Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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Fortunatus

by Christopher J. Ferguson




A bad egg saved Reggie Ellington's life.

On one particular day of work Reggie decided to have some leftover hard boiled eggs for breakfast and he didn't reheat them, as he was running late. Some critter, the sort of critter that lives within the inside of all our refrigerators, had come to inhabit one of these particular hardboiled eggs. Upon consumption this critter and about a million of its friends decided that Reggie's stomach and intestines were the perfect place to live for awhile.

Unaware of the digestive havoc he had invited upon himself, Reggie continued on to work in Houston. It promised to be an exciting day at work today. Today the Leda would descend down through Jupiter's cloud covers. Reggie was so excited that he had been barely able to sleep. This moment was the culmination of many years of hard work. This was the pay-off day.

When Reggie arrived in mission control, he found the entire team was present for this momentous event. Perhaps twenty people milled about in the room, tittering nervously, awaiting the big show. Many of them fidgeted about, or talked nervously among themselves. Reggie knew that failure was always a distinct possibility, and failure would mean that the last few years had been spent fruitlessly. A moment such as this could make or break his career, or all of their careers, at least with NASA. One of the team, Jacob Tillman, had set up a camera to record the reactions of the team members as the probe settled down through the atmosphere. The tension and excitement swirled around each other like twin spirits in combat. It was infectious, and Reggie needed little encouragement.

Looking around, Reggie remarked to himself how little he really knew most of these people. He had worked side by side with most of them for years now, gotten along with them fine. But he had just never been sociable enough to get to know most of them. Oh sure, there were work barbecues and happy hours, but seldom had he spoken to any of these people about important details of his life or theirs. Perhaps Jacob was the one exception. Sometimes Reggie would get together with Jacob over a couple of beers. Jacob usually did most of the talking, and so Reggie knew a bit more about his life...his wife and young son, his love for gardening, and disdain for all other useful chores. Jacob was a good guy, and Reggie counted him among his few friends. Suddenly, at this moment of fruition, Reggie was keenly aware of his own social isolation and now felt badly about it. After today he would make some effort to get to know these people better. Perhaps he'd never be an extrovert, but he'd been through a lot with these folks.

Jacob greeted Reggie with an enthusiastic smile, "Exciting huh? The descent is starting in a few minutes." Leda would be the first unmanned probe to enter Jupiter's atmosphere and send back recordings.

Reggie nodded and took his seat at a console. In truth, Reggie wasn't really necessary for Leda at this point. He had been responsible for in-flight software and adjustments, as well as being prominent during Leda's design phase. This was the time for him to hand over his responsibility to others who would be in charge of the descent. That suited Reggie fine: he felt too nervous today to be in a position of great importance. He'd rather be able to sit back and watch.

Around Reggie, people hushed as Leda began her descent. Leda's cameras filmed the violent clouds of Jupiter's outer layers as her retrorockets deployed and she began descending. Reggie's eyes flicked back and forth between images projected onto almost a dozen computer screens near him. Some of the screens were in regular light, although most were enhanced through other spectrums, such as infrared or X-ray. Most folks probably would have been more confused than impressed with the swirling masses of hydrogen punctuated by flashes of violent electrical energy, as it was difficult to the untrained eye to understand much of what occurred around Leda. Simultaneously with the cameras, Leda relayed information on Jupiter's temperature, wind speed, pressure and other variables of interest to the scientists collected in the room. It was about then that Reggie's intestines began to complain.

"Oh, geeze," Reggie thought after the waves of cramping were clearly becoming worse and worse, "of all the times for something stupid like this." The Leda probe descended further and further into Jupiter. The entire process was expected to take several hours before finally Leda would be destroyed. Each moment was going to be irreplaceable.

Reggie waited, hoping that this feeling would pass. For an hour of the early descent he managed to keep things under wraps. But the rumbling in his abdomen was getting worse and worse, the waves of cramping becoming more and more urgent. The descent was getting closer and closer to what would likely be the end of Leda's trip before she was crushed by the pressure of Jupiter's atmosphere. He didn't want to miss a moment of it. This was going to be the climax of years of work. Oh sure, Reggie thought, the people in this room were going to spend months, perhaps years, analyzing the data they had gotten from Leda's voyage. Significant journal articles; manuscripts in Science or Nature were going to come from this. But the singular moment, the moment that Leda descended down into Jupiter's atmosphere, was now. This was history, perhaps just a minor moment in history, but history nonetheless.

Intestinal distress did not wait for history, however. He squirmed in his seat, actually beginning to perspire from the discomfort. Finally, he stood and made his way for the door. There was no more denying it, he was going to have to miss some of the descent. Hopefully there was enough time left that he wouldn't miss the final few minutes, but he could not wait any longer.

Jacob looked over as he was leaving, his face constantly looking back toward the viewer of the camera he was using to record everything. Jacob was positioned further back than everyone else, and thus was the only one to see Reggie leave. "Hey," he asked, disbelief in his voice, "where are you going?"

Reggie grimaced, "I've got to use the loo. I think I must have ate something that's gotten the better of me."

Jacob rolled his eyes, "Can't you tie a knot in it, man? This is good stuff. You're going to miss it!"

"I'm going to have a photo-finish as it is," Reggie said, pulling open the door as quickly as he could without losing all of his poise. "I'll be back as quick as I can."

And with that he was out of the room, racing down the hall to the men's room. Reggie did not enjoy the next few moments. Suffice to say that Reggie was delayed approximately fifteen minutes, an intolerable length of time to his poor brain, considering the exciting scientific discoveries that he was unable to share in.

As quickly as he dared without risking hygiene, Reggie washed his hands, dried them in a perfunctory manner, as the rest room had only the air drying machines that took forever to do anything, and leaped back into the hall. He ran down the hall, hoping that he did not miss much.

He turned the corner outside of the control room and nearly ran headlong into a pair of paramedics wheeling in the first of four stretchers.

Reggie stopped short outside of the control room watching the paramedics with a slack jaw. Each of these men and women were big burly types, wearing thick rubber coats and gas masks. This was certainly not what he had been expecting to return to at all. From inside the control room he could hear perhaps two dozen confused voices, some crying, and the sound of...was that someone puking? The paramedics' voices tried to rise above the others, themselves asking what had happened, and getting no coherent answer.

One of them, one of the last to go in the control room, looked over at Reggie and asked, "Hey, are you the one who called this in?" His voice was thick through the mask.

Reggie shrugged, not sure what the guy was talking about, "Called what in? I have no idea what's going on."

The paramedic immediately turned away, saying not another word as he finished pushing the fourth stretcher into the room. The tension and excitement that Reggie had left behind was now replaced with an air of urgency, confusion...and horror.

Already, several members of the team were in the hall, leaning against the wall, or sitting down on the tile. Each of them appeared healthy enough, though their faces were pale, eyes wide and sunken. Each of them appeared shaken, exhausted even, breathing very heavily as if they had just run a marathon. One of them leaned over and retched violently on the floor as Reggie watched.

His eyes bulging, Reggie exclaimed, "What the hell happened here?" None of them answered him, not one of them so much as looked up at him to acknowledge his presence. They were in shock, Reggie guessed, some form of psychological shock.

Having been ignored by the paramedics, and now by these colleagues who acted as if they had just escaped a fire, Reggie turned and took a few steps into the control room he had left only minutes before.

