her ability to monitor an actual clock. Outside of the steady hum of a few electric devices or appliances, the room was completely silent.
“Rukia?” she called out, her voice echoing off the cold walls. The acoustics sounded very similar to the kitchen she had been earlier with Nick.
“I’m here,” Rukia replied from somewhere across the room. “You’re okay.” Laura was still tired and weak and for the first time in a week her stomach was showing some interest in food.
“How long was I asleep?” She could hear Rukia coming closer as she replied.
“Not too long…but you were out good. I figured you probably needed to recharge a bit.” She wasn’t wrong about that. “You were asleep just long enough for me to take care of Geary.” Any residual fogginess was quickly blown away and Laura shook her head.
“What do you mean, ‘take care of’? What did you do to Nick?”
“Relax.” Rukia plopped down into the seat next to hers and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “It’s all okay now.” Her words were steady and even and did a great job at conveying their honesty. “Geary and Wang have both been processed…now we’re all on the same page. There won’t be any more struggling for power, only…survival. We can take care of Commander Kapirski together and then the future can be…well…whatever we want it to be.” Julia had no idea was the Asian woman was referring to when she spoke of the men being “processed” but it could have been any number of things from a decontamination routine to binding agreement. Regardless, the fact that they would all be getting along again was great news…except…
“Wait a second…” It surprised her that it took so long for the thought to reveal itself but, given the strenuous ordeal her mind had been made to endure, it probably shouldn’t have. “What about Commander Milner…Julie? I thought we were going to see her?”
Rukia sighed and took her hand off Laura’s shoulder. “Listen,” her voice took on a somber tone; “I wasn’t completely honest with you. Thing is…I didn’t want to lay too much on you at one time.”
“Rukia,” Laura tried to match her even quality, not yet sure how to play the coming seconds. “I think now would be the time to go ahead and lay it all on me. I appreciate your concern…but I’m not a child you need to protect.” There were a few moments of silence as Laura allowed Rukia time to consider her words, except it wasn’t complete silence. Beneath the electric hums and even their breathing there was a small, gritty sound Laura knew very well. Having heard it from her father for her entire life until his death, she knew that Rukia was grinding her teeth together. She also knew that it was generally a result of stress.
“Okay…” Rukia began; “here’s the truth. Commander Milner had been forced into the brig, as I stated before, but what I didn’t tell you was…that she committed suicide while she was in there. By the time I was able to get to her…she was gone. I was too late.” She took a moment to swallow the lump in her throat before continuing. “It had all been too much for her; the bombs on Earth and the mutiny had her on the edge and then when she was told that the Daedalus never made lift-off…it just…pushed her over, I guess.”
Laura understood why Rukia hadn’t wanted to tell her. It was tragically sad and, even though she had never met the woman, she could see how the news of someone killing themselves due to enduring horrible circumstances…and then learning of new ones…might not be the best story to share with someone who was also enduring horrible circumstances. Rukia had chosen the temporary sin of omission over deluding what was already thin morale.
“Oh Rukia…I’m so sorry.” She was too. It had to have been a devastating loss. Laura put her arms around her friend and the two women embraced for several seconds before Rukia quickly pulled away.
“Oh shit…” Something had her attention.
“What is it?” Laura asked.
“I don’t know…an alarm in engineering…E-Level. Could be nothing but I need to check it out real quick. Listen…give me thirty minutes or so and I’ll be back and then we can talk about what we’re going to do.”
“Okay,” Laura nodded her head; “and then get Dimitri.”
“Yea,” Rukia agreed.
“And Nick and Alex too?”
“Yea,” Rukia confirmed; “they’ll be there too. I have to go Laura. Try to get some rest.” She stood and quickly made her way out of the room, calling back to her just before the doors slid shut. “I’m really glad you’re here with me.” It put a smile on Laura’s face and she put her head back on the table and spread her arms out in a yawning stretch. The fingertips of her right hand made contact with an unusual object and, stretching further, she took hold of…something. Odorless and firm, in vacuum-sealed plastic, it wasn’t completely solid but felt tender and…wet. If she didn’t know better she would have sworn it was a large, meaty steak. The problem with that, however, was that there should have been little to no meat aboard the station until…and if…the Ariane-six made contact and it definitely wouldn’t just be laying around on a table like this.
Rukia must’ve had it out for her next meal. Satisfied with the probable logic of that possibility, Laura would have let it go too had her hand not encountered second package, differently proportioned but similar in consistency to the first. She carefully slid down two seats until she found herself directly in front of a small pile of the mystery packages. Working them through her hands one at a time and wracking her brain in the world’s worst “guess the Christmas present” game, she finally came across one she could recognize and it made her throw up a little water into her mouth. It was a human foot. The horror that gripped her as she held the wrapped appendage in her hands would not allow her to drop it even though that was all she wanted to do. Her mind seemed as frozen as her body and the only thought she could produce was, this can’t be real, which repeated over and over.
It took a considerable mental exertion to free her hands of the offensive object and Laura struggled to consider her options. Was she really going to just sit here and wait on Rukia without knowing for sure? There was always the possibility, albeit unlikely, that she had misconstrued and misinterpreted what she thought she just felt but…she had to know for sure. Reluctantly, she slowly peeled away the gel-infused bandage from her eyes and tried blinking several times. Remarkably, and with complete thanks to the Prometheus injection, they were already significantly better. There was a slight burning sensation and a large black spot that filled the center of her vision but the flashing was gone and if she concentrated she could make out the items on the edges of her periphery without actually looking directly at them.
It took several mind-numbing minutes of practice and an on-setting headache before she could turn herself at the proper angle to discern the pile of packaged meat…and yes…it was meat. It was identifying a woman’s hand that put her in motion, however. It was definitely time to get the hell out of there. Scanning the room and, in turn, locating the exit proved to be even more difficult. Every time she thought she saw something useful her instinct was to look at…and then obscure…whatever it was. It was frustrating to no end…but it was better than being blind.
Sorting out her environment was time consuming but it eventually came together. She was in another kitchen…a very large kitchen which seemed to spread out endlessly. She had navigated past a couple of preparation tables before stumbling across a large, wooden butcher’s block drenched in bright red blood which she could only take in at a cock-eyed angle. There was something with stained metal buried in the wood but the persistent instinct to look right at it kept her from fully distinguishing its form. It was disturbing, nonetheless, and her best guess was that it was a meat cleaver.
Walking sideways to navigate her way around the gory table, she nearly lost her balance when her foot slipped in a slickened puddle of red. Even with her poor tracking abilities, the sickening trail of blood was easy to follow, leading past the pile of soaked and shredded OSS uniforms and straight to the vacuum sealing machine where it began to dry and become sticky. The pile on the large table next to the machine designed to maintain the freshness of food for the long haul of deep space nearly took her breath away. The segmented parcels made it impossible to equate to human form but the sheer mass of it dictated that it had to be more than one…person. Laura’s stomach lurched violently and she was suddenly grateful there was nothing for it to produce. Had Rukia done this? Was she looking at the remains of Alex, Nick and Jill? It seemed inconceivable and was at such odds with everything she knew as sanity.
Spinning on her heels and nearly slipping in blood once again, Laura decided she had lingered long enough when the door, which she had yet to locate, slid open somewhere to her left. She cocked her head and did her best to target the direction but could make out very little beyond the fact that someone had entered.
“Laura…don’t freak out.” Rukia was back…and she was taking slow, deliberate steps in Laura’s direction. “You need to let me explain.” With each step her friend took towards her, Laura would take one in the opposite direction, keeping her neck strained at the uncomfortable angle required to pin-point the movement. “This is just about simple math. Without the supplies from the Ariane-six, six people would have survived for no longer than three weeks. That’s it…three weeks…and then we all die horrible deaths anyway.” Laura nearly fell over a plate stand, knocking the top two or three to floor with a crash and for a split-second lost Rukia completely. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to be trying to take advantage and continued with the slow pace of both her words and her steps, allowing Laura plenty of time to locate her again.
“However…if we supplement our resources with eight-hundred pounds of high-protein meat and cut that number down to two then…well…we can make it. We only have to survive for two years before it would be safe enough to take the Daedalus back to Earth. I’ve worked this problem through several times, Laura…you have to believe me. There’s only one way for two people to make it out of this alive.”
Still backing away and sickened to her core, Laura didn’t know how to reply. The reality and full implications of Rukia’s words were slowly seeping into her realm of acceptance, one dreadful thought at a time. Nick said Rukia told them the Daedalus didn’t make it. Rukia said Jill killed herself from hearing the same thing. It was Rukia all along…she was responsible for all their deaths. Laura’s faith in human nature was being torn away, one painful strip at a time, and she could feel the qualities that made her the person she was going with it. No matter how this situation resolved itself, she would be a fundamentally different person afterwards.
