Aphelion Issue 227, Volume 22
April 2018
 
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Aphelion One Styles for Orbit

The Aphelion Project

by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, J. Davidson Hero, Richard Tornello, Robert Moriyama, William R. Warren, Jr., and N.J. Kailhofer


Based on art by William R. Warren, Jr. as well as characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer.





Aphelion One, Day 37

A ripping sound startled Alexander Curtis awake. For a moment, he forgot where he was, and his arms tangled in the netting that held him to the wall.

"What the devil--" He finally disentangled himself, then unclipped a corner of the thin Mylar sheet colored to look like a Union Jack flag that separated his webbed 'bunk' from the rest of the module.

The upside-down, beaming smile of American Mission Specialist Penny Jones bobbed in and out of his view.

"Morning, Captain," she said. "Would you like a little sprig of spearmint? Well, it used to be spearmint, but then we combined it with genes from pyrococcus furiosus to reduce its stress reaction and Chlamydomonas nivalis, a snow-loving algae for cold survival, which is also what makes it red. Now it only kind of tastes like spearmint, but it can grow on Mars. Want some?"

Blearily, he regarded the pungent red leaf she extended toward him with suspicion. "Is that for your vertigo?"

Penny pointed. "Not a problem anymore."

Looking up along her usual white jumpsuit, he saw that she had attached a thin strip of Velcro along the ceiling. Her thin boots seemed to be anchored to that strip. That had to be the cause of the ripping noise he heard.

She said, "As long as my feet are on the deck, I don't feel sick, so I asked Gode to rig me up some boots with Velcro and magnets. That way I can walk around almost every part of the ship without blowing chunks."

"How nice," he replied with practiced patience. "But why are you upside down?"

She shrugged. "To me, you're the one topsy-turvy."

She was one of only three civilians on the mission, NASA's very best at zeoponics. He was always impressed how white she managed to keep her clothes clean while working with her plants. Tending his one bonsai tree always left his uniform in a deplorable state. Although, the way her clothes accentuated her natural curves, he suspected she wore a size too small on purpose.

Her auburn, curly hair was short, and easy to maintain in the lack of real gravity. Penny had a fair complexion and green eyes, and, he had to admit, a really warming smile. She resumed bobbing up and down, doing something that looked like deep knee bends.

Curtis rubbed his eyes. "Miss Jones, what are you doing?"

She laughed. "Exercising. It's kind of like a cross between Pilates and a balance beam, but your feet can't move. I saw this martial arts master prepping for a match once, and he was doing a thing a lot like this, so I thought I should try it and--"

"Do you have to do it right outside my bed?"

She paused. "This is the only space where I have enough head and arm room. All due respect, Captain, but you're the one not in the assigned crew space."

Curtis frowned. "Doctor Smith snores like a lorry trying to climb a steep incline."

She smiled. "Doc reminds me of my Pop when I was a little girl. Are you sure you don't want some spearmint? It's a fresh crop, and it's great for morning breath. I started drying some for use in tea when we finally land and that gravity starts making everybody queasy. You should see how good it smells back in the service module."

"I shall stick with the assigned diet, thank you." He had to admit, though, his mouth tasted rather pasty.

Penny shrugged again, and went back to exercising. Curtis gave up on the idea of going back to sleep and neatly folded the Mylar and stowed it in a pouch alongside the netting. The net pulled itself to the wall automatically as he exited.

A quick cleanup sounded good to him, so he was soon staring at his rough stubble in the mirror as he tried to shave without floating away. He kept his graying hair in a crew cut for convenience during the six-month journey, but was planning to let his mustache grow back during the eighteen months on the surface of Mars, when gravity could help keep the little hairs out of the instruments. A change into his uniform of bottle-green trousers, khaki shirt, navy blue pullover, and special Mars-red beret had Curtis feeling proper, so he stopped to check the ship's status.

Co-Pilot Chang was strapped in at the controls in his country's Type 07-style desert fatigues, adapted for a Mars color scheme. Chang wore his black hair close-cropped over his slender frame. The experts may have been right when they insisted that the first missions be predominantly a military crew to maintain the discipline needed for a nearly three-year mission. The sailors and soldiers provided by the multi-nation coalition financing the trip were some of the finest he had ever served with.