Physically the room looked much as when he had left it. There were no signs of there having been a fire, no smell of gas in the air. The computers were all still on and functioning, although Reggie was saddened to see that the screens that had been following Leda were now showing only static and nothing more. So too, a quick glance at the consoles showed that Leda was no longer sending data of any kind. Evidently her journey had come to an end while he had been in the rest room.

More critically, four members of his team were laid out on the floor, unresponsive. Once again, they physically looked fine; he saw no evidence of burns or blood, but they were unmoving and quiet. It was around these four that the paramedics gathered, checking on their vital signs, shining lights in their eyes, all of the things that paramedics do.

"Pulse is fast and shallow, eyes are fully dilated, not responsive," said one paramedic, leaning over a pretty young woman.

"I've got the same here," said another, attending to an Asian man, "b.p. is eighty over forty, pulse one-seventy..." His voice was professional, but agitated. These men were clearly concerned about what they had walked in on.

"We need to get these four to the hospital right now," said a third paramedic, evidently one of the fellas in charge. "What about the rest of these people?"

Two of the paramedics were doing their best to attend to the rest of the people in the room, the ten to fifteen people who had not collapsed, but all of whom had wide, frightened eyes, who answered the paramedics' questions with confused, even paranoid answers. Some of these people had vomited, and the stench was acrid in the room. All of the people who had not collapsed were shaking and moving around erratically. Some hovered over their fallen comrades, demanding to know if their friends were alright. Others seemed frightened of the paramedics, trying to keep out of arms reach. A few kept expressing their disbelief over and over, although what it was that they disbelieved, Reggie did not yet know.

"From what I can tell," said another paramedic, answering her boss, "blood pressure and heart rate are high for all the conscious ones. Pupils dilated but responsive. Mental status seems confused. I think they're in shock..."

The paramedic who had accosted Reggie in the hall now came over to him, "Sir, we may have a chemical leak in here. I'm going to need to ask you to leave." He gave Reggie a push on the chest before Reggie could respond.

"Let's get everybody outside," the boss said. "The four on the ground go two to a bus, get them to the hospital now. We'll need to call back-up for the rest. They all need to get checked. Meanwhile, we need to shut this building down..."

Moment by moment, more paramedics and firemen descended on the building. The fire alarm was pulled, and Reggie found himself herded outside into the hot Houston air. He was grouped off to one side with the rest of the people from the control room, kept separate from the other building employees. He knew they were being isolated. He still had no idea what was going on, his questions met only by vacant, frightened stares.

At last, hovering outside with firemen and now police officers keeping a cordon around their little group, not letting them leave, Reggie managed to find Jacob. Jacob shook and mumbled like the rest, but Reggie found him to be a bit more coherent.

"What the Hell is going on here, Jake?" Reggie asked, feeling his own blood pressure rising.

Jacob looked at him with wide, disbelieving eyes, "You didn't see it, did you? That's right, you were out of the room..." Around them the other members of their team were moaning, crying, muttering incoherently. Some of them were arguing with the police, trying to escape the cordon. At least one had to be restrained, wrestled to the ground and handcuffed.

Reggie held up his hands, "What, was there a gas leak or something?"

"I thought it was a joke," Jacob said, looking away from Reggie, looking down at his hands, "Some kind of sick joke." Jacob rocked as he spoke, hugged himself as if he was cold.

"What was a joke?" Reggie pressed on, needing to know what had occurred.

Jacob looked up at him, making direct eye-contact for the first time. Reggie took an involuntary step back. Jacob's eyes were bloodshot, the lids slightly swollen as if he had been crying. His gaze looked to have been stripped of its humanity. "It landed," Jacob whispered, as if telling a great and horrible secret, "Leda landed."

"That's not possible," Reggie said with a frown. "Do you mean she made it down into the liquid hydrogen?"

Jacob shook his head violently, closing his eyes tight, "No, rocky surface..."

Reggie shook his head, "That's not possible, Jake. Leda would have been crushed long before she reached the core. And she couldn't have gotten through the layers of liquid hydrogen..."

Jacob reached out and grabbed Reggie's shirt with both fists, pulling him in close. "Are you even listening to me?!" he shouted, spraying spittle into Reggie's face. Out of the corner of his eye, Reggie saw two police officers edge in their direction. Jacob calmed himself, letting go of Reggie's shirt, "I'm sorry man, I'm sorry...." he wiped away a tear from one eye with his shirt sleeve.

"It's okay man," Reggie said, "I get the hint, I'll shut up about Leda."

"It was a good thing you left, man," Jacob sobbed, looking back at the ground. "It's a good thing you left."

Reggie was going to ask more, but he felt a hand on his shoulder, turned and found himself staring into a gas mask. "Come with me, sir," said a female voice behind the mask. She pulled him toward a newly arrived ambulance.

"Wait," Reggie said, motioning toward Jacob, "What about my friend?"

"Sir," said the woman, the hand on his shoulder tightening its grip, "you're the only one who looks unaffected. Now please come with me so we can get you checked out. There's a chance if you stay with the group, if they have something infectious or if they're contaminated, you may become affected. Now will you come with me, sir, or will I need to ask one of the policemen to escort you?"

Flabbergasted, Reggie turned back to Jacob, "Just hold tight, Jake, I'll come find you when I can..." but Jacob had already turned away from Reggie, and was sobbing in his sleeve, looking as if he had already forgotten their conversation.

Helpless and confused, Reggie let himself be led away from his colleagues.

###

Reggie spent the next few hours being poked with needles, CAT scanned, X-rayed, and prodded in various other ways by men and women in gloves, gowns and masks. He pondered the fate of his colleagues and their well-being. He was kept separate from them, indeed in a quarantined room. At last, after many hours, the doctors seemed satisfied with him and pronounced him free to go. As he collected his clothing from a sealed plastic bag, he asked one of the departing doctors, a younger woman, "Have you heard anything of the rest of my colleagues...the folks from NASA?"

She paused on her way out the door, a look on her face like she had been close to freedom before being snatched tragically back to doom, "Four of them are in critical care and have not regained consciousness. The other seventeen are under observation. They appear to have experienced shock, but are in good health otherwise. They're all under quarantine, I'm sorry, but I don't have any more information for you." She left, not inviting other questions.

###

Slouching and barely able to pick his feet off the floor, Reggie went home to a dark and empty apartment. He turned on the light and sighed, not really sure what to do with himself. Absentmindedly he turned on the television. After a moment a pair of news anchors came on, blithering and blathering about something or another, smiling and pretending that they liked each other. Reggie was curious if the incident at NASA might have made the news, and so he left the television on. He checked his answering machine and found a message waiting for him.

"Reggie," called a warm voice from the machine, after Reggie had pushed the appropriate button, "I just heard about what happened at NASA, and wanted to check that you were alright..." It was Bill Ellis, who Reggie considered his best friend. They had gone to university together at Rice. Reggie had continued on to get an advanced degree, Bill had gotten the call and gone into the seminary. He'd have to call Bill back as soon as he could; he didn't want his friend to worry.

Before he could do so, the phone rang, an angry shrill sound that startled Reggie. Looking at the caller ID, he saw it was Kevin Riggs, Reggie's NASA section chief. Reggie guessed he should have expected this. Kevin would be expecting answers that Reggie didn't have.

