Stuff of Dreams
by Cheryl W. Ruggiero
and Susan A. Hagedorn
part 1 of 2
Freefall from 15,000 feet didn’t kill him. It woke him up and saved his life.
Heart pummeling his sternum, Mike Deem gulped ship-stale air in the dark, felt the warm inner hull along his right arm, and heard the quiet chatter of the ship’s self-talk: all proof that he was alive, that plunging toward death in an icy landscape was just a nightmare.
He was not falling. The ship was not falling. Well, actually, it might have shifted from powered flight to freefall from Mars toward Earth. His arm against the hull... yes, it was floating. How did it get outside the sleep sack? Well, that was that. Freefall in space triggered freefall in a dream. There’s always an explanation. Flux! He had to pee.
He unzipped the sack and squashed through the gnome-sized hatch. The pennypinchers who designed this tiny tub oughta be forced to live in it. But gotta save credits somewhere. It was the taxpayers’ money after all, since the hound who’d sent this boat after him, Major Justus Bahr, was Military Intel.
Mike, too, was now Mil Intel, and he’d been drowning that truth in the sense-pots of Mars Strip when Lieutenant-Gofer Gambell showed up in this spacefaring kennel. Major Bahr, of course, was scratching his backside comfortably on Earth. Well, maybe not so comfortably, since the recall orders were for McMurdo Station.
Antarctica. The land he fell to in his dream.
Mike could barely mash his whole self into the hygiene station, but at least it processed things efficiently and didn’t talk to him the way almost everything else on the ship did.
Wham! Air was sucked from his lungs as oxy-gel expanded to pin him half-naked in its slimy embrace. Total blackness, and all he could think was that he’d sold his soul to Bahr and was dying in the john.
Air filled his lungs as the gel de-structured. “FLUX!” If he could cuss, he must be alive.
He shoved the door release. Nothing moved. The ship’s courteous, androgynous voice intoned advice. “Hygiene station repressurization complete. Egress prohibited until repressurization of entire habitat is complete.”
“Egress, my ass! I want a suit!”
Monotone politeness replied. “Your ass may not egress until repressurization is complete. No body part may egress until repressurization is complete.”
“Extrude me a pressure suit, blast you.” He pounded the extruder that offered a catalog of objects on demand.
“Extruding pressure suit for Deem, Michael, Lieutenant.”
Two minutes later Mike extracted a multi-layer skinsuit, dropped its rubbery mass on his head, and shivered as it rolled down his body, enveloping, sealing, bubbling out over his face to feed him three hours of air from its chemical stores, congealing between his bare feet and the floor that was turning icy cold. He levered his feet toward the hatch in zero-gee to be ready to launch himself through it.
“I’m suited. Egress my whole person. NOW.”
A soft line of light scanned him. “Suit secure. Spin-simulated gravity not restored. Habitat currently pressurized to ten percent. Hatch opening.”
Equalizing pressure sucked him through until his shoulders jammed and his guts screamed like they’d egressed a mile ahead of him.
He hated it when the ship was right.
He struggled out into the corridor and floated for a moment. He figured he’d better call Gambell, the only other human in the ship and supposedly in command of this recall mission, though Mike had wondered in the past few hours if Gambell was in command of himself. In Mike’s medical opinion, the guy was distracted, to say the least. Mike growled into the pressure suit’s link. “Control? What happened?”
He looked back the way he’d come, toward the cluster of four cabins, his and Gambell’s next to each other on the starboard side. Loose stuff congregated there in the weak air pressure and freefall: a yellow message flimsy, an insulated glove, blobs of reddish ice. Blood? Mike pushed off toward them.
The paired doors to their two cabins were ruins. Mike activated the suit’s headlamp to supplement dim cabin emergency lighting. He peered into Gambell’s unit and wished he hadn’t.
In the hull, Gambell’s head and shoulders, dead and icy, protruded from the sealant that had flash-extruded and hardened across an exploded gap, a gap that wrecked the bulkhead between cabins and cracked along the hull just where Mike’s head had been dreaming of freefall. Sealed and frozen near Gambell’s face was Gambell’s right hand, gripping a blaster.
Mike shuddered and tried to swear, but he knew neither foul enough words nor gods he could blame. Gambell must’ve fired a blaster beam through the hull, been sucked out feet first, and been cut in half by the force of the sealant’s violent deployment.
Mike didn’t want to think about where the rest of Gambell was, though he knew he’d have to send a bot back for it.
Personal log entry, Deem, Michael, Lieutenant
Rosie (Communication Unit ROS 32-417 sounds too impersonal), clean up my grammar, etc., even if only the two of us will read it, that’s a good girl.
Sergeant Russell L. Gambell arrived at my Mars resort with sealed orders: immediate recall from Major Bahr for a hush-hush investigation at the Earth McMurdo station. And I should observe Gambell for any anomalies. (Anomalies? Bahr should see what’s acceptable at Paradise Ltd., Mars if you have enough credits!). OK, back to my M.D. hat.