Curtis liked Chang, or Wei as he really should be called. Family names came first in his culture, but most of his Western crew could not seem to keep that straight, so they used his last name as a first. All in all, Curtis felt Chang did the People's Republic proud. He was neat, orderly, and efficient, but his co-pilot looked decidedly bored in front of the radar screen, not that Curtis could really fault him. The constant monitoring for obstacles, of which all had been mapped already except for occasional grains of space dust took a toll on the crew's efficiency. None of the grains had ever been close, and none had ever caused even a minor course correction.

Chang said, "Good morning, Captain."

Curtis smiled. He hadn't made a noise.

"Morning, Zhong Wei Chang." He always tried to use the Chinese version of 'Lieutenant' when talking to Chang. His British pronunciation of 'left-tenant' seemed to amuse the American portion of his crew. "Report."

Chang said, "Central systems report normal functioning. We remain nine light seconds ahead of Aphelion Two, and we are on our flight path. Internal ship temperature is 22° Celsius, and humidity holding steady. Water-reclamation and filtering systems are working properly. Battery and solar array function are normal. Minor power fluctuations were recorded in the lander/docking coupling. Engineer Zwelitini is attempting to diagnose the problem. You have three interviews and a blog entry due this duty cycle, sir."

"Damn those interviewers. They never ask anything remotely interesting, and they don't even listen to your answer."

Chang paused before adding. "Doctor Smith has the next kitchen duty. He said he wanted to make... split pea soup."

Curtis winced. The man was a skilled surgeon, and vital to keeping the life support systems functioning, but meals were not his forte. After his last "soup," most of the crew grumbled that his meals were designed to give himself so many patients that he'd be too busy to cook.

"Well," Curtis said, "let's see if a series of drills sharpens everyone up and keeps those media vultures occupied. Perhaps we'll save a power outage drill for the galley when he starts cooking. I think our ration stores can afford straight MREs for everyone tonight."

Chang smiled.

***

Aphelion One, Day 41

At 04:51, precisely--assuming you’re on Aphelion time--the computer woke her.

Limba noastră-i o comoară (A treasure is our language that surges)

În adîncuri înfundată (From deep shadows of the past,)

Un şirag de piatră rară (Chain of precious stones that scattered)

Pe moşie revărsată. (All over our ancient land.)

Limba noastră-i foc ce arde (A burning flame is our language)

Într-un neam, ce fără veste (Amidst a people waking)

S-a trezit din somn de moarte (From a deathly sleep, no warning,)

Although the Moldavian National Anthem went on for twelve more stanzas... plus the refrain, she hit the snooze button without opening her eyes and immediately began her morning exercises. Her breathing became deeper and more regular. To all outward appearances, she had dozed-off for the nine minutes until the alarm sounded, again.

Your name is Archana Ivanova. You are a Geologist. You were born in Balti and were accepted into the Institute of Geology and Seismology in Chişinău at the age of sixteen, specializing in exogeology and remote electronics. Your parents were killed in a bus accident when you were seventeen, leaving no close relatives. At eighteen you were selected to represent Moldavia in the Summer Olympics as a gymnast but had to withdraw due to a shoulder injury. The records of your year of gymnastic training will hold-up to the closest scrutiny. If questioned about it, never never never think about the real Archana Ivanova. Never think how much she looked like you, must have loved gymnastics as much as you, must have had dreams of her own, must have died accidentally before you entered the Olympic Facility using her name. It must have been an accident. It must have!

She realized that her breathing was no longer regular, her emotions were getting in the way of her training. Colonel Petrolescue would have seen it, immediately; and the punishment would have been severe.

With an audible snort she “woke-up” from her snooze. It wouldn’t have fooled the Colonel, but if another agency were recording her in her quarters, it would look like she’d begun a bad dream and awakened naturally. With the practiced flick of a key, she reset the alarm.

Before she disentangled herself from the sleeping net, she inhaled deeply. Along with the normal damp-sock scent of six people living in close proximity, someone was cooking rehydrated bacon. She assayed her choice in clothing, all carefully chosen by the Colonel for maximum sexual allure. One advantage to skimpy attire was that she probably had more outfits to choose from than anyone else on the mission. She decided on the white, form-fitting elastic body suit. She would have to wear the tight black shorts with it, though. She hadn’t shaved her pubic hair for a while and it would show through the fabric. That her dark nipples were faintly discernable was the point of the garment.