"Hi Kevin," Reggie said as he answered the phone.

"Reggie," Kevin exclaimed, his voice loud and raw, "first thing: are you alright?"

"Yeah, Kevin, I seem to be."

"Good," Kevin said, and the evident relief in his voice was heartwarming, "the hospital told me you'd be released. They wouldn't say much about the others. How's the rest of the team?"

"Four of them," Reggie rattled off the four names of the people he had seen unconscious, "are comatose. The rest are okay, I think. I think they're going to be released soon."

Kevin let loose with a string of shouted profanities that had Reggie holding the phone away from his ear. Then, calming himself slightly, he asked, "What the hell happened in there? I'm told the HAZMAT team didn't find shit. How'd I lose the goddam whole team in a control room? Jesus-friggin'-Christ, four people in comas. How does that happen?"

As Kevin said this, Reggie noted that the news anchors had made their way to the story about the incident at NASA. At that very moment they were confirming what Kevin had just said, the female anchor saying with a mildly concerned (but not too concerned as to alarm the viewers!) expression that no chemical cause for the "injuries" had been found. Reggie was momentarily distracted, listening to what they were saying, hoping for information, but otherwise the news story provided few other details that Reggie didn't already know.

"Reggie?" Kevin was demanding from the phone.

"Sorry, boss, just saw the story come on the news."

"Yeah, yeah, look, I'm flying back from Canaveral tonight. We've gotta go back over Leda data, see if there's any clue there what might have happened. If you're not feeling well and you need time off, you just say the word..."

It wasn't what Kevin wanted, that was obvious enough. "I'm fine, boss," Reggie assured him with a mental sigh.

"Alright, I don't know what kind of shape anyone else is going to be in, but I could use your help. I'm gonna be pulling techs off of other projects, but I need someone on the team to help go through the data. Can you meet me in the control room first thing in the morning? And don't worry; I'll have the HAZMAT team do another sweep through first."

"I can do that," Reggie promised and their conversation ended with Kevin telling Reggie to get some rest.

Although he was tired, Reggie called up his friend Bill instead.

"Reggie," Bill said as he picked up the phone, caller ID apparently having made its way to Catholic churches everywhere, "I was getting concerned about you."

"Hi Bill. Are you free for a bit? I could use a couple of beers."

A half-hour later, at McGinty's Pub, Reggie tried to call Jacob's cell phone while he waited for Bill to arrive. After a few rings, he was connected with Jacob's voice mail, left a message and hung up. He considered calling Jacob's home number, but it was well after midnight, and he imagined that Jacob's kids must be sleeping, whatever else was going on. He put his cell phone back in his pocket and sipped at his beer without enthusiasm.

Reggie felt tired, but wasn't ready to try to sleep yet. He was feeling too on edge, and hoped that an hour or two with Bill would relax him. Mostly, Reggie liked being a loner. Yet a night or two a week at the Pub or movies with Bill, or sometimes Jacob if he could get a night away from the family satisfied his social needs. Sometimes Reggie would have a girlfriend around too, but marriage and family just never seemed to be in the cards for him. Oddly enough, tonight as he waited, he found himself thinking about that, once again reflecting on his self-imposed isolation from his own species. There were times that he regretted it, thought that at very least he ought to try to settle down with a nice lady, raise a kid or two, take part in that American dream. Maybe it wasn't exactly his thing, but maybe it wouldn't be so bad either.

He felt Bill's hand on his shoulder as Bill slid into the seat next to him, "How are you, Reggie?" he asked gently. Bill was still dressed in his priestly clothes, black shirt and pants, white collar. Naturally, in a bar he drew some looks. He always said that he wasn't the first Irish priest who was known to tip back some beers.

Reggie shrugged, "Heck of a day at work today. Guess you saw something about it on the news?"

The bartender brought over a draft for Bill without being asked. Bill and Reggie were regulars here, once a week maybe, enough for the bartender to get used to them and like their tips. "I saw something on the news, not sure if I understood what happened." Reggie did his best to relay the day's events to Bill.

"Everyone was just kind of nuts," Reggie concluded. "They all looked like they'd been through a war or something."

"Chemical release?" Bill asked, repeating the main theory of the day.

"Kevin said the HAZMAT team didn't find any traces of anything," Reggie shrugged and changed the subject, "How are things going with you?"

Bill sipped at his drink, "Same old, same old. Absolutions for the sinners, alms for the poor, you know how it goes. I had an interesting couple come in today, you know we give them this personality test, the FOCCUS test, see if they really ought to get married?" Reggie nodded. "Well you know how we get some real live ones sometimes? Well this guys says on the test that he questions whether he might be homosexual..."

Reggie managed a laugh at that, a good hearty laugh over his drink, "That's a heck of a thing to bring up getting married in a Catholic Church isn't it?"

"Well," Bill hemmed, being reasonable, "it certainly is the sort of conflict that you'd want to resolve before deciding to walk down the aisle. So you know it's part of my duty to point out to people where there may be some road bumps in the future. I'm waiting for these people to come in this morning to talk about their results, and the better part of my morning I'm wondering to myself exactly how to bring this up in a delicate way, you know? Eventually I've got them settled in my office, and I'm trying to broach the issue as diplomatically as I can talking about how perhaps they haven't considered the full implications of married life with each other, perhaps have some conflicts in their personal life that need resolution first. I'm trying not to put the guy on the spot, you know, but they're looking at me like I'm speaking Aramaic." Bill had an animated way of telling stories that got Reggie laughing, and Reggie was enjoying the distraction. "At last the wife to be looks at me and says, 'Is this because Tim is gay?' Apparently the woman was of the opinion that gay men make ideal husbands as they understand women better."

"Well, I'll be..." Reggie laughed.

"They did love each other very much, of that I'm sure, although I think it was more of a best friends kind of thing. The poor young fellow was very uncomfortable, to say the least."

"So what did you do?" Reggie asked.

Bill shrugged, "I assured them that I wasn't there to judge their lifestyle. I did suggest that they take a week or two to really talk things over about whether a marital union, indeed a sexual union before the eyes of God, was the best way for them to continue their friendship." He looked a bit helpless, "I can't tell them not to get married. And who knows, maybe they could make each other happy in a fashion. I just worry that one, or both of them would find it difficult to sacrifice their sexual happiness permanently, potentially leading to a much greater sin of infidelity."

Reggie's chuckles were winding down. It had felt good to get that energy out, "You have a very interesting job, Bill." He sighed, "Tomorrow's going to be weird at work, you know that?"

"Yeah, Reggie, it is." Bill's eyebrows creased, "Are you sure you're doing alright, Reg? You're looking a bit pale."

"I'm just wondering how the others are doing," he looked over at Bill with a skeptical expression. "And how exactly does an African-American man manage to look pale?"

"I dunno," Bill shrugged, "I'm just saying you look a little..."

"Grey?" Reggie laughed. "Geeze, you think I look bad, you should have seen the others." A moment of silence passed between them. At last Reggie said, "Let's talk about something else, huh? You have any more stories about those engaged couples?"

"Oh yeah," Bill said with a smile. "And I'll share them with you in the honest hope that they will all somehow manage to find happiness and peace in God," he crossed himself before launching into the next story. For the rest of the night they spoke no more of the incident at NASA.