Then there was the big question: why hadn’t Rukia tried to kill her? When she said “two people,” had she meant the two of them? If that was the case, then…Oh Dear Lord no…
“Two people?” Laura blurted out, surprising even herself with the volume. “Rukia…did you kill them…all? What about Dimitri! Did you kill Dimitri?” The combination of her forceful screams and still trying to keep Rukia’s general vicinity in view sent Laura backwards and she braced herself against a table to keep from tumbling over. As soon as she felt the moisture on her hands, she knew which table she had grabbed. Too furious to be revolted, she held her bloody palms up in what she hoped was the right direction. “Is this HIS blood?!” she screamed again before pausing to let Rukia respond. Rukia sighed and this time Laura could barely hear it over her own panting. Now that she was relying more on her eyesight again, her cochleae and ear-drums were no longer pulling Superman duty.
“Laura…” Rukia’s voice sounded like she was talking to a small child who would barely understand the words. “I already told you. It’s going to take two of us to process him…he’s a big guy. Until he’s processed, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to kill him.”
“So he’s alive?” Laura interrupted.
“For now…yea. The Commander is still strapped down on a stretcher in Bay Six.” Laura felt some sense of hope return, having gotten the answer she was least expecting but it far from outweighed the shock she felt at Rukia’s presumption.
“And you honestly thought I was going to help you to…what…kill him…cut him up…eat him? Are you out of your fucking mind?” Laura hoped she knew it was a rhetorical question because the woman was quite obviously as mad as the Hatter, sans the limericks and witty repartee. “I would rather die than do something like that, Rukia. I would have thought you’d know that.”
“Well Laura…that’s always an option…but…before you make that kind of decision I think you should know all the facts.”
“Facts?” Laura cried; “What bloody ‘facts’? The only ‘fact’ I see is that you’re as big a psychopath as the people responsible for killing my husband and child. You better hope there’s not an after-life because there’s a special place in hell for you, bitch!” Rukia’s demeanor seemed unfazed by her outburst.
“Laura…I know you’re upset…but please, hear me out.” She paused for a moment and, when Laura didn’t interrupt, decided to continue; “The Commander’s being alive isn’t just for…freshness. I said ‘two people’ because it will take a minimum crew of two in order to maintain Olympus. This is only even possible because of the work I’ve been doing since we lost contact with the Earth. The way I’ve adjusted the systems are very specific and therefore…one of those crew members must be me. The other can either be you or the Commander and…because I wanted it to be you…I wanted to let you decide.
But be aware that this only works one way mathematically. Just in case you’re thinking that Olympus could hold a crew of three…don’t. It will skew the numbers just enough to make the whole endeavor futile…and essentially…a waste of lives. For there to be meaning in any of this…it has to be two people. Two people…two years.”
Laura couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Rukia sounded too calculating and articulate to be insane but she was definitely a sociopath, ascribing no real value to any human life other than her own. It suddenly seemed odd that she had chosen Laura as her favorite based on what was now such ancient history and knowing how little Rukia seemed invested in previous attachments.
“You honestly believe Dimitri will help you to cut and eat…me?” Laura knew Dimitri more than well enough to know that he would never go along with something like this. Rukia suddenly closed the distance between them in half and Laura could do nothing but stagger and try to see her…which was hard to do without looking at her.
“Well here’s the thing Laura…I won’t need his help to kill or cut you up. You’re not as sizable a job as he would be. Once it’s just the Commander and I who are left…well, I think you know he’ll believe whatever I tell him. Including the freak shipment of four sides of beef that came in with the last supply run. I don’t know…maybe I’ll come up with something better. The point is…whatever it is…he’ll believe me.” Laura was scared. She had lost everything that held any importance to her except Dimitri…and now she was being told that the only way she could live was if she lost him as well. All things considered, it made sense to just give up. If there was nothing left to live for then why bother living? Except…down deep, where the primal instincts and urges lived, she wanted to live. Beyond rationality and defying logic…she wanted to live dammit, and it wasn’t for the pursuit of happiness. That ship had sailed. It was that thing inside of her that told her she had to…what was it Rukia had said…survive.
Sliding her hands back to the cutting table again, Laura began reaching out behind her as nonchalantly as she could before finding and taking hold of the cleaver’s handle. She was only able to pull off the illusion because of the funky angle she was already standing at in order to keep Rukia somewhat targeted.
“Okay,” Laura said; “I’ll do it. I’ll help you.”
“Really?” Rukia sounded hopeful.
“But you have to answer one question for me first…and be honest.”
“Okay,” she nodded, still not noticing Laura’s left hand gripping the dull end of the chopping device embedded in the wood-grain table-top.
“Why me? You said you wanted it to be me…so…why me?” Now that Rukia was closer, Laura could hear her grinding her teeth again, this time much louder than before. It was her ‘tell’. She was about to reveal something she didn’t want to, which meant she was probably going to be telling the truth. Rukia had to believe they were beyond the point of lies now, anyway. Laura hoped so, at least.
“I chose you, Laura Hillman, because, next to me, you have the smallest body size and caloric intake to provide maximum output efficiency. The odds of my survival are twelve percent better with you than the Commander.” If there were any laughter left in Laura’s soul, she would have laughed. She wanted to laugh. There was no doubt Rukia was telling the truth because it reflected her cold and calculating nature perfectly. She didn’t choose Laura to be her last neighbor ever for any reasons of friendship or even familiarity. It really was a math equation to her where “X” equaled “co-worker” and “Y” equaled “TV dinner” and it really didn’t matter who was which variable as long as it came out to “Z”: her continued and extended existence.
The answer wasn’t exactly what Laura was expecting but it was close enough to push her to the end of her own little calculation. Was her desire to live, despite the multitude of reasons not to, stronger than her desire to make sure that Rukia didn’t? Was self-preservation “greater than or lesser than” the chorus of her blood-thirsty nerves screaming in unison to bury the blade somewhere deep in Rukia’s skull? It, for damn sure, wasn’t “equal to” and Laura knew with complete certainty that the other woman’s life needed to be ended; she shouldn’t be alive for even another minute. Even if she were the very last human in existence…she would need to be put down. Like a rabid dog, it was an act of mercy; that kind of sickness just…shouldn’t exist.
Laura yanked on the meat cleaver’s handle with every ounce of energy she had. In her mind, she saw the large cutting device sliding free from the wooden surface and then gliding through the air in one swift and fluid motion. It would make contact with Rukia long before she’d even registered an incoming attack…maybe not a killing blow, but good enough to get the party started. A single, lethal strike was a better death than she deserved anyway. The problem with all of that, however, is that the cleaver refused to budge. She yanked a second time and, of course, by this point it was painfully obvious what she was trying to do.
The third time seemed like it might be the charm, as the handle moved just a bit, and Laura turned her head to reestablish a bearing on her ex-friend. Inconveniently timed as it was, she was able to catch the movement before her nose took the worst part of Rukia’s fist, shattering the bridge and sending her sprawling to the floor in a pool of other people’s blood. Her face felt like it was on fire, except burning from within. Laura tried looking up through the red haze and she could see Rukia straddled over her. The psychopath was so close that the black spot only concealed her face and chest, so Laura was able to easily detect the meat cleaver dangling from her right hand. Sure…after she’d loosened it up for her.
“I’m not going to lie, Laura…I’m a little disappointed.” Rukia expounded. “For some reason, I really thought you were going to see things my way. I thought we could…well…I don’t know what I thought. I guess it doesn’t matter now.” She raised the cleaver in a striking position and Laura held her hand up in front of her face, knowing full well it was a useless gesture. “I’m make sure the Commander gives a eulogizing toast in your honor the first time we dine on your liver. I’m sure it will be very moving.” Laura couldn’t see her face, but she could swear she heard a smile in that sick bitch’s voice. “In the meantime…try not to fight this.”
Rukia raised the blade over her head and began arcing it down with as much force as she could muster which, given her already proven ability to butcher, was probably quite a lot. Laura prayed it would be quick and relatively painless and she wondered if she would get to see Mike and Kevin again…but that wasn’t the same thing as acceptance. She didn’t want to find out what happens when you die.
As the blade slid through the air, it glinted the florescent kitchen lights on one of its only clean spots and momentarily completed her blindness. In that same instant there was a hollow pop from across the room which made Laura think, of all things, of champagne being opened. In the back of her mind Kevin’s voice asked, “Is it a special occasion, Mommy?” Perhaps it was. Rukia suddenly lost her grip on the deadly cutlery, sending it flying from her hand and clanking away unseen; and Laura had no idea what had happened. Due to the flash of light and the ever-present blank spot, she was unable to see the look of astonished surprise on Rukia’s face. Nor did she see the thin line of red that had begun to run down her cheek from the tiny hole in her temple.