“You must seem unaware of the effect your body has on your opponents,” the Colonel’s voice echoed in her thoughts. “Your desirability may make them pause--if only for a second--before they strike. Use every advantage that you have.”

She glanced at the improvised ‘Ship Calendar’ pasted to the wall.

Day 41, today, was highlighted in green. What was that for? she asked herself. She had only routine duties until the NASA download, tonight. Though she was expecting some encrypted instructions for her remote units piggybacked with the updates, she certainly wouldn’t have marked her calendar for that.

She looked at the date, again. She had a vague memory of having marked certain ship days as having special meaning for the corresponding date, back on Earth. Something about today had made her--and then she remembered--today was her birthday. Not Archana’s birthday, of course, but her real birthday.

“La multi ani, Mahai.” Her Grandmother’s voice was clear in her mind, though she’d been dead for a decade. She wondered if, in some sub-basement, Colonel Petrolescue was raising his glass to her. He was possibly the only other living person who knew she was alive. When she had replaced the real Archana Ivanova, her family had been told she too, was dead.

Would any of them think of her, today? Would they remember that today, their sister, daughter, niece, would have turned thirty-one?

Would Petru remember? Perhaps. He’d asked her to marry him on this date when she was fifteen, and dreaming only of leaving the stifling Russian-Ukrainian backwater town of Serata Mereseni.

How she had hated her hard-line, fanatical, old-school Communist family and their insistence that Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica was their true homeland. To them, Moldavia was just a West-loving, Romanian puppet country. How proud they would be of her, now, working to further the Communist resurgence. But at what cost? That they mourned the loss of a daughter was one thing. But if she died out here, she--like the real Archana--would not be mourned by anyone.

She didn’t know why this bothered her, but it did.

So how would she spend her realbirthday? Well, like any other day, of course. She would talk to her shipmates, listen to their drab, ordinary problems, and pretend that she gave a damn.

The only problem is, of course, that she really did give a damn. She really liked all of the people she worked with. Whether it’s the too-perfect Ophelia Dunsirn or it’s the goofy, nerdy Sidney Barnes. She truly likes them all.

Now what?

Once you get to know a person, how can you betray them all? How can you betray any of them?

Must she?

Can she?

If--as the Americans say--‘push comes to shove’, will she be a GOOD spy, or will she choose to put both the people, and the mission, first.

To herself, she whispers: “Happy Birthday, Mahai Lucinschi. Even if you are the only one in the Universe who knows what today means.

***

Aphelion Two, Day 43

"Dunsirn," Commander Pete Macridin called over the radio, "How aboot we wrap this thing up, eh? Your elapsed EVA time is nearly six hours, now."

Canadians, Ophelia thought. How can Helga stand Mac's accent?

She replied, "The housing is stuck. I'm working on it."

Ophelia knew Mac would be watching her on the screen in the dressing chamber, just inside the airlock. His helmet would be open, but otherwise, he'd be ready to EVA at a moment's notice. Back on the ISS they always sent two out at once, but they had more frequent re-supply ships. Out there, ships simply couldn't store enough compressed oxygen for all the possible trips for two outside during a six-month trip, so they conserved by having one crewmember out and the other just inside the airlock.

Deep down, though, she knew he'd really be itching to get out of his uncomfortable space suit and get back into his regular uniform of black pants and denim work shirt with epaulets.

Mac said, "I think you just like showing off for the cameras, but I'm pretty tired of wearing this suit all day as your backup, you know. It's hard as hell to push buttons with these damn gloves on."

Ophelia peered over her shoulder toward the CCD camera on the dishes. She had little doubt that a lot of Earth was indeed watching her struggle to fix the next mechanical hiccup of the mission.

No, she thought, they're watching an astronaut work on the communications platform. Most of them don't even know my name, and won't even after we land. Only trivia buffs will remember the second ship, and nobody will remember who was second in command.

Not even the Brooklyn residents of Little Pakistan where I grew up. Of course, since Dad was black, I was always apart from the rest of them. They wouldn't remember the little girl they called names because of the color of her skin until she ran away and joined the Navy.