###

Reggie enjoyed a blissful four hours of sleep that night, but at least he slept. His dreams were fitful phantoms that were forgotten by morning, and Reggie somehow knew enough not to miss them. He awoke in a rather dark mood, but that was more than understandable given the events of the day before. He made himself a quick breakfast (toast and jam, not eggs!) and, unsure of what to expect, made his way to work. Once at the Johnson Space Center, he felt like everyone was watching him, from the security, to workers who had never taken much notice of him before.

Struggling to act normal under all the scrutiny, Reggie made his way to the control room, where he found Kevin waiting with two other people. Devoid of the two dozen people of the day before, the room was exceptionally quiet, aside from the humming of computers and the soft chatter of the three people. Reggie had been hoping to see some of his teammates return this morning and was disappointed and nervous to find no one. It wasn't entirely surprising; in all likelihood they had been given the day off, but the return of even some of them would have been comforting. He had still been unable to reach Jacob on his cell, or at home.

Kevin, a lanky fellow, who always seemed to manage to ruffle his business attire, looked up at his arrival, "Oh, Reg, good. Thank you for coming in. This here is Dr. Wei Xiao, our HAZMAT team leader. And I think you already know Christine Brahe, who we're borrowing from the Cassini team for the foreseeable future." There were nods and subdued greetings all around, "Reggie, let me bring you briefly up to speed with the FUBAR event we've got for ourselves here. First, have you been listening in on the news at all this morning?" The three of them watched him expectantly as if they hoped he had already gotten news that they preferred not to share themselves.

Reggie shook his head, indeed he hadn't wanted to this morning.

Kevin frowned slightly, "Well, then, there's no easy way to start this off, but better you hear it from me I guess. Gladys Menendez died overnight in the hospital..."

"What?!" Reggie exclaimed, surprised by this news. He had known that his teammates had been in shock, but hadn't realized that the physical injuries to the people in the room had been so life threatening.

Kevin held up his hand, signaling that he wanted to continue without interruption, "...and from the information that we're getting it looks like the other three who were comatose are circling the bowl. Not that we're getting much info, the hospital isn't releasing details to us, so I have to get it through the families, which as I probably don't need to mention, is heartrending business. The other seventeen were observed overnight and appear to be in good health. They're going to be released this morning. I haven't heard directly from one of them though, and the vibe I get from their families is that they're all still in shock, although much calmer than yesterday. Wei over here, has personally performed every test on this room he can think of and can't find a damn thing wrong with it, isn't that so?"

Xiao nodded, "There's no evidence of a gas leak or other chemical malfunction in the room. We're considering the possibility that, given the nature of the symptoms and the four comatose individuals, that perhaps there was a release of a neurotoxic agent in the room, but we don't know where the origin might have been."

Kevin held up his hand again, "In a moment I am going to turn you over to Wei and he's going to ask you to diagram people's positions in the room and see if we can locate the point of origin. Otherwise, Christine and I have been going through Leda's data files. Are we to understand that Leda burned up on entry to Jupiter's atmosphere?"

Reggie shook his head vigorously, "No, no, no, she descended fine, at least for a while. We got two solid hours of descent data. When I came into the room, the screens had gone to static and I assumed she had been crushed."

Kevin scowled, "Well the data we have on record ends once Leda enters the atmosphere. Which means the data is all but useless. No visual, no pressure, no temperature, no wind speed..."

"That's not possible," Reggie interrupted, shifting from one foot to the other. "We sat here for two hours and watched the data come in. Leda did not burn up on entry."

Kevin shrugged, "Look Reg, I'm not blaming you, but where's the data then? It never got recorded in these computers. I know you weren't on command here yesterday, is it possible someone screwed up the data receive?"

Reggie shook his head, "I don't see how...I saw the data coming in just fine. I mean I was mainly watching the visuals on screen, like everyone else," which made him think of something. "Hey, Jacob was filming everything with a camera. I bet that would have some useful info on it. It was a company camera I think; I didn't see what happened to it in the commotion."

Kevin frowned, "Okay, here's what we're going to do: Reggie you work with Wei, see if you detect a pattern in the four people who were most affected, see if a point of origin jumps out at you. Christine, all conversation in this room during the descent should have been recorded in an audio database on one of these computers. See if you can find it and listen through from the beginning of the descent. I'm going to try to find that camera."

And so, briefly they attended to their separate tasks. Wei had drawn out a diagram of the room, and worked with Reggie to help him remember where everyone had been sitting or standing. Christine quietly kept to herself, going from one computer to the next until she settled more or less permanently at one, evidently having found the audio file. In working with Wei it clearly became apparent that there was no useful pattern in regards to the four individuals who had become comatose following the descent. The only similarity between the four was that each of them happened to be sitting immediately in front of one of the computer screens, while the others had been clustered in back of them. Otherwise they were at all sides of the room.

Kevin returned during the middle of their room plot and announced, with a deepening frown, that he had managed to locate the camera back in storage, but the data had been erased from it. No one knew if the data might have been saved to disk first. Someone thought they had seen Jacob come through earlier that morning. Jacob was now no longer to be found however, and that employee couldn't be sure he had seen Jacob. Reggie suggested that perhaps Jacob had downloaded it, perhaps even this morning after being released from the hospital. Reggie volunteered to contact Jacob that evening to see if that were the case. Alternatively the data had simply been purged from the camera on its return to storage, the data permanently lost. Kevin was not happy. To keep busy, he helped Christine listen through the audio file. He was pleased, at least, that the room audio data had survived, where the probe's data had not.

At last, after an hour, Kevin jumped up, "Okay, from what we're listening to, the descent has begun. I want the four of us to listen to this whole thing through, as long as it might be, to see if we notice what might have happened."

And so they sat for several hours, reliving that fateful morning, hearing the excitement in the room, people pouring over the data as it came in. Kevin, Wei, Christine and Reggie all listened to it quietly, without comment. It was all so familiar to Reggie, odd to hear it replayed for him in audio. At last they came to the point that Reggie recognized as the point where he had left the room. He straightened up in his chair and pointed out that fact to the others. They all listened now with greater attentiveness and caution.

There were multiple voices talking over each other and it was difficult to make out all of the comments. What Reggie could make out was:

"Hey, this is interesting, the visual is coming in real clear, I think we broke through a cloud layer..." a male voice, somewhat muffled on the audio and Reggie wasn't sure who it was.

"Even the visible light spectrum is coming in, I don't understand where the light source..." that was Gladys Menendez, now deceased.

"...check the data source, is this good visual we're getting--?" Reggie recognized the voice as Phil Trueman, one of the team leaders.

"Whoa, is that the liquid hydrogen layer we're looking at..." another muffled, unrecognizable voice, this one female.

"...Leda is saying that the wind speed has dropped to three hundred kilometers per hour...." Phil Trueman again.

"That looks like a rocky surface below..." Reggie easily recognized Jacob's voice on the audio, although he seemed to be shouting from the back of the room where the camera had been set up.

"That can't be rock, Leda's nowhere near the core..." the same unrecognizable female voice, muffled and distorted on the audio. Reggie's interest was piqued. What they were saying didn't make any sense. Leda should have been crushed in Jupiter's atmosphere long before it reached any rocky surface.

"...atmospheric pressure holding steady near crush depth..." Phil again, apparently hovering over the data and ignoring the visual.

"...it IS rock..." another distorted male voice, although Reggie had it pegged between two possible members of the team that it could be.