Laura remained frozen in her spot on the floor, like a child waiting for admonishment, for the several long seconds that Rukia continued to stand there. Face burning, eyes stinging, she waited for some type of aggressive impact, the fight all but beaten from her, and it came as a complete shock when her tormentor tumbled down on top of her, crumpling into an immobile pile. Laura screamed and desperately tried to pull herself from beneath the lifeless body, much heavier than she would have imagined, while her hands and feet slipped in the blood. For one horrifying split-second, she was convinced that it wasn’t going to happen…and then Rukia’s body was lifting itself off of her. No…it was being lifted. Another second later…she was too.
The searing ache and pooled blood around her nose and eyes had her nearly blinded again, but she knew she was safe the moment she felt the strong arms wrap around her and lock her into their embrace. It was Dimitri. Her commander, co-pilot, protector and dear, dear friend had promised to keep her safe no matter what and somehow…he kept his promise. Held tightly in his arms and covered in blood, it was the only place in the universe that she wanted to be in that moment and Laura found herself unable to hold back the torrent of salty tears, despite the acidic pain they brought with them. Seemingly, the roller-coaster ride of emotions had come to an end and it had cost her everything to ride it. The relief that it was over, even for just that moment, was like nothing Laura had ever dreamed…or desired.
Over the next twelve hours, she passed in and out of consciousness. Dimitri had set her up in a Med Bay bed near Prometheus so that she could take hourly injections. Prognosis was twenty-twenty eyesight in three days and broken nose healed in about a week but the first few hours were obviously going to be the worst and the pain medication kept her from asking any questions. At the fourth hour, after the most intense pain had passed and the opiate fog had subsided somewhat, she mustered the single word that covered her wide range of inquiries: “How?”
“I’m a big guy…” Dimitri had chuckled; “How long did you think I would stay unconscious?”
“But,” Laura pressed; “she said she had you tied down.” Dimitri laughed again and Laura reflected on just how much she had missed that sound…and how close she had come to never hearing it again.
“I’m Dimitri Kapirski,” his tone saying that should be answer enough. Laura had always thought that she knew what that meant but now…she hadn’t known anything. The Commander’s reputation was one of legend and one wouldn’t have been faulted for thinking that it was, in large part, an exaggeration…not that she ever had…but they would have been wrong. If anything, his lore was probably under-embellished. For Laura, at least, he was nothing short of a frigging superhero.
While gently cleaning and doctoring her wounds, Dimitri proceeded to tell her the story. “I think we’ve got the time,” he’d said sarcastically. Rukia had strapped him to a medical stretcher but, given the number of distractions she was dealing with, neglected to remove the small utility knife from an exterior breast pocket of his Daedalus flight-suit. Once free, it hadn’t taken him too long to get inside the security and surveillance systems to figure out what Rukia had been up to. From there, he went to the Commander’s office to retrieve the only firearm on Olympus from the safe with a code that only he and Commander Milner knew. He was the one that set off the false alarm that drew Rukia away in the first place but then a real issue kept him from getting back to Laura as quickly as he’d wanted to.
“What about her fail-safe?” Laura asked. “Rukia made changes to the OSS systems so that only she could keep it running properly…or so she said. It might have been BS like the rest of her lies, but…should we be worrying about it?” This didn’t come as a surprise to Dimitri who apparently already knew and didn’t seem overly concerned about it.
“Kanagi was a bright officer…very clever…but foolish to think that she could do anything that I couldn’t undo. I helped design most of the critical systems on this station and the complexity of Olympus is well beyond her. Frankly, if she had kept the station on the rotational path she had chosen, it would have torn itself apart in a few days. There was a reason I was chosen to be the first Commander for a fully operational Olympus.”
“I guess she wasn’t as smart as she thought she was,” Laura offered.
“Yea,” he agreed; “She was a great astronaut and Coms officer…not so good with the engineering and engines. Even if she was the best in her field there was still nothing she knew that I hadn’t already taught to hundreds of others. There was nothing unique or special about her…not like you.” Laura pulled Dimitri close and held him tightly once again…so grateful for his being there.
“She was a ‘special’ piece-of-shit,” she whispered into his ear, bringing yet more of that laughter that was like a balm for her soul every time she heard it.
“That she was,” he whispered back; “I’m ashamed to say that she had me fooled.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it. She had us all fooled.” Dimitri nodded and a grim expression came over his face. Laura had mixed feelings over it. It was never a look she wanted to see on his face, but it was hard not to feel some joy in the fact that she could see it. There was still some blurriness and the fine details were obscured but Prometheus had delivered on its promised miracles.
“What is it Dimitri?” She could tell that he was considering whether or not to reveal what was weighing on him and decided that the concealment of information was coming to an end, once and for all. “You don’t get to decide what’s for me to know or not for me to know anymore. It’s just us. We have to tell each other everything. Do you understand?” His face went from grim indecision to solemn certainty. He knew she was right. Neither one of them had even bothered considering what it would be like living out the rest of their lives, but if it was just them…secrets would have to be a thing of the past.
“Okay…” Dimitri began and Laura could tell that the words were hurting him to say. “The reason I didn’t get back to you quicker…when I distracted Kanagi earlier…was because of an incoming transmission from…” He sighed and shook his head. “…the Ariane-six. She’ll be here in ten hours.”
Laura’s face ran pale with quiet shock and her eyes began to pool with fat tears, even though she was sure they had all run dry. The Ariane-six and all her supplies had actually made it. Rukia Kanagi’s horrific algebra was pointless. Not that her reason for murdering the people that trusted her was a good one in the first place…but now…even it had no merit. Her callous selfishness was the perfect cosmic reflection of the evil motivations that culled the Earth with nuclear fire and, in the end, it proved to be just as meaningless. It was sickening. Rukia had known damn well that it was impossible to write-off the Automated Transfer Vehicle without some time passing, as she claimed to have told her crew, and yet…she had begun to implement her cannibalistic plans within hours of the first bombs falling. It wasn’t calculating…it was evil.
After several minutes of stunned silent sobbing, overwhelmed by the sadness of it all, Laura finally shook her head and asked, “Is this what we are as a species…murderers…takers…destroyers? Is this what ‘humanity’ is?” She paused to sigh but it came out as a mournful moan instead. “Because I don’t think I know anymore.” Dimitri put his hand to her chin and pushed her healing eyes to meet his own.
“We…you and I…Dimitri and Laura Olympus…are what ‘humanity’ is. Our species is whatever we decide to make it.” Laura nodded in agreement. “And in the coming days, weeks, months and, hopefully, years…what we need to be…is strong.”
Posted in Creepy Pasta and tagged Ghost by cnkguy with no comments yet.
22 Feb, 2018
Dark Intelligence | Haunted, Paranormal, Supernatural
A listener finds that her job, working as a hotel laundry attendant, may increase her exposure to the paranormal.
We get to hear a follow up to a story provided by a listener that is plagued by a demonic sleep paralysis.
A small child wakes up in the middle of the night to a voice that says it wants her to come and play.
If you have a real ghost story or supernatural event to report, please write into our show or call 1-855-853-4802!
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Posted in Real Ghost Stories and tagged Ghost Stories by cnkguy with no comments yet.
21 Feb, 2018
The Building in the Woods
Reading Time: 34 minutes
A week ago, if you had asked me if I believed in things that went bump in the night, I would have looked at you as if you’d just escaped the nearest psychiatric ward and given you a terse, derisive response.
I’ve never believed. Not in ghosts, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, haunts, haints, or any other explanation for things heard, yet unseen; glimpsed, but never identified. Oh, how content and ignorant I was in my disbelief.
I realize how difficult this will be for you to believe. That is, if you are anything like I was just a week ago. I’m not going to sit here and swear every word of it is true, because you probably won’t believe me anyway (it would be a waste of your time, and mine), but it is. I want to tell my story, if for no other reason than to get it out of my head. Maybe by writing it down, putting it into some tangible form, separating myself from it in some way, it will become less real and more dreamlike. More story-like. And then maybe, I can read it and enjoy it – be disbelievingly amused by it – as if it didn’t happen to me, but to someone else.
I’m scared, though. If I share what I know, where will that leave me? Where will that leave the human race? What if I tell, and as a result of my telling, everyone I’ve ever known and loved is wiped out? After already losing so much? Can I risk that?
I think I must.
Firstly, if I do not say something, I’m going to need to be permanently confined to a straight jacket and a padded room because that will be the only way to stay alive. Maybe. To say nothing of the giant clumps of hair which have already fallen out – or been torn out – of my head due to fright, anxiety, and trauma.