Patient refused to speak, exhibited sleep disruption with concomitant waking distraction and disconnection. Ship’s control monitor showed that the night of the incident he was moaning when conscious, moving erratically, mumbling “Rock, rock, solid rock, gotta get out.” He took a blaster to the hull. Trying to get out of a spaceship by blasting a hole in it, I’d call that an anomaly.
McMurdo dock was deserted. Even so, on Bahr’s orders, the ship had been illegally cloaked the entire trip, and Mike’s suit carried a prohibited scrambler that would make him unreadable to satellites. Good thing Bahr’s ship was small enough to land like a shuttle.
He waded through a veil of dry snow blowing across the icy surface where snowpack still clung, still damn cold, even in the thrall of the latest warming short-cycle. The habitat and labs were deserted.
Bahr’s voice snarled in his headset. “Deem. Where’s Gambell?”
“Where the flux are you, Bahr?”
“I’m in control.”
Mike turned down a passage and stopped at the door to the control room, where a seal warning glowed. “Why are you sealed in?”
“The aft parts of him are being botted down 48 hours behind me. The forward parts are frozen in his cabin hull.”
“What do you see in front of you, Deem?”
“What do you mean what do I see in front of me? I see a sealed door. What’s wrong with you?”
“How did Gambell get frozen into the hull?”
“I’ll beam you the record, Major—”
“No, Deem, you moron! No beam. Did you beam anything else?”
“No, sir. Gambell passed me your hush orders, Major Bahr, sir.”
“Cut the protocol, Deem. Talk like that and I know you’re lying. Get your ass in here.”
The seal light faded and the door opened. Bahr was seated at the control console, fully pressure-suited and holding a blaster.
A body lay in the freezer shed, serenely icy. Mike had not really been afraid of Bahr’s weapon, but the corpse frightened him deeply. He knew her. Lieutenant Laura Wurly and he had run together in training. She was small, wiry, and very fast. He wanted her goofy laugh and quirky smile to replay in his head, but no image would come and blot out the sight of her now, naked and cold. He took a breath. Two. It was his job to make the next words come out: “What has sampling revealed?”
“Like I know how to sample, Deem? That’s what I had Wurly and Pyrush for.”
Bahr turned away from the body and glared at Mike. “Babbling and raging in the food locker. He went as nuts as Wurly. And, oh, when he tried to gut me with an ice axe, I hit him in the head with a flashtube, all I had in my hand at the time. See if you can salvage him, Deem.” His glare dared Mike to object.
“Salvage? Maybe he just took exception to your attitude, like, oh, he’d rather be a person than a piece of equipment.”
“A defective piece of equipment now, anyway. So they’re out of action and now I have you. Sample ’em yourself.”
Mike finally asked the obvious. “So what happened?”
“More or less what you reported with Gambell.” Bahr’s palm slid across his faceplate, as if he were trying to wipe his face. “Damn suit! No... Good suit! Good suit!” He shivered.He went on. “Wurly pulled off her station knits like they were on fire and ran screaming out into a freezing whiteout. Nobody was in the hab lounge with her at the time, but we got the action on one of my cams. No suit, no locator. We found her hours later. Dead, of course. When we got the body back here, Pyrush shrieked like a demon and came at me with an ice axe. I slugged him, and Gambell and I dragged him into the food locker. Gambell seemed OK, so I sent him to get you.”
“I need to see those vids.”
“No, Deem. I’ve had all monitors here rigged to show nothing but the same empty station loop since before we got here. I erase my own cams when I’ve seen what I need, and I’ll wipe the ship’s log, too.”
“We’re not supposed to be here. You know that. No one’s been allowed here since the 2198 spill. Just do your medical thing and find out what went wrong with them, and find out how to keep it from going wrong with us too.”
Personal log entry, Deem, Michael, Lieutenant
All right. All right. Two days now, and I’m getting used to keeping company with the dead. And the nearly dead; Pyrush is non-responsive but febrile. The few tests I can run with my own kit and stuff from the ship’s medberth show increasing cerebral inflammation, in spite of the anti’s I’ve given him. If he doesn’t come around soon, I’ll have to get him out of here. I’ll check on him again in an hour.
But Rosie, you’d better treat me right; you’ve got some new competition for my affections!
These dreams! Last night, SHE stayed with me all night. Oh, warm. Oh, dark. I’m glad I can’t see her; I think she wouldn’t look exactly human. I can feel that she’s hairy and smells like... hmmm... but then I’m hairy too, in my dreams. And we all smell the same in my dreams.
And I can smell things I know have big teeth. And hear things I know have big claws. And my mother died, and the big teeth came and ate her. And we all ran and ran. And we were hungry. And we slept in the dark and SHE was so warm!
Mike thought Bahr looked rougher inside his sealed suit each morning. “Not sleeping well, Chief?” He hoped the boss suffered all night. At least Bahr looked better than Pyrush, who was hot, twitching, moaning, but unresponsive to stimuli.
The bot boat arrived with the rest of Gambell. Bahr himself towed the half-body into the shed and then left. Mike looked out the viewport just in time to see the boat disintegrate and disperse on the wind. Bahr trudged back into the station.
Too late, Mike yelled anyway. “You should’ve contained that stuff! What were you thinking?”