"Estimated time until impact is thirty seconds," this was a new voice, Elaine Washington, a physicist.

"Are we sure that this is good data we're getting? It doesn't make sense. Jupiter can't have rock at this depth, and the wind speed..." Gladys Menendez again, sounding very concerned and skeptical, "Where's the visible light coming from?"

"We're getting Leda's signal ID with the data," Elaine Washington again, "the signal's from her, although the data could be..."

"It's definitely rock," Jacob from the back of the room again, "but there's some movement too. Is that liquid..."

"Five seconds until impact," said Elaine, and then there was a momentary hush in the room.

It was interrupted by Phil's voice, "Okay, she's down, we're still getting data..."

"Cameras are still functioning," Gladys was saying, "we've got some dust..."

"Hey, was that movement..." Jacob was saying, incredulously.

"Probably just dust from impact..." Gladys, responding.

"No, no...look at that..." Jacob again, his voice high and alarmed.

"What...what..." muffled female voice...

"This doesn't make any sense, are you sure this is feed from Leda?" Phil, cutting in, now closer to the recording device, probably moving from station to station.

"Oh my God!" Gladys' voice, clearly alarmed.

"Jacob, are you getting this on your camera?" Phil, his voice increasingly tense and alarmed.

"Is this some kind of sick, f..." unrecognizable, distorted male voice, shouting.

"Oh my God, oh my God!" Gladys', her voice hysterical now.

"Holy Christ..." Elaine's voice, much softer, but frightful and disbelieving.

At that point on the audio was the first sound of retching, from who it was not clear. It was immediately followed by the sounds of several other people doing the same. There were a series of shouts and screams from both men and women as the room clearly descended into chaos.

"Gladys," someone shouted, probably Jacob, but it was difficult to tell over the screams.

"Turn off the monitors, turn off--" Phil was shouting, his voice desperate.

And then all the audio was cut off by a horrible wailing sound, like the sound of a train braking quickly on the rails, only more piercing, more like a thousand voices screaming in unison in a chorus of the most agonizing pain. Even on the reproduced audio it was intensely disturbing and sent a chill down Reggie's spine, although he could not guess what could have made such a sound. Perhaps it was only corruption on the audio file. It was much louder than the prevailing audio itself, and the four people listening all put their hands to their ears to block out the noxious noise. Underneath this horrible wailing they could hear only one voice, just briefly. The voice sounded masculine, very low pitched and highly distorted.

"Deus vult," the voice said, sounding as if it came from somewhere in the back of the room.

With a grimace on his face, Kevin reached out and shut the audio down. The four of them in the room were silent for a long time. Reggie found that it was the most unpleasant feeling, to have just listened to a group of rational scientists descend into confusion and madness in a matter of minutes. So that was what Reggie had missed. For the first time, he clearly felt a bit thankful for his spoiled breakfast that morning.

Kevin was frowning so much that he looked like a gargoyle. "Alright," he said, finally breaking the unpleasant silence, "if any of you have any suggestions of what to make of that, I'm listening."

"It sounded," Christine offered, still rubbing her ears painfully, "as if the Leda probe impacted on solid surface. Sounds like they saw something on the video..."

"Impossible," Kevin interrupted her, "even if Leda would make it down through the atmosphere, down through the liquid hydrogen at the same steady pace, it would take days for Leda to get to Jupiter's rocky core. And there's no way they had visible spectrum data. Ultraviolet, X-Ray, maybe..."

"Could have come from lightning," Christine offered, "with Jupiter's violent atmosphere, lightning could essentially provide near constant lighting."

"It still sounds to me," Wei offered on a different tact, "like mass delirium. They very quickly became fearful and incoherent. Although I can't locate it, I'm still thinking there must have been some kind of neurotoxic release into this room. It would explain the behaviors, it would explain Gladys' death..."

"What about that noise at the end?" Reggie interrupted. It was that which had disturbed him the most.

"I imagine it was a recording error," Kevin said, although his voice sounded uncertain, "in their confusion someone screwed up the audio feed."

"That one voice was clear," Christine offered again. " 'Deus vult,' it said. If the audio feed was damaged we wouldn't have been able to hear that."

Kevin shook his head, "Great, so basically we have no goddam idea what this audio file tells us. I'll tell you all one thing, we need that video recording. Reggie, I need you to find Jacob and get that cassette from him."

"I already told you I would, Kevin," Reggie said, but Kevin didn't hear him.

"I'm sure I don't need to tell you what a disaster this is becoming," Kevin lectured the three of them, near shouting. "How many millions of taxpayer dollars just got sunk for no new data, one dead NASA employee and no explanation of what went wrong. I'm telling you right now that someone is going to hang for this. Unfortunately I look to be the most likely contender right now," he was cut off as his cell phone rang. The others waited silent and sullen while he answered it and spoke to the person on the other end. At last he ended the call with a pale and shallow face, "Well, I hate to tell you this, but things are just getting worse...three more team members have died. Everyone who went into a coma after the...whatever."

There was silence in the room as they absorbed the news.

"There's more," Kevin added, "Alex Dao was killed in an automobile accident, along with his wife, on his way home from being released from the hospital."

"What?" Wei cried, "This is just crazy!"

The others muttered among themselves about the increasing wave of disasters that rippled away from this one event. Reggie didn't listen in to any of it, didn't add to the discussion. He was too lost in his own thoughts, wondering what kind of cloud had come over the Leda mission.

Reggie, Kevin, Christine and Wei continued working through the day, but Reggie felt like he was under a cloud. No further progress was made. Data from the Leda, including visual data, was simply gone. Not a trace remained to prove that it had ever existed. Wei clung to the belief that a neurotoxic gas had been released into the room, but could find neither a gas leak, nor any residue to prove his theory. By the end of the day he was speculating about a possible purposeful release of poison in the room, a line of thought Kevin told him to keep to himself until he found some evidence. Christine did back up the audio data, the only piece of information that they had, although the four of them had no interest in listening to it again. Indeed, none of them brought up the idea.

Reggie tried to call Jacob several times, both on his cell and at home, and was unsuccessful at both places. He and Kevin attempted to call the other team members, who had by then been released from the hospital. In all cases they were once again unsuccessful. Sometimes they managed to get a family member on the line. Usually the family members were themselves worried or confused, with the team member of interest either out walking or driving on their own, or barricaded in their room, refusing to take calls.

In the late afternoon, Memorial Hermann Hospital held a press conference, which the four of them stopped their activities to watch on one of the computer screens. The hospital spokesperson stated simply that the four people had died of unknown causes and autopsy results were pending. The remaining NASA team members had all been released to their families with clean bills of health. No brain damage, and Memorial Hermann was careful to state this explicitly, was revealed during any testing of the individuals released.

At the end of the day they received word that one of the team technicians, upon returning home from the hospital, had put a hunting rifle in his mouth and blown off the back of his skull.

"That hospital should not have sent those people home," Wei opined with a somber look.

Christine shrugged, "They got a clean bill of health. What could the hospital do, arrest them?" Wei looked at her disapprovingly, but had no reply.

"This is all really going to hell in a bucket," Kevin scowled. "Go home and get as much rest as you can. Stay by a phone though, I'll give you ten to one odds that someone from Washington is going to be giving us all a call real soon."