Secondly, if I do not say something, the human race will be wiped out, slowly, one by one, and no one will ever be the wiser. Oh, well, maybe that’s not entirely true. Eventually some poor soul will figure it out – just like I have – and begin hollering from the mountain tops what he knows. To his own folly. They will find him, and silence him, before anyone has truly heard a word he has said. It’s a cycle. And it will not end.
They will find me, too.
But I think I’ve made my peace with what I’m about to do. I believe now. And in believing, I’ve also had to face the fact of my own death. By telling you this story, I know I’m signing my own death warrant. But it doesn’t matter. Death? Over insanity? Over the fingers of dark knowledge wriggling inside my brain? Knowing that by telling what I know, all I have seen, that I might save the lives of others? Yes. I believe it’s worth it.
The building stood, ugly, squat, and long, alongside a seldom-traveled back road, about ten or so miles outside the city limits. It was an old building, maybe at one time it was a barn of some kind, but now, it was hard to tell. The wooden façade now sported a blazing, blood red with black trim.
I happened to travel this road on a semi-regular basis because my parents still lived in the country and the shortest route between where I lived in the city, and where they still lived on the small farm of my childhood, was this twisting, turning, narrow back road. So, I was familiar with the building. Enough to know that it marked – for me, anyway – the half-way point between my home, and my parents’.
I’d never really paid much attention to it before. In fact, until recently the wooden sides of the building had been severely warped, weathered, and mottled brown, forcing it into the general surroundings of trees, brush, and large boulders. There, but not there. Just an old building like any other old building in the well-established woods of rural Tennessee.
But, on one such trip out to visit my parents, engrossed in my own thoughts, I rounded the gentle curve in the road to see the newly-painted, garishly red building and caught my breath. I was surprised. More surprised than I can really express to you. But from what I could tell, the building had virtually been remodeled overnight.
It hadn’t been more than two days since my last visit to my parents’ home. The only reason I was going back was because I had left my iPad there and wanted to retrieve it. Mom had said, “Well, since you’re comin’, you might as well stay for dinner. I’m makin’ a roast.” No one turned down my mom’s roast.
I pulled quickly to the side of the road, across from the newly-painted building, and just sat there for a minute, looking at it. The wood was still warped in places, but it looked like someone had shored it all up; that it was structurally sound once more. Further, the very few windows the building actually had, were – from what I could tell – painted over with the same black as the trim. “Odd,” I said aloud, looking at the windows.
One other odd thing. There was a neon “Open” sign flashing next to the black-painted door. Open? What could that mean?
I didn’t have time to mull it over as I was already going to catch grief from my mother for being late and making her wait. So, I guided my little silver car back onto the road and continued on my way.
The building was forgotten. For now.
Over the next few weeks, I made several trips to and from my parents’ house, and it seemed as if each time I passed the long building in the woods, something new had been done to it. A corrugated metal roof. A little portico over the entrance. A gravel parking lot bordered with huge boulders. Other than the red color, the building seemed to establish itself as both new, and yet also a well-loved, aged part of the natural surroundings.
It became a matter of some interest to me during my back and forth drives. A small pleasure watching the establishment – whatever it was – transform itself. Transform itself, yes, because I never saw a single person doing any kind of work there. Maybe I just didn’t pass at the right times? But I never saw any equipment, either. I tried to imagine how heavy those parking lot boulders were. No way those were moved without heavy-equipment.
But mostly, it was a curiosity to me. Nothing more.
I got up every day. Showered. Dressed for work. Spent eight hours sitting at my desk mindlessly keying data into my computer. Some evenings I’d go out to a local place for a brew with a few work buddies. Other evenings, I’d go home, turn on the tube and suck on a beer, then hit the sack. My life didn’t change much, and honestly, I was kind of bored.
So, when, on one of my visits out to mom and dad’s, I saw cars, pick-up trucks, and motorcycles in the parking lot of the red building in the woods, the “Open” sign flashing garishly in the gathering evening gloom, I began to speculate on what type of establishment might now be housed in that ugly old building.
My parents and I discussed it at dinner that night (scratch-made fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and sautéed veggies from mom’s fussy vegetable garden) but neither one of them knew anything about it.
“I saw it enough to notice it,” Dad said idly, “but that’s it. Ain’t heard nothin’ about it, though. You ask me, it’s a biker bar. Sure and shootin’ we’re going to see a lot more trouble in those woods.”
“Bill,” Mom said, a warning tone in her voice. “You don’t know that. Wouldn’t matter anyway. I’m just glad someone found a use for the place, is all.”
I had nothing to add to the conversation after that, so we finished our supper in silence and, after I’d helped clean up, I went home.
That night, on my way home, I felt something was…off…about that building. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Not right away. But it gave me the jitters as I drove by it in the deep dark of full night. Wary, I kept watch on it as I passed, the building receding away behind me, eerily illuminated by my car’s tail lights, finally lost from sight at the curve in the road.
When I got home, I felt foolish. In the bright light of my own small apartment I chastised myself. A building couldn’t be…whatever I’d thought it was. Stupid. Stupid. I called myself several names before I finally gave up and got ready for bed.
The next morning, my mother called me at the office, which she never does. “Joey, you know what? Your father might be right about that place in the woods,” she said. “This mornin’, as I was comin’ back from the market, there were police cars all around that place! Buzzin’ like flies. That yellow tape up all over the place. I don’t know what happened, but it can’t be good.”
“Wow, that’s…um…a little scary,” I said haltingly. “You okay?”
“Oh, Lord, honey! Yes, I’m fine. Whatever happened has got to be bad, though, for all those nice officers to be out there in such numbers. I’m tellin’ you, Joey, I’ve never seen the like. At least, not outside the television.”
She told me to be careful the next time I came out to their place, told me she loved me, and hung up. I knew she’d be picking the receiver right back up again to call Gladys and Meryl – her two best friends – to gossip. I refocused on my work, the conversation shortly forgotten.
Another week went by and again, mom called at work. “I’m makin’ your favorite tonight for supper. Why don’t you come over and share it with us? It would be good to see you, sweetheart.” She sounded a bit edgy, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no, so I accepted the invitation gladly, looking forward to her baked bar-b-que spare ribs.
Dinner was amazing, as always. I could never understand how mom could get her baked ribs to taste like they’d just come off a smoking charcoal grill. Those, along with her special scratch-made macaroni and cheese, and a helping of more veggies from her garden, was as satisfying a meal as I’d had in a long time. I loved my mother’s cooking.
But mom herself looked pale, with splotches of red in her cheeks and deep, dark circles under her eyes. She seemed almost unwell. She assured me multiple times she was just tired, saying, “I done too much this week with the ladies’ auxiliary. Once the fall fundraiser is over, I’ll rest some.”
But even her eyes looked watery, paler than her usual bright and sparkling blue.
I pulled dad aside to ask him about it. He echoed mom’s story about the fundraiser and how she’d not been sleeping well. She’d been having bad dreams, he told me.
“If this continues,” I said, looking him straight in the eye and using a stern voice as if I were the parent and he were the child, “she should see a doctor.”
“I know son. I know. I’ll keep my eye on her.” He seemed weary, too.
A day later, the police were gathered around my parents’ home, yellow police tape surrounding the property, my father sobbing in the back of a squad car, the coroner wheeling my mother’s lifeless body out to his van.
Dad was questioned by the police, but they didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. They were just trying to figure out what had happened. I stood, with my hand on dad’s shoulder, trying to reassure him with my presence, but barely able to keep myself together. “She just didn’t wake up!” Dad sobbed to the questioning officers. “We’d gone to bed just like always, but she didn’t wake up! I knew she wasn’t feelin’ right, but she just said she was tired. I wasn’t gonna argue with her. You didn’t argue with Joanna. You just didn’t. If she said she was fine, by God she was fine!” He stopped talking, hitched a breath, and began to cry again, unashamed and broken.
“I was here night before last,” I offered, and proceeded to tell the officers about how she’d looked. How she’d acted. My personal observations. The brief discussion with dad about trying to get her to see a doctor. I was as baffled as my father was. As aggrieved, too.
Finally, one of the officers said, “We’re sorry for your loss, Bill. Yours too, Joe. You’ll holler if you think of anything else, okay?”
We nodded at them as they walked away, and then turned to embrace one another, crying on each other’s shoulders.
The loss of my mother was enormous. I felt a hole in me so vast it could have held the entire universe and then some. And if I felt this way, I could only imagine how my poor father felt. Without discussing it with him first, I decided I’d move back home for a few days. At least until I could get a handle on myself, and on my father. On the situation. We had a funeral to plan, and it would be easier on both of us if we were together. Dad seemed grateful for my presence, though he never actually came right out and said it. He was a man of few words.