The nut finally budged. "I figured it out. We should change the manual that the top two bolts are reverse threaded so you have to turn them the opposite direction from the bottom two."

Mac laughed. "I'll add it to today's glitch list right after the beef jerky that was mislabeled as freeze-dried broccoli."

"Oh, great," Ophelia said with a mocking tone. "Can't wait to see what your wife cooked up."

Mac didn't answer for a minute. "Helga says Chandra, Sidney, and Takuya kept it down, so whatever it is, it will fill you up. All righty. You're in the way of the camera, but I see the housing is open. How much longer on that bypass, Lieutenant-Commander? Let's get it done out there, eh?"

'Lieutenant-Commander?' Oh, I dared to criticize the wife. Helga was just a botanist without much to do during training when they started hanging out together. They married at the last minute. She had less skills and less time in space than anyone.

Men. Anything for a set of big boobs and batted eyelashes.

"Almost there, sir. You should see some systems start to flip green."

"Roger that."

She made the last connection. "Wait. Something's wrong. That shouldn't--"

***

Aphelion One

The intercom said, "Three minutes to Ryan's Children."

It was the unofficial call to dinner, Penny's favorite time of day. She grabbed a baggie of modified Oxyria digyna leaves and headed for the Hab module.

Major 'Doc' Harry Smith's digitally-designed, camouflage-pattern pants and tan boots glided down the hallway in front of her. She assumed that he was wearing his usual green t-shirt and desert-style blouse or whatever those Marines called their over shirts. The 45 year-old doctor would have his sleeves rolled up, and his brown hair in a crew cut like most of the rest of the military men on the mission.

Oh! she thought. Under that Velcro patch, he does have nice, tight buns. Archana was right. And he has those really great, brown eyes, too. Whoops! Not supposed to think about those things.

The round dinner table sat in the very center of the bottom of the inflatable Hab. Chairs were not practical, so around it was a ring of Velcro on the floor where everyone anchored their rumps. Captain Curtis insisted on everyone not on duty in main control to be there for meals, and people sat according to rank, beginning with Doc to his left. Lt. Chang would follow next, but was on duty. Then there was a big space for Sergeant Godlumathakathi 'Gode' Zwelitini, an oversized engineer from South Africa. He was waiting across the room with a dish covering the meal he prepared. His uniform of brown, button-down shirt, plain, green fatigue pants, mesh utility belt and boots did not much seem like a waiter's, however.

Penny anchored herself in the next spot, waiting for the other Mission Specialist, Archana Ivanova, to place herself to the right of Curtis. Archana was late, as usual.

When she did come in, she wore only a pair of high, tight shorts, and a half shirt. Her jet-black hair was disheveled.

At least she wore a bra with that, or her girls would be running loose. She could use a tan, but I suppose I could, too. Wasn't Moldova near Transylvania? With skin as pale as that, you can see why some people thought of vampires.

Curtis cleared his throat. "Miss Ivanova, while I believe that the standards of the ESA program are not as strict as the Royal Navy, I am sure that they understand the concept of dressing for dinner."

Her brown eyes were bloodshot. Her thick, Slavic accent replied, "I was up all night and most of the day. NASA had a big upgrade for the recon drone controls they wanted me to upload and test. I only fell asleep about an hour ago."

Curtis frowned. "And why didn't you clear this with me? Changes to the duty log need to be approved."

She looked annoyed. "I didn't think a little thing like this needed to be, sorry, and I'm dressed. I didn't come to the table naked."

Time to change the subject. Penny stuck her bag of green leaves with red edges on the table. "I'd like you all to try this, it's super nutritious. It's a kind of like Inuit scurvy grass, full of vitamin C, and it grows well on sparse, wet soils high in the mountains, very cold resistant, and is supposed to be good in salads."

Doc took an acidic leaf from the bag and tried one. "Argh," he quipped. "I think I'll take the scurvy."

That broke the tension.

Penny frowned at him. "Ha. Ha. Mister smarty pants Marine. You know you need that nutrition."

Curtis cleared his throat. "Ok, settle down. Mr. Zwelitini, you had the duty. What have you prepared for us?"