Reggie returned home late and exhausted. There was a message on the machine from Bill, checking in on him, but Reggie was too tired to call him back. He made himself some microwave dinner, watched ESPN for awhile, then went to bed. He turned on the cell-phone before he did in case anyone, particularly Jacob, called him. If anyone did, he was soon too out cold to wake up to answer the phone.

###

The next day was a whirlwind of stress and confusion. True to Kevin's prediction, the suits had descended upon the Johnson Space Center. The Leda control room itself had been sealed off with yellow tape, which Reggie had to admit was probably about time. Some investigators from NASA itself had arrived during the night, followed quickly by the Houston police. The Houston police had come to ask about several curious deaths that had occurred overnight, each victim a member of the Leda team. There were four, none of them unduly suspicious on their own, but given their linkage to events of two days previous, uncanny at best. Phil Trueman was among the dead, killed in a freakish accident on an elevator. He had rushed for the open doors and they had closed on him, failing to reopen as they should have. His head and one arm had been trapped inside the elevator with the remainder of his body outside the elevator car. Even with the door partially held open by Phil's body, the elevator car began its descent with the ceiling of the car sheering Phil's head and arm away from the rest of him. A woman and her young daughter in the elevator car had witnessed the entire thing and been rendered hysterical.

The other three deaths were less dramatic, one older gentleman had simply had a heart attack in his sleep, another had been electrocuted when a radio he was listening to fell into his bath. One young woman had fallen in front of a bus. Witnesses said it looked almost as if she had been pushed, although there had been no one close enough to push her.

The afternoon found the local FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC) on scene as well. This woman seemed more skeptical of the "neuro-bomb" hypothesis, given the absence of evidence to support the theory. Thus Reggie spent the day interviewing with one person or another, tossing various theories back and forth and generally spinning wheels.

Reggie left late in the evening, depressed and wondering if he should start looking for another job. Kevin had mentioned that he had spoken with an attorney, and suggested that Reggie do the same, in preparation for what Kevin considered the inevitable scapegoating. By this time, Reggie felt too exhausted to think, quite out of sorts and overwhelmed by the past forty-eight hours. He was still in shock over the death of his colleagues. Although he had not been close to most of them, they were good people who he had become used to and it was difficult to imagine their passing.

Although it was late, Reggie didn't feel like going home and instead decided to make the drive to the Houston Zoo park where he knew it would be quiet and he could sit peacefully and think for awhile. He parked his car at one of the public parking areas across from the zoo and got out. He bundled his coat up against him, for it was a cool winter's night. The cold air felt good, though. In the darkness he walked to some of the benches overlooking a small pond and sat down to relax and think for awhile.

He didn't come here frequently, but sometimes when he just wanted to be someplace peaceful, this felt like the place to come. He wasn't typically the only one. Even with the zoo closed, lovers would come to sit by the water, or the occasional jogger would happen by. A fair number of people who worked in the nearby medical center parked here as well, for parking in this area was free. Tonight though, perhaps because of the cold wind, the place was deserted and seemed darker than usual.

He had walked to the benches near the pond when he felt a sudden touch at his elbow. Surprised, he turned and found himself looking into Jacob's ragged face. His friend looked to have aged a decade in the past week, newly gray hairs blowing about wispily in the cold wind. Jacob's eyes were wide and fleeting, looking one way and another with evident paranoia. Their corneas were red, and bags had formed beneath them. Evidently he had not slept.

"Jacob," he said, looking around for Jacob's car and not finding it, "What are you doing here? I've been trying to call you."

"I know," Jacob said, his voice fast, "it's not safe to talk on the phone."

"How did you find me here?" Reggie insisted, looking around as if some sort of rational explanation might leap from the bushes.

Jacob pulled him over to the side, nearer some trees, away from the streetlights. "We have to be careful, or we'll be seen."

Reggie let himself be led over to a copse of laurel oaks, just losing some of their leaves for winter. He didn't like the sound of paranoia in Jacob's words. "Jacob, what's going on? You know that some members of the team have been killed?"

"I know," Jacob said, his eyes wild, "that's why we have to be so careful." He took something from within his jacket, something wrapped in brown paper, and pressed it into Reggie's hands. "Take this and don't let anyone know that you have it. It's no longer safe with me." Jacob's eyes kept moving around, scanning through the trees.

Reggie opened up the bag and peered in. Within was a jewel case, which undoubtedly protected a digital disk. He guessed at once what this was, "This is the video recording of mission control, isn't it? What happened is on here?"

Jacob only nodded, squinting his eyes shut as if to block out the image of that day from his mind.

"Kevin is going to want to see this right away. Why don't you come with me?"

Jacob shook his head, "No!" he nearly shouted, then softened his voice, "not yet...I don't know if it's safe to watch. Everyone who's seen what's on that disk...we're all dying. I don't think we were meant to see what we saw. I just can't destroy it though...it's proof...I'm not strong enough. I need you to do it for me, I need you to destroy the disk."

Reggie held the disk in his hands, flipping it over and over, as if for some indication that it was special. "What happened, Jacob? You have to tell me. What did you all see?"

Jacob put his hands over his eyes for a moment, "It was the most horrible thing you could imagine. Leda broke through the cloud layer above what looked like solid rock below," he blinked his eyes again, struggling to speak. "It wasn't possible, it didn't make physical sense. It was lit with lightning almost constantly, so we could see on the cameras as if it were almost daylight on Earth. The ground seemed to be covered with fluid, moving chaotically. Then Leda got closer and we could see them writhing..." he paused to catch his breath, "...the dead were stretched out as far as the cameras could see, writhing in their own guts, screaming for mercy, for absolution, for oblivion..." he stopped, his fist to his mouth.

"What you're saying doesn't make any sense," Reggie said, more confused than accusatory.

"I know it doesn't make any goddam sense!" Jacob screamed now, spittle flying from his lips. "I'm at a loss to explain it, but I know what I saw..."

"Alright, alright," Reggie, said, patting Jacob's shoulder, at the same time tucking the wrapped jewel case away in an inside pocket of his coat. "Why don't we go somewhere warm, where we can talk about this."

"No," Jacob, shrugged away Reggie's hand, "I've got to get out of here...I've got to get far away. There were things....unholy things...they've come for us...us that saw them. I've got to find someplace that they can't get to me!"

Reggie shook his head, "Where will you go?"

Jacob now looked so dispirited and forlorn that Reggie's heart nearly broke. "I don't know," he said, his voice like that of a frightened child. "Rome, maybe, or Jerusalem. Someplace that belongs to God."

"What about your wife and kid, Jacob?" Reggie said, still unbelieving, and it was all that Jacob could do to look him in the eye.

"I think it's too late for me," Jacob said, his voice heavy. "No matter what I do. There's no place on Earth that's safe for any of us now. You haven't seen it, though, you can do what I can't bring myself to do. It calls to me when I sleep, burns in my hands while I am awake, beckoning me to be horrified over and over by its secrets," at once Jacob grabbed Reggie by the shoulders. "Destroy the disk before anyone else watches it."

In the dark there came the sound of a snapping twig. Now quiet, they both turned to face the noise, imagination getting the worse of Reggie. The sound came from among the trees, in a place where the pale light from the street-lamps did not reach. Jacob let go of Reggie's shoulders and began backing away, "Oh no," he said, his voice dripping with fear, "they've found me..."