I was allowed to take three days off from work for bereavement leave; a meager offering from the corporate machine. So, I worked until the day of the funeral, and then took time off to grieve with dad.
I don’t want to talk about the funeral. I can’t. It was the most horrible day of my life. Suffice it to say between dad and myself, along with a sea of mourners, mom was buried with an ocean of tears and a field of sunflowers. Afterward, the little farmhouse was inundated with well-intentioned folks bringing casseroles and pies, and offering assistance wherever, whenever. We numbly accepted the offerings, held awkward, wooden conversations, which, afterward, were not remembered in any great detail, if at all, and took comfort in one another.
Dad and I had always been close. He’d shown me how to use each piece of equipment on the farm. Taught me how to milk the few cows we’d owned. Kept me busy, occupied with chores and other things. And every time I’d complain he’d say with a wry grin, “Just buildin’ your character, son. You’ll thank me someday.”
He’d taught me how to drive when I’d been twelve. Just a few turns around the barren back field, but I’d felt as if I were floating on cloud nine. None of my school friends knew how to drive yet. Thereafter, I drove the tractor, too.
Dad never said much, but when he did speak, I listened. He was gentle and kind and though he never said the words, “I love you,” I knew he loved me. Every action spoke of his love for me. I never once doubted. I knew how lucky I was to grow up with two loving parents the way I did. These days, so many people I knew were the product of broken families.
We got along fine out there in the little farmhouse. But about four or five days after the funeral, Dad said, “Joey, you go on home now. You got to keep livin’ and you don’t need to babysit your ol’ dad.” I argued with him, saying it was fine, I wanted to be here (because I did), but he all but shoved me out the door.
“I didn’t argue with your momma,” he said as I stepped out on the front porch, “and you sure as heck ain’t gonna argue with me. Now git.” That was it. I was dismissed. And, though I honestly worried about him out at the farmhouse alone, I had to admit I was glad to be heading back to town. To my boring life. Because every minute I spent at the farmhouse, another hole was carved out of me. Grief was, quite literally, beginning to eat me alive.
On the way home, I passed the old red building as usual and…once again…felt something not quite right about the place. I dismissed it, though. I was too absorbed in my grief.
Life returned to normal, or, as normal as it could get. Dad and I talked on the phone every day. He played his part and I played mine, but we both knew our lives were lies right now. Both of us just going through the motions. The loss of wife and mother simply too huge.
Then one day, about two months after mom passed, I couldn’t get in touch with dad. I tried for our usual morning phone call and he didn’t answer. I assumed he must be outside working in the barn; there wasn’t a phone out there. I tried again an hour later; no answer. I tried several times throughout the day, growing increasingly concerned with each unanswered call, until at five o’clock, I leapt up from my desk and practically raced for the exit. An uncontrollable urge driving me to go to the farmhouse. Call it a gut feeling.
I guess I don’t need to tell you what happened. Not really. But I buried my father next to my mother less than two months after she’d died, with his favorite pair of work gloves and a rustic bunch of wildflowers, instead of, as it had been with mom, tears and sunflowers. I stood, blindly watching the gravediggers refill the hole in which my father’s casket now rested, and allowed grief to overtake me. When I’d sufficiently recovered, the hole was filled, the cemetery workers were gone, and it was nearly full dark.
I am not going to regale you with the day by day stuff. I inherited the farmhouse, and my parents’ meager savings, plus all the equipment, land, and animals. As much as it pained me to let go of so many pieces of my childhood, I, alone, could not take care of the farm and keep my job. So, I sold off some parcels of the land, along with most of the farm equipment, animals, and other things, until I’d managed to offload enough that I felt I could live there, take care of the place as mom and dad would want me to, and continue to commute into the city for work. It was only a 30-minute drive after all, so it was doable.
After a conversation with my landlord, I was allowed to break my lease without issue, and moved into the farmhouse permanently.
My first night alone in the farmhouse was bittersweet. Memories of childhood welling up, mixing fondness and joy along with the sadness. I wandered through the house, touching the banister and remembering the time I slid down it on my butt, managing to break my ankle on an awkward dismount. I fingered the wooden paneling in the front hallway, the angular door to the small closet under the stairs, remembering how I’d made that little closet my fort for many years. My parents always knew where to find me, tucked away in there among stashed pillows and blankets, reading or playing with my action figures, immersed in a world of my own making. Opening that small door, I saw where I’d carved my name on the back of it when I’d been ten. The little room smelled the same. Just exactly the same. And memories overwhelmed me.
I spent a lot of time wandering the house as I began to remember what it was like to actually live there, permanently. Slowly, I began to make plans to update a few things. Time went on.
And then one night, about four months after my father had passed, and about six months after mom, I was in bed (I’d taken over the master bedroom, the windows of which looked out onto the front yard) reading a book on coding and nodding off, when I heard a commotion down in the yard. The chicken’s I’d kept were squawking and making fluttering sounds, flapping their wings in distress. I peeked out my window, expecting to see a fox or a coyote (we had both in the area) worrying the chicken coop. But instead, I saw a man! A man wearing dark clothing, standing right below my bedroom window, staring up at me! His eyes were…impossibly…glowing!
My heart thudded hard in my chest in shock. I blinked, hard, and hoped when I opened my eyes he’d be gone. He was.
But that night, the nightmares began. They were relentless, recurring, and awful in every aspect, full of blood and death, yet sweet and seductive. I’d wake, sheathed in cold sweat, shaking from head to toe, both horrified and yearning. I could never remember what the dreams were about, specifically, just that they were terrible things. And the red building in the woods. Somehow, I remembered the red building in the woods. I began to lose sleep.
I would force myself to stay awake only to drift away on a cloud. On a light, beautiful cloud, with music and a voice beckoning me in the mist. Mom’s voice.
“Joey,” she’d say. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew her voice.
“Joey. Everything is going to be alright. Your father is here now, too, and everything is going to be alright.” Sweet. So sweet to hear her voice again. But it bothered me, too. Something about it bothered me.
Every night I’d try to stay awake and drift off only to hear mom’s voice again.
One night, I snapped upright out of sleep suddenly understanding what was making me uncomfortable. Mom didn’t talk like that! She clipped her words. Everythin’, instead of Everything. Gonna, instead of Going to. She’d say fine, instead of alright. I was immediately angry with myself. My mind, my stupid, college-educated mind was messing with my memory of my mother! It was her voice, for sure, but not in the way she’d speak to me. She was a born and bred country girl, raised on cooking lard, butter biscuits, hard work, and prayer. And I wanted, desperately – so desperately – to hear her voice speaking in the way she should speak. But that aspect became just another part of the terrible nightmares. And I couldn’t fight it.
Soon, the dream would change. I would climb out of my bedroom window, jump from the second storey of the house to the brown grass below, lithe and agile, and run – miles and miles – to the red building in the woods. Once there, I would walk up to the front of the building, look at the flashing “Open” sign, and see my hand reach out to open the door…and wake up, sweating and shaking, in my bed.
I attributed these dreams to grief, and for a very long time, I let them slide. Folks at work began to comment on how tired I looked. I’d gotten used to it, myself. It was many weeks before I made the connection. My current, pale face with red splotches and dark circles under my eyes, was the same face my mother had two days before she died. I hadn’t seen my dad for a few days before I’d found him dead, but I suddenly suspected he, too, would have had the same pasty complexion with sickly roses in his cheeks and charcoal ashes under his eyes.
Sleep deprivation. It had to be.
There wasn’t another explanation for it.
I went to the doctor and he pronounced me ultimately healthy, though slightly anemic, and prescribed a pill to help me sleep.
“Anemic?” I questioned him.
“Yes. But only very slightly,” he’d responded. “It’s quite common. Especially if you aren’t sleeping, or eating well.” At this, he pointed at my chart indicating the twenty plus pounds I’d lost since my last visit just before mom passed.
“Look,” he said matter-of-factly. “Just try the sleeping pill. I’ve prescribed a very low dose so you can see how you do. Some people don’t need any more than this. If this helps, then great! If not, well…make another appointment to come see me again in two weeks anyway and we’ll just do a follow-up. Okay?”
“Okay,” I responded, taking the prescription from him.
“Oh, and Joe? Make sure you eat some more, you really are getting a little bit too thin. Iron-rich foods, too; that will help with the anemia. Spinach, beans, stuff like that. You can look it up or…hang on…” he reached behind him. “Here. Take this,” and handed me a brochure called The Iron Rich Diet.