Gode answered in a voice almost as large and deep as his body. "You are all in for a surprise. Hopefully, my grandfather will forgive me, god rest his soul, for cooking, but this is a dish my grandmother used to make. They were Zulu, you know, and it was very shameful for a man to cook in those days. This is Inkuku yasekya nama qeselengwane, which translates as chicken with mealy dumplings."

He set the dish in the center of the table and removed the cover.

Penny gasped. "Oh, wow! It smells like chicken! Real, live, fresh chicken. It even looks like real cooking instead of something reconstituted in bags!"

Archana said, "That looks like a dish we make back home! I like the topography on the surface crust."

Doc laughed. "Leave it to a geologist to like food topography."

She stuck out her tongue at him. "When one has to protect their girlish figure, one has to pay attention to their food, instead of just inhaling it like some people."

Doc stuck out his tongue back. Penny giggled.

Curtis rapped on the table. "Gode, did you break open the surface supplies? Where did you get all the flour?"

Gode smiled. "Flour is light, and easy to add to your personal allotment. As for the rest, I had to make some substitutions. You may just want to keep believing it's chicken before you begin."

Everyone groaned.

Archana grumbled, "I say to hell with the mission rules and we start spinning the ship for long enough to cook a real meal under real gravity just once."

Penny said, "But that might kill some of the special seed stocks we're germinating for transplant, and really screw up the algae air purification system."

Gode added, "And don't forget about what a mess it would cause in the head. It was built for microgravity, not the real thing."

Curtis said, "Sorry, but you'll have to wait until we land. Maybe by the next trip they'll have all the logistics figured out to give partial gravity the whole way. This trip is all about just getting there and learning what we can about--"

"ALERT!" Chang's voice called ship-wide. "EMERGENCY! Medical emergency, Aphelion Two!"

Curtis sprang from the table, punching the intercom. "Report!"

"Captain, report of astronaut down on Aphelion Two! It's Dunsirn. Serious injury on EVA."

Doc pushed next to Curtis. "What's wrong with her? Are they saying?"

"No," Chang said. "Just the initial report. They're not answering."

Curtis swore. "Chang, can you get their feeds? I want to see what's going on over there."

"Negative, their dishes are pointed away from us right now."

Gode snapped his fingers. "Captain, I can get you on their intercom."

Penny asked, "You can?"

Gode nodded, already in motion to the computer on the other side of the room. "I'm not just a pretty face."

Curtis glanced at the big TV screen. "If only we could see what was going on!"

Archana cursed. "Meu Dumnezeu! I know how to get an image!"

Penny couldn't understand. "You can? How?"

Archana swam to the closest terminal just outside the hatchway. "A rover ball! I have all their frequencies in case Barnes' equipment broke down! Their storage isn't far from the airlock."

Penny knew that along with two large robotic rovers, a flying reconnaissance drone, and an exploration vehicle, all of which were already waiting for them on Mars at the 'Port Arthur' Base, each ship carried a big bag full of rover balls. They were a low-cost alternative, pool ball-sized spheres. The mechanism inside rolled inside the ball, spinning the outer shell across the Martian surface until the batteries died. A small window in the shell allowed a miniature camera to take snapshots or video.

A few seconds later, an image of black lumps appeared on the TV screen. The image jostled. Archana's voice called out, "Got to get it out of the bag! Come on. Come on. Yes!"

The image spun as the black ball rolled out of the bag and into the open air toward a wall. Once there, it stuck, then began rolling toward the doorway.

"Hurry up!" Doc gnawed his fingernails. "I gotta see."

"I'm doing it, dammit. There's a nine-second delay. It makes it hard to control."

"Gode," Curtis barked. "Report! How long?"

Gode frowned. "Almost there... You should hear their audio now!"

There was practically a cacophony. Voices overlapped, some shouting.

Get that damn helmet off her!

Oxygen! No, the small-bore catheter! Pump that!

Takuya! 2 large-bore IVs! Dextran! Get it going!

Oh, God!

Get a clamp on that! Jesus!

Helga! Intubation kit!

I'm trying!

Suction! Now!

The scene rolled into view.