Reggie peered closer into the darkness. As likely as not the sound was from a squirrel, or perhaps another person walking in the dark. Yet Jacob's paranoia had proven infectious, and Reggie was surprised to find his own heart pounding with fear. He knew not what he should be afraid of, but Jacob's terror was palpable and unmistakable. As he looked into the darkness he thought he saw movement, just the briefest of flutters. And then, there it was, a shadow between the trees, barely visible, a darkened outline against the ripples of the pond behind. A chill descended Reggie's spine.

Never one to shrink out of fear, however, Reggie took a step toward the shadow, calling out in his booming voice, "Who's there?" The figure did not move or call back in response, merely stood there, perhaps menacing, perhaps only curious.

Reggie looked around for a weapon of any kind, surmised that a medium sized branch was his best offering and hefted the piece of wood in his right hand, clearly meaning to get the better of any assailant. His heart beat faster still, but he could not back down. He stepped forward, slowly, bringing himself closer to the figure. "Alright, now, I don't want any trouble. Whoever you are, identify yourself."

Still no movement, no sound, nothing from the figure. Reggie guessed it could have been no more than five feet in height, the shape of the shadow roughly triangular, as if it were a child wearing a winter's cape. Vaguely did the top appear as a human head with long stringy hair, enforcing his impression of this being a young girl. But if that were the case, there was something about this young girl's manner, the way she stood and watched him, did not move in the face of his approach, did not reply to his entreaties. He felt the utmost dread in his stomach as if he had laid eyes upon something entirely wrong, entirely unworldly. At once he wished that he could better see what the darkness kept concealed and at the same time was glad that he could not see.

As Reggie stepped closer still there was a sudden wind, which carried upon it a chill and a swirl of leaves and debris which momentarily obstructed Reggie's vision. In that moment, the figure seemed to step to the side, behind a cluster of trees and bushes and away from Reggie's sight. Reggie felt a flash of anger, that he had allowed himself to be frightened by this phantom, that now stole away into the middle of the night as if it had never existed. Brandishing his stick, Reggie rushed forward to the spot where the shadow had stood and turned into the grotto of trees and bushes to face whatever might await there. Though it was dark, he could see there was nothing there but the trees and the bushes, nothing that could have made that shadow, human or otherwise. Relief flooding through him, he wondered if the shadow had even been real or if it had been merely a trick of the darkness and his own imagination. He threw down the stick in frustration.

Then there came a touch on his shoulder, the touch of bony fingers against his coat. That spot where he was touched went immediately cold as if ice had been placed against his skin. His entire body froze in shock, and he tensed up, unable to turn and see what was behind him, unable to run. He was frightened and helpless like a child caught in a nightmare. He thought he felt something lean into him, and there was a brush of cold air against his cheek, and it smelled of moisture and of dirt. "Libera Te Ex Inferis," he heard, or thought he heard whispered on that breeze. The voice, if it was a voice, was soft and hollow, the whisper of a frightened little girl.

Unable to take any more of this, he assumed control of his body and whirled violently on whatever had accosted him. His heart feeling ready to explode with fear, he saw only that a tree branch had reached down to brush against him, propelled by the wind. The night was as dark and empty as ever it had been.

Reggie found that Jacob was gone, his friend having abandoned him and was no longer to be found. Reggie called out for him, his voice echoing across the pond and into the night, but there was no answer. For a moment Reggie stood there, still in the darkness by the pond, thinking. It had all been too much for his brain to make good sense of. Had the events of this night really transpired as they had seemed? How had Jacob found him, and to where had Jacob gone? Had the shadow by the pond been something real, or merely the phantom, the voice in his ear nothing more than the breeze and the infectious nature of fear? He had only the disk, still safe in his pocket, to prove that the night had actually occurred.

###

Reggie found his way home to his quiet little apartment. There, all was peaceful, his idyllic sanctuary untouched during these disturbing times. In his pocket, the disk was nearly burning a hole. Jacob had asked him to destroy it. But on that disk could be evidence of what had happened to the crew in mission control. Certainly it was true that everyone who had been there on that day, had witnessed Leda's descent first hand, had suffered as a consequence. But could that mean that there was something inherently dangerous about viewing this disk? It seemed difficult to explain recent circumstances in any other way. But to accept such an explanation was to accept the metaphysical, the unreal. No tape, no matter how disturbing or frightening, could so disrupt the brain as to cause coma and death, or send persons into madness. Or could it? Was it possible that what Jacob had said even approximated the truth, that Leda's descent had revealed some unfathomable secret that was so disturbing to the human consciousness as to cause it to unravel? Was Jacob merely paranoid, or was he indeed being chased by phantoms or demons intent on stealing his illicit knowledge back from humankind?

He might still have dismissed all of this as some odd but explainable circumstance, but for the voice in his ear at the Zoo. Everything else, the shadow, the chilling touch upon his arm could be explained as tricks of the light and wind, coupled with his own imagination. But that voice...could it only have been the wind across his ear? How could the wind speak Latin, a language that Reggie himself did not know? Reggie wanted everything to be able to provide him a rational explanation, but he could think of none. That didn't mean that there was no rational explanation, but whatever it could be, it certainly eluded him. Thinking of the night he had just had, that whisper in his ear, gave him chills down his spine once again.

He went into his kitchen and began preparing himself some dinner. Nothing fancy, just a microwave meal and some cola, a typical dinner. He was giving himself some time to think. Jacob had been adamant about destroying the disk, stating that he himself was too weak to carry out the task. Yet, Jacob had appeared simply mad, his ranting that of a lunatic. Reggie wondered again if all of this could be due to some toxic gas release, something perhaps even he himself had gotten some limited exposure to, perhaps explaining the voice at the park as his own hallucination. If that were the case, evidence to support it would possibly be on the disk. It would need viewing, vetting by the authorities investigating the affair. He could simply turn the disk over to Kevin, or to the FBI without looking through it himself. Yet his curiosity was too great, he had to know for himself what had happened. There was the possibility that the authorities could take the disk and never reveal what was on it to the public.

Of course Reggie could do what Jacob had asked. Aside from whatever had compelled Jacob not to destroy the disk, smashing or melting the thing would be a simple matter. In mere seconds, whatever data it contained would be lost forever. Certainly, if this metaphysical impossibility was actually true, and a disk made people descend into madness, destroying it would be the only conscionable choice. His thoughts raised the possibility that he could view the disk to see whether it contained threatening data, and destroy it if so, even if this came at the cost of his own mind. Still, he had to admit that it was possible that he would be unable to destroy the disk, just as Jacob had been unable to destroy it.

He forked a few mouthfuls of his dinner into his mouth. He took a sip of cola. And then he decided. Whatever the risk, he could not be content to go through life never knowing what the others had seen. He had to know what had happened. His choice frightened him, felt in some ways like the wrong choice, but he knew that it was the only one for him. Nervous, he moved back toward his living room, turning on his disk player. He reached into the pocket of his coat, which he had not taken off, and extracted the jewel case wrapped in a brown paper bag. He pulled the jewel case from the bag.