I didn’t like the idea of the sleeping pills. And, tired as I was, I felt like taking them would be a bad idea. I wasn’t sure I was quite that desperate yet.
But that night, in my dreams, my mother’s voice said to me, “It is going to be okay now, Joey. Your father is here, too. He agrees with me. Take the pill, Joey.” Needless to say, I was awake for the rest of the night.
When Kevin, my supervisor, called me into his office a few days later, he told me he thought I ought to take some time off. Maybe go to the beach or something. Get some rest.
I resisted. I was fine. Of course I was fine.
“You’re not fine, Joe, and you know it. I didn’t want to have to pull this card, but you’re making it kinda hard not to. Your work is starting to get sloppy. I need you in top form. Every account here relies on your data and if that data can’t be trusted…well… Let’s not go there yet. Just go get some rest. Somewhere not here, okay?”
I was stuck.
“Okay,” I mumbled, feeling hollow.
“Joe?” he said as I turned my back and started for the door.
“Yeah?” I responded.
“You’ll be okay, you know. Grief…well, it’s a tough thing. Makes us feel all kinds of things. Makes us do stuff, or forget stuff, we wouldn’t normally do or forget to do. Grief sucks. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Just…I…I wanted you to know that if you need anything, anything at all, you can call me. Boss or not, I’m still your friend.”
In an odd way, I felt better.
“Thanks,” I said. And left.
I felt at odds with myself. What did I do? Just take off and go to the Bahamas for a week? I could afford to do that, after selling off so much of the farm in order to make it manageable for me. It wasn’t a question of money. It was a question of…what? What was holding me back? Something was, that was for sure. For reasons I could not explain, I understood I could not simply go to the beach, catch some rays, drink a few beers, and come back refreshed. A new man. Something was holding me here.
“Is it grief?” I wondered aloud.
Maybe, I answered myself silently.
I drove home from work that day in a daze. It was just barely past noon, sun still shining brightly overhead in the cloudless blue sky of early September. I took the curves in the road easily, nearly by rote, thinking about my options; distracted. I rounded a curve in the road and was startled out of my self-evaluation by the sight of the red building. Neon sign flashing “Open. Open. Open.” Almost without thought, I found myself pulling off the road and into the gravel parking lot.
There was a car, and a few burly motorcycles parked in the lot. I’d seen it busier on other occasions, but now, it was probably deserted. I sat in my car for a few minutes, wondering what I was doing there. I didn’t even know what this place was, for sure, only the suspicion my father voiced at the supper table those many months ago; that it was a biker bar. A bar. Which meant beer. And I had never wanted a drink more badly than I did right at that minute.
So, without further thought, I left the car and found myself walking slowly up to the entrance of the red building in the woods. I saw my hand reach for the knob on the door, and turn it, giving the wooden barrier a slight push to open it. What I saw on the other side of the door had me stopping in my tracks.
Six men sitting side by side at the bar all turned to stare at me simultaneously. It was very disconcerting.
The bartender, a tall woman with long, sleek, black hair and cat eyes also turned to look at me, stopping in the middle of swiping her grungy towel around the inside of a freshly-washed glass. I was clearly an outsider, and my father had been right. Biker bar.
The men all wore black leather pants, some wore leather jackets or vests, some wore jean jackets. Each staring face had not seen the blade of a razor in months. The bartender, clearly as taken aback by my entrance as her patrons were, was the first to break the silence.
“Easy, boys,” she said. Her voice like warm honey. Then to me, she said, “Come on in, stranger. Want a beer?” Her eyes sparked with vague amusement.
Haltingly, I said, “Yeah. More…more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my life.” I stepped in and closed the door behind me, walking carefully over to the bar.
The guys were still watching me, but with far less hostility than a moment ago, before Ms. Voice Like Honey spoke to them; to me.
She had already poured me a beer and had it ready as I chose a seat a couple stools away from one of the other customers. Instinctively keeping my distance.
“So,” Ms. Voice Like Honey said, “What brings you to The Red Barn today?”
“The Red Barn?” I asked, stupidly.
She opened her hands, palms up, and gestured around her indicating the building. “You’re sittin’ in it, Slick. The Red Barn.”
Feeling stupid, I said, “Oh. Well…” Not really wanting to spill my guts in front of seven total strangers.
The man just to my right, one stool away, said in a deep, gravelly voice, not looking at me, “This is where we come to share all our secrets, son.”
Something about the way he said it was hypnotic, and I suddenly found myself telling these seven people all about the last few months. Mom’s death. Dad’s passing. The farm. The lack of sleep. The nightmares. The forced vacation from work. I told it all while staring into my untouched beer.
When I fell silent, I took a deep breath and then downed my entire beer in one go. When I glanced up, the bartender was already sliding another glass in front of me, and each man at the bar had leaned around to gape at me. To a man, their eyes seemed almost hungry. I saw not one iota of sympathy from them.
“Geez, Slick. Hella rough time you’ve had there,” Ms. Voice Like Honey said. But even she had a look of hunger in her eyes.
I was suddenly more nervous than I’d been when I’d first opened the door to the place. What the heck was I feeling?
“Yeah,” I said with a nervous chuckle.
The dude to my right got off his stool, came over to me, slung a beefy, leather-clad arm around my shoulder and said, “Sorry man. That just…well, it fuckin’ sucks. Let’s get drunk.”
Nerves gone, his stone-like voice once again hypnotic, I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get drunk.”
Before I knew it, tequila was flowing, faster than I’d ever drunk it before, and I was completely wasted in less than thirty minutes.
“Man, you’re a lightweight,” the bartender said, amused.
Slurring my words, trying to stop the room from spinning, I grinned stupidly at her and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Vanessa,” she said. “Though folks usually just call me Nessa.”
“That’s,” I paused, trying to remember how to speak. “That’s a nice name, Nessa.”
“My name’s Stone,” Gravel Voice offered.
He looked at me accusingly, somewhat offended.
“No,” I tried. “No. It’s just…your voice. Your voice makes me think of gravel. So, your name fits.” Speaking was getting hard. Language was beginning to evade me. English. I spoke English, right?
Stone relaxed a bit. Grinned.
Did I imagine it, or, were his teeth sharpened to wicked points?
Didn’t matter. Drunk me was happy.
“You’re my new best friend, Stone,” I slurred. Then passed out, my head on the bar.
When I awoke, I didn’t know where I was or how long I’d been out. I had a killer headache and my stomach felt oily and wavy. I knew if I moved much I’d vomit up my spleen or another vital internal organ. I groaned. Ugh. I’d never gotten that drunk ever in my life. If I never did again it would be too soon. I fell back into unconsciousness, not caring where I was, just wanting to sleep it off.
The next time I awoke, I felt marginally better. Still headachy and nauseous, but I felt like my internal organs might stay put, even if I did vomit. Still, it was not time for me to even attempt to get out of bed. Was I even in a bed?
Finally, after who knows how long, I woke for good. Feeling mostly like myself and desperate for a glass of water and a shower. I opened my eyes gingerly, taking in my surroundings. I was more than a little surprised to find myself at home. At the farmhouse. In my own bed!
When I looked out the window, the filtered light of early morning feeling like ice picks to my sensitive eyes, I saw my car was parked out in the front yard!
I didn’t drive myself home, did I? I mean, I wouldn’t have! Couldn’t have. I was too desperately drunk to even attempt it. Stone or one of the other guys must have driven me home. I felt both embarrassed, and genuinely grateful.
But…something in the back of my head niggled at my thoughts. Something squirmy and uncomfortable. Something I couldn’t remember. I wrote the feeling off to drunkenness and tentatively got out of bed, testing my footing carefully before I attempted to walk to the bathroom.
I stood under the pounding stream until the water ran cold. Then stood there a bit longer until I felt nearly human. When I stepped out of the shower, I wrapped a towel around my waist and grabbed the big plastic University of Tennessee cup I kept on the sink and downed three straight glasses of water.
“Okay,” I said aloud. “Now what?”
I dressed in sweats and a tee shirt, kept my feet bare, and wandered down to the kitchen. Food was…impossible, but coffee was necessary. So, I set about dumping an uncounted number of heaping spoonsful of grounds into a filter, splashed an unmeasured amount of water into the carafe, and flicked the switch. While the brew percolated, filling the small kitchen with it’s life-affirming scent, I leaned against the counter, the heels of my hands pressed to my eyes. It was so bright. Even without a single lamp on inside the house, and a good amount of pre-rain cloud-cover in the sky outside, it was still too bright. As if someone were shining a multi-hundred lumen flashlight into my eyes. But, with my hands pressed to my face, the pain was lessened.
I heard the final gurgle of the coffee maker, which sounded like in animal in the throes of choking to death, and gratefully poured an unsteady cup of the brown stuff. It was awful; too strong. I didn’t care. I burned my tongue and esophagus thoroughly by downing the entire first cup without pause. I was more patient with the second cup, which tasted much better considering I’d fried my taste buds on the first round.
Barefoot, I went outside to collect eggs from the chicken coop, feed them, and make sure they had water. I opened my car to check to see if I’d left anything in there from the night before, but it was clean. Almost too clean. Did Stone pick up after me? That just seemed…weird.
I went back into the kitchen for a third cup of coffee and brought it out to the front porch to sit and sip for a while. It was definitely going to rain.
I heard the phone ring inside and it startled me slightly, making me slop coffee on my tee shirt. “Dammit,” I exclaimed as I rose to answer the phone.
“Joe? It’s Kevin. Just checking in on you. You looked pretty bad when I kicked you out yesterday.”
“Oh, hey Kev. I’m hungover as hell, but I’m okay.”
“Hungover? You serious, man? You hardly ever drink more than one or two,” Kevin chuckled.
“Yeah. My car wound up steering itself to The Red Barn out past the park, toward my parents’…I mean my…house. It was a serious tequila fest, man. I barely remember it. The bartender was hot, though.” I played it cool. Though as I talked about the red building in the woods, I got that squirmy feeling again.
“Well, okay,” Kevin said. “Just…seriously, take care of yourself. I wasn’t kidding about a trip to the beach, you know.”
“I know. I don’t want to go to the beach.” I was mortified to hear the whine in my voice.
“That’s fine, I guess. Just take some time off. Call me when you’re ready to come back, okay?”
“I wonder why it is that when someone is grieving, people think what they need is time off. Time alone. When really, the truth of it is, we need to be busy,” I mused aloud, not expecting Kevin to answer. “Bye, Kev. I’ll call you in a week or so.” I rang off.
Nerves raw, and not knowing what I should do with myself, I decided to start on some of the updates I’d been toying with. So, I went upstairs, shoved my bare feet into ancient and scarred work boots, then went out to the barn fired up the old Ford pick-up my dad used to drive. The cab of the truck smelled of the Old Spice my father used to use. I used to hate that smell. Now, I loved it, though it made me sad.
Home Depot was crowded. It felt strange to be walking around Home Depot in the middle of a Tuesday morning with a still present, though receding, hangover. I looked at paint, chose a color I liked for the foyer, front hallway, stairwell, and upper hall. Got a bunch of other stuff: brushes, rollers, tape, drop cloths. And, once home again, I put it all in the little closet under the stairs and promptly forgot about it.
I spent the rest of the day restless. Wandering the house and the yard. When I wasn’t wandering, I washed my little silver car, and dad’s pick-up. I cleaned the chicken coop. I dumped a bunch of stuff in mom’s old crock pot, not really paying attention. Not caring if it would be edible that evening. It was a long day.
That evening, I flicked through channels on the television, but found nothing of interest to watch. I felt nearly out of my mind with loneliness and grief! These meager distractions were doing nothing for me. And out of nowhere, I got a flash of the red building in the woods. The Red Barn. I could go there, I thought to myself. At least I’d be able to have a drink. Maybe Nessa would be there.
Energized with the vague outline of a plan, I went upstairs to put on jeans instead of sweats and change my coffee-stained tee shirt. I found a mis-matched pair of socks and put the scarred boots back on. When I looked for my wallet, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I spent nearly a half an hour looking for it – I even looked in the freezer, though God knew why I’d put it in there – with no luck. Maybe it was in my car? But, I halted that thought almost immediately. My car had been cleaned out.
Well, I wanted to drive over there anyway. Maybe I’d left my wallet at The Red Barn last night? Surely Nessa, if she’d found it, would have stowed it behind the bar, right? And, driving more carefully than usual since I was operating a motor vehicle without my license in my back pocket, I steered my car to the red building in the woods.
This time, when I opened the door to the place, it was full night, had a full crowd, and much, much louder than the night before because a live band was playing at the far side of the building. I wasn’t noticed the way I’d been yesterday; there were simply too many people for me to stand out that much. But I did feel eyes on me. I glanced toward the bar. Nessa’s gaze caught mine and she lifted her chin in quick, silent greeting.
By the time I’d forced my way to the bar, she’d poured me a drink and, before I even had time to say anything, slid my wallet coolly across the heavily-lacquered surface. “I was hoping you’d come back,” she said smoothly. “You left this here last night.”
“Thanks,” I said, my voice ringing with relief. “I’ve been looking for it everywhere. It’s actually why I came back tonight.”
“I had it in the safe,” Nessa said. “It’s here, under the bar.” I heard a vague thump as she kicked it with the toe of her boot. “Stone drove you home last night. Hope that was okay.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said again, staring at my beer.
She was so pretty, it was hard to look at her. Her cat eyes were green and slanted upward with thick black lashes. Her hair was long and sleek, tonight pulled back in a messy pony tail. She wore a red tank top and black leather pants. Her upper right arm had a tattoo, some symbol I didn’t recognize, but I didn’t know her well enough to ask her anything about her skin alterations. Plus, it was none of my business what she did to her skin.
I silently sipped my beer for a while, as Nessa continued to work the bar, taking and filling orders with a rhythm that was hypnotizing to watch. I hadn’t been there very long when I felt that familiar leather-clad arm clamp around my shoulders in a squeeze. Stone.
“Thought ya might come back, Joe. Feelin’ alright?” he asked in a friendly manner.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Definitely drank too much last night. I think I’m still hungover. But, yay for me, I didn’t vomit up any internal organs and I’ve managed to be semi-productive today,” thinking of my trip to Home Depot. “Thanks for driving me home, by the way.”
“No problem!” Stone boomed. “Wanted to make sure you got home safe. Chuck followed me to your place so I’d have a ride back.”
“Yeah! Chuck,” Stone boomed again, pointing a finger to the other end of the bar to one of the guys who’d been there yesterday. Chuck grinned, nodded at me in greeting, raised his glass, and drank deeply.
“Right,” I said, weakly. “Thanks again.”
“So, you up for round two?”
“No freakin’ way!” I told him with earnest, and had him laughing so loud the whole room turned to look at him. I felt my cheeks go pink with embarrassment.
“No worries. No worries, friend,” Stone said. “Another time.” And, after a quick glance and nod at Nessa, he stalked off to another part of the room to talk with a redhead who’d hailed him.
I finished my beer and left enough money on the counter to cover both drink and tip. I caught Nessa’s eye and sent a wordless thanks her way. She understood and sent back a wordless goodbye. I went home.
That night, the nightmare was stronger than ever. I woke up at two o’clock in the morning with a scream on my lips, the sheets wrapped around me in a restrictive cocoon, sweating like I’d been hiking the desert at high noon. My heart was thumping out of my chest. I didn’t understand what had woken me; couldn’t bring the dream to mind. It was vague. Bloody and terrible, yes, but seen through a mist of shadows. The only clear part being the red building in the woods.
Just as my heart was slowing to a regular rhythm, I heard the chickens out in the yard. Squawking and flapping in fright. I peered out the window and saw, once again, the dark figure standing in the yard staring up at me. Silver eyes glowing.
I didn’t squeeze my eyes closed this time, but took time to register the casual stance, the dark clothing, the pale (too pale) face, half hidden by the hood of what was probably a sweatshirt. A male figure. Some vague recognition tugged at me, but I just couldn’t get there. My head began to hurt.
“Joey?” my mom’s voice said.
Was I still dreaming?
I flipped around and saw the shadow of both my mother and my father, standing at the foot of the bed.
“Joey?” mom said again.
“Mom! Dad! What’s going on?” I asked, frantic and confused.
“Everything is going to be alright, Joey. Your father and I are both here now, Joey. Will you come with us? We have something wonderful to show you.” And, without waiting for an answer, she and dad both turned and practically glided out the bedroom door. I scrambled out of bed, frantic to keep up with them. Confused. Scared. They were dead, for God’s sake. How was it possible that I was following them now, seemingly both alive, out of my bedroom, down the stairs, and out the front door? The figure in the yard forgotten, remembered only when it rushed at me the moment I set foot on the front porch.
That was all I knew.
When I came to, I was in a darkened room, laying on a cot. The room stank of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and vomit. Groaning, putting my hands up to support my acutely aching head, I tried to sit up. I had no idea where I was, but judging by the smell, I was not the first person to find myself here. There was enough light for me to tell the room was no larger than a prison cell, maybe four by six feet. There was a toilet, a sink, and a cot. That was it. The walls were concrete block, painted black, and the faint light was coming from a blacked-out window where some of the paint had been scratched off. Probably by the frightened fingernails of the rooms’ previous occupants.