Immediately his heart sunk. The jewel case was a familiar combination of white, blue, yellow and red. In the swath of red that cut through the middle of the case like a sash were the words "One Night Rental." Oh geeze, it couldn't be possible, could it...could that mad fool have slipped him the wrong disk?! With a feeling of apprehension he pulled open the jewel case and stared at the disk inside. On the face of the disk was the pretty face of a black woman, her hair done in a ponytail looking mischievously out at whoever had rented the disk. Underneath her face, the words "Black Orpheus" were written in yellow and grey. Jacob, it seemed, in his madness, had decided to entrust him with a vintage, and no doubt overdue, Brazilian film. Reggie threw the jewel case in frustration against the wall, then sat down in his chair. After a long deep breath he began laughing. It figured, didn't it? He had gotten himself excited, frightened even, over nothing. Probably no tape of that day existed. Perhaps, like the computer recordings of Leda's mission, the data on Jacob's camera had been lost. Or perhaps the disk itself had simply been lost, destroyed or recorded over in the confused days surrounding the doomed mission. Reggie collapsed into a chair, feeling adrenaline ebbing away.

###

Over the next week, it became increasingly apparent that the case of Leda and her doomed mission control crew was not to be solved. All of the surviving members of the crew (save Reggie of course) had by then disappeared, leaving behind them bewildered and scared families. Of Jacob, Reggie saw or heard nothing more. Jacob Tillman simply vanished, leaving a car at the airport and taking only several hundred dollars from the bank account. Then there was nothing more. In due time he was listed as a missing person, his fate one of the last mysteries of the Leda expedition. It was a fate that he shared with the remaining members of the mission control room, those who had not been rendered comatose or been killed by accident or suicide in the days since the incident. Like Jacob, they simply disappeared into the night, some of them packing a few belongings, others vanishing with only the clothes on their backs. The home of more than one was found with the door left open and a half-eaten meal left hastily on the table. None of them were ever seen or heard from again. No further clues came to surface, no more data from the mission, no indication of foul play, either in the original incident or in the subsequent deaths or disappearances, other than the extreme improbability itself that all members of the crew would die or disappear in such a short period of time. Investigators of all sorts were still swarming around the Johnson Space Center, and the media still swirled with endless exposés and speculations. Yet it was becoming evident that this one was slipping away from everyone, that the trails were going cold, and explanations lacking. Perhaps the case would eventually be blamed on an accidental toxin release, the most plausible explanation in the complete absence of any evidence to point to a clear alternate explanation. Well, perhaps that wasn't entirely true. There was the audio recording, but the only theory it supported would simply be unacceptable to most folks.

It was an exhausting time, yet increasingly he was ignored, clear as it was that he had no further useful information. He had been reassigned to a new project, a long term design project for a hypothetical manned mission to the outer solar system. Currently the project name for the mission, which Reggie considered wishful thinking on NASA's part, was Cassini. It was something to distract him though. For some reason, unknown even to himself, he had kept his meeting with Jacob to himself. Perhaps he didn't want to explain his own thoughts as he had pondered the possibility that a phantom had whispered in his ear. Or perhaps the secret that he had become privy to, even if just peripherally, was too great to be shared. Perhaps it was meant to die with Jacob and the others.

Only to Bill did he choose to tell the full tale, and this over beers at the same pub as the week before. He had expected Bill to be entirely incredulous at his odd story, but found Bill instead to take it all in thoughtfully, then sit quietly pondering.

"So, what?" Reggie asked him after Bill had remained quiet for far too long. "You think there's actually something to this demonic vengeance thing?"

Bill squinted at him and said, "Save yourself from Hell."

"Beg pardon?" Reggie said, pulling back reflexively.

"That's what the phantom whispered in your ear. Translated from the Latin, it means 'Save yourself from Hell.'" Bill's face remained thoughtful, reflective.

Reggie sighed, shaking his head, not sure what to think, "So you think there was actually something there that night. I wasn't just imagining it?"

"Unless you can imagine in Latin," Bill shook his head. "I don't know what it might have been, but...this whole situation has made me uncomfortable since you told me about it the first night," he was quiet for a moment. "I think that there are few secrets that are not meant for this life. Perhaps we try too hard to figure everything out, to understand everything, even things that we're not meant to understand. Reminds me a bit of the story of Adam and Eve. Knowledge, science, whatever, is not in itself a bad thing, but it can be if misinterpreted to deny the existence of God. How many people look to the secrets of evolution, or of gravity and the motion of the planets, or the motion of atomic particles, and suggest that in coming to understand such things, we no longer need God?" He stuttered for a moment on his own words, arms propelling upward as if to force the words out. "Perhaps whatever it was that Leda found, perhaps it was just too much. Perhaps it was just forbidden."

Reggie didn't know how to respond to that, and so they sat for a few minutes, thoughtful, each man staring into his glass of beer. At last Bill spoke again, "I'm glad that you didn't see Jacob's disk...but what was it that you did with the disk that he gave you. Black Orpheus?"

Reggie shrugged, "I had a conscientious moment. I brought it back to the rental place."

Bill frowned, looking at him very seriously, "Did you say that you watched the movie itself, confirmed that it was just a movie?"

"Nah," Reggie said dismissively, "Didn't sound like my kind of flick."

"Is it possible," Bill said, a touch of alarm in his voice, "that Jacob could have burned a copy of his disk over that movie? I mean the original data would have been stored in the camera itself, right? He would have had to burn the data to disk."

"So," Reggie thought out loud, "the morning he was released from the hospital, he grabbed whatever disk was on hand and went to the Space Center. He burned the data onto a goddam rental movie. I had it in my hands the whole time!" Reggie shouted with frustration, putting his hands against the sides of his head.

Bill was nodding, his eyes wide, "I think that you were very fortunate, very fortunate indeed, that Jacob burned that data on a medium that you didn't expect. That you interpreted as a mistake. Had you watched that film, I think...I think by now you would be gone with the rest of them."

"Bill, Bill, Bill," Reggie intoned, "I returned that thing to the movie store. Anyone could rent it." Bill stared at him for a second, alarm growing in both of them.

Without a further word between them they were in their coats and rushing madly to the movie store where they accosted a perplexed clerk, demanding to know where Black Orpheus was.

The teenage clerk, taken aback by their evident consternation, began tapping at her computer. "It's overdue," she said with a shrug, "which is odd, it's not one of our more popular rentals."

"Who," Reggie demanded, nearly reaching across the counter to look at the monitor himself, "can you tell us who has the film?"

She shook her head, "No, I can't. I mean I couldn't anyway, you know privacy and all that, but even without that it's..." she shook her head, helpless. "The computer seems to have erased that data. I'm sorry, but I have no idea who rented it."

Reggie's shoulders fell, defeated. Quietly, Bill led him back outside to the car. "It's in God's hands now," Bill told him. "It's in God's hands..." Reggie let Bill lead him to the car, keeping his own eyes shut out of fear that, if he opened them, he would see the phantoms again, beckoning him with their forbidden secrets.

THE END


© 2015 Christopher J. Ferguson

Bio: Christopher J. Ferguson is a psychology professor and chair of the psychology department at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He has several published short stories in magazines such as Orion's Child, Nefarious, Midnight Horror, Blazing! Adventures, Stories That Lift and Fantasy Gazetteer. He has also written nonfiction columns for Time.com, CNN, The Huffington Post and New York Times, among others. His first novel Suicide Kings is published with The Wild Roses Press. His story "The Rape of Caenis" appeared in our December 2014-January 2015 issue. He lives outside Orlando, Florida with his wife and son.

E-mail: Christopher J. Ferguson

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