There was a knock on the door, which startled me and made me yelp in surprise. The door swung open, revealing Nessa.
“Good, you’re awake. Come with me, Slick.” Her voice still honey-like, but with an icy edge I hadn’t heard before.
I stumbled to my feet and followed her.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
She didn’t answer me. She didn’t respond to any of my queries at all. Just kept walking briskly until we were standing in the middle of The Red Barn.
The huge room was empty of patrons, but sitting in a darkened corner, was Stone. I couldn’t really see his face because he was lurking in the shadows, but I knew it was him. Further, I suddenly understood he’d been the figure lurking in the front yard, staring up at my bedroom. I was disconcerted, confused, frightened, and several other things…angry, being one of them.
“Aw, Joe,” Stone said gravelly from his shadowed seat, “Don’t get all puffed up on me, you’ll just piss me off. And we’re friends, right?”
I didn’t respond, just watched him, trying also to keep Nessa in my peripheral vision. She seemed to be slowly creeping around behind me and that made me exceedingly uncomfortable.
“I’ll bet you’re wondering why you’re here,” Stone grumbled. “And, I could tell you. But, then I’d have to kill you.” He laughed mirthlessly at his own joke. “Actually, I’m going to kill you anyway, but since you’re here, and since you seem so willing to be my friend, and Nessa’s, I thought I’d explain before I off you.”
“What did I ever do to you,” I asked, suddenly brave. I mean, if he was going to kill me anyway, I might as well piss him off.
“Oh, you didn’t do anything, Joe. I just like you is all. You’re fun. And I’d like to keep you around for the next millennia. Nessa would like to keep you, too.” He grinned wickedly in her direction, his sharp teeth glinting in the poor light. (They had not been a hallucination.) I could hear Nessa’s irritated sigh off to my left. She was nearly behind me now.
“So, here’s the thing, Joe. I want your house. Me and Nessa and Chuck and the others. It’s close to this place, and…well, it’s just perfect for us. So we’re going to take it from you. See, first we offed your mom. She was easy. A little mental suggestion, a few bad dreams, and she basically offed herself, really. She had a bad heart…” He trailed off at my look of surprise.
“You didn’t know, did you. Well, I’m sure there were a lot of things your parents never told you. You can ask them later. They’re in the back.” He grinned again, making me break out in gooseflesh. “Anyway, mommy has a heart attack during the night and simply doesn’t wake up the next morning. Daddy was upset. So upset he pined away for your mom until he, too, was ours for the taking. Again, a few bad dreams, one wickedly fun hallucination, and whoops! Those stairs just jumped up and tripped him. Too bad for you. But I like your dad. I like your mom, too. They’ll be good company for you when you join us.”
“Why would I join you?” I asked critically. Hatred seething, barely contained, just beneath the surface of my skin.
“Why? Because I want you to, that’s why,” Stone answered, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. “I want your house. I want you to hang around for a while. Nessa chose you and she wants you to hang around, too. Among other reasons.”
“Not good enough,” I growled at him through clenched teeth, amazing myself at my bravery. “Tell me the real reason.”
“Ok, you got me,” Stone said, good humoredly. “See, years ago, when your mom and dad bought the farm, they didn’t know the value it really holds for me and mine. There are catacombs underneath that property that have been part of my family for generations on end. So far back you could not even calculate it. We’ve been gone for a long time, but now I’m back, and I want what’s mine. It was never yours. Never your parents’, either. And it never belonged to anyone else who falsely held a deed,” he sneered at the word, “to that house and the surrounding lands.”
“I sold most of the land,” I said.
“I know. You sold all the land to me and mine. We are everywhere, now. Taking over you useless humans one by one. Your parents can tell you all about it later. But for now, I want you to say yes. Just say yes. And I’ll make your death quick and painless. Fight me, and you’ll suffer for weeks before you finally join us.”
“Who is ‘Us’?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Nessa said from directly behind me. “All you need to know, Slick, is we’re not vampires.”
I laughed then. Real amusement echoing in the darkened room. “Vampires? Seriously? You want me to believe in vampires?”
“No,” Nessa said. “I want you to believe we’re NOT vampires. But if it makes it easier for you, you can think of us as one of the undead. That does apply, in a weird way.”
“Nessa…” Stone grumbled in warning.
“Sorry boss,” she said, and came around to my right side to stand beside me. Immediately, I felt less cornered.
“You’re out in the light,” I said.
“Light? I like light,” Stone said. “I like the sun, too, though I have to admit it does slow me down some. I like the night life. I like to boogie.” He sang the last part and grinned at me, silver eyes glinting malevolently.
“I told you, Slick, we’re NOT vampires,” Nessa said wearily. “Are you really that thickheaded?”
“What are you then?” I asked.
“Ancient,” Stone replied. “Ancient and not something you want to fuck with. So, are you in? Or, are you out? Either way, let’s get started.” He rubbed his hands together in clear anticipation.
“Wait,” I said. “I want to talk to my parents first.”
“Nope. Not until afterward. Already told ya that,” Stone said evenly.
I thought long and hard. I wanted to live. I wanted to live more than I’d wanted that beer when I’d first set foot inside this awful place. I wanted to go back to my dull job and my boring life no matter what it took. But if I couldn’t have those things, I did, desperately, want to keep my life my own.
I began to look around, trying to think of a way I might escape. I was too far from the external door. I didn’t think I could make it. But just as I began to contemplate escape, a shrieking ululation came from the back room. High pitched and awful. Worse than nails down a chalk board. I covered my ears automatically in response. Glasses on the bar began to shatter and both Stone and Nessa lost their focus on me.
“Dammit!” Nessa said, and left my side to run toward the back room.
“SHUT THEM UP!” Stone hollered after her.
I didn’t think. I just ran. Ran for the door and barged out into the bright sunlight thanking God it was still bright daylight outside. There were no cars in the parking lot, so, I just took off at top speed, grateful for all the monotonous hours in the gym. The Red Barn was six miles from the farm, and I knew I probably wouldn’t make it, but I had to try!
I pushed, hard. My legs pumping under me, screaming at the effort. I didn’t stop to look behind me and was just on the verge of stopping, just on the cusp of breaking down and giving up, when I rounded a curve and saw the farmhouse off to the right. It was less than a quarter mile away. I had to make it. I HAD to!
I ran again. As fast as I could, my strength fading quickly, my heart pumping hard, my breathing becoming ragged, and made it to my little house. I dashed inside, grabbed my wallet, my passport, took time to stuff a few random pieces of clothing into a duffle bag, snagged my keys and was back outside running for the barn less than five minutes later. I wanted the truck. It wasn’t much for gas mileage, and it was more than familiar to the locals, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be as familiar to Them…whatever they were.
The truck coughed to life and I screeched out of the barn, pushing pedal to the metal, my only thought to get as far away from the farmhouse as I could. Knowing I’d never be able to go back, but not able to spare a thought for the loss of that, too. Somehow, I got lucky.
I’m in Rio right now. Things have been quiet. Stone and Nessa almost caught up with me in San Diego two months ago, but luck stayed with me and I managed to slip away from them again. They’re pissed at me and they’re not going to stop. They’ve made that abundantly clear. I don’t know what I’ll become when they catch up with me, because they will. Especially after I publish this. Like I said, I’m in Rio right now, and I’m staying in Rio. After two years of looking over my shoulder, I’m tired.
Am I giving up? Hell no. Well, maybe a little, I suppose. But the bottom line is I want you all to know that there are worse things out there than debt, government conspiracies, and lab rats. Worse than losing your mother and your father and your home. And you’ve got to keep your eyes open! You’ve got to watch, people! Watch!
For eyes that glow silver in the dark of night and teeth as sharp as razor blades.
Do I regret my life? Yeah, I kinda do. I know I could have done so much more with it. I would have, too, if I hadn’t run into Nessa.
For me, it comes down to Nessa and that first beer she passed over the counter to me. I lied when I said I’d only gone back for my wallet. I’d gone back to make a go at Nessa, too. Even though I was pretty sure she’d laugh in my face. But, apparently, she wanted me, too. And now, that’s why she and Stone have been dogging my every turn for the last twenty-seven months.
She wants me. And she’ll turn over every stone in her path until she finds me.
I realize now it was my parents in the back room of the building in the woods. My parents making all that awful noise, as a distraction, so I could run. At least that’s what I think, anyway.
So, for my friends, I guess I just want to say sorry. I know you don’t believe me. That it will be easier for you to believe I’d bolted out of grief. But, though that’s partially true, I ran to save my life.
Now, I’ll die to save yours.
CREDIT : Jennifer Shell
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