Ophelia was horizontal in her spacesuit. Her mangled helmet spun in the air nearby. Another spacesuit stood alongside, Mac's. He held her in place while Doctor Jandrain tried to stop her bleeding that spilled into the open air. His plain, olive drab uniform was covered in blood. Barnes was next to him, pumping a handheld air tank that he had hooked into the tubes stuck down her throat. His jeans and t-shirt were soaked red, too. Helga floated in her sand-colored fatigues just to the side, holding the portable suction that was trying to empty the blood from Ophelia's lungs. Tak floated nearby in his desert camouflage, looking helpless, next to the IV infuser pack.

Penny felt her mouth go dry, and she bit her lip, hard.

Gode called out. "Got you on, Captain!"

"This is Captain Curtis! What happened over there?"

After about twenty seconds, Mac spun, looking around. "Explosion outside! Blew through her helmet! I think the self-seal closed it back off, but she tasted vacuum for sure... How the hell are you talking to me?"

Curtis answered, "That was Gode. Hold her steady, man!"

They saw the crew on the monitor, still working, but they didn't answer.

"Damn the time delay!" Doc forced himself in front of the intercom. "Tak! This is Doctor Smith! There's a rover ball by the hatchway. Grab it and bring me close enough so I can see the laceration! I'm a surgeon!"

Eventually, Jandrain glanced at the ball in Tak's hand with obvious worry. "Help me out, Harry! This is more your specialty."

"Its ok, Chandra, I'm here to help."

Even to uninitiated eyes, it was bad. Doc started giving instructions to Jandrain as fast as the other physician could follow them. The delay in communications was maddening.

Gode punched some keys. "Tak, this is Gode. Give Helga the ball and seal the room! Then increase pressure to 3 ATA and reduce the temp! "

Doc barked, "Tak! Get the defibrillator, too! We have to watch the cardiac contractility. C'mon, move it, Airman! Chandra, she'll need Propentofylline."

Gode muttered. "They forgot all about the ebullism protocol."

Curtis added, "I hope she took her EVA pretreatment drugs."

Penny thought, Someone should pray for her.

She whispered over and over, "Please let her be ok. Please make her ok."

Eventually, the flood of orders from the physicians slowed and it grew quiet. Chandra asked, "What do you think, Harry?"

Doc grunted. "That vitals readout is right?"

"It seems to be."

"We'll have to watch her round the clock for a while, but I think she just might make it."

Penny practically collapsed in front of the screen. "Thank God."

Mac added, "Amen to that."

Curtis sighed. "Ok, Mac, I'm sure Doctor Smith here will stay on the line, but you'd best start getting her set up in the airlock and follow the protocol. I'll give Mission Control the brief and send all the video we have. That should let you all catch your breath before having to answer ten thousand questions. Damn fine work getting her inside in time, and both you doctors deserve commendations for the job you've done."

Mac said, "Thanks, Alex, and thank all of you."

***

Aphelion Two, Four hours later.

"Ophelia? C'mon, wake up, sailor." Mac sounded worried.

Ophelia's eyes struggled to open as she lay strapped on the cold makeshift table in her blued, camouflage pants and navy blue t-shirt. Dr. Chandra Jandrain's Indian Army uniform floated over the top of her face with Macridin's round features sticking out behind him.

She asked, "What happened to your uniform, Chandra? It's got blood all over it."

Chandra looked relieved. "That's from you, I'm afraid. How are you feeling?"

"Why won't my arms move? What's wrong with the right side of my face? It feels numb."

Chandra quoted Buddha. "'Strong and healthy, who thinks of sickness until it strikes like lightning?'" He frowned. "No doubt your arms will regain some measure of movement when more of the swelling near your spinal cord goes down. I am sure the hundred doctors Mission Control has working on your results will know more than I."

"What?! Why am I in the airlock?"

"You're in the airlock for hyperbaric therapy, and you will stay here for a few weeks."

Mac leaned in. "One of the units in that panel exploded. Shot right through your helmet into your face and neck. By the time I could get you back in, you were pretty damn close to dead."

"How bad is it?"

Chandra glanced at the Commander, but then put on a calm expression. "We will know better about it after we've run tests, but I have no doubt there will be significant scarring. Doctor Smith was online with me and we did everything we could to contain the damage."

Ophelia swallowed hard, and it hurt. "I want to see it."

Mac shook his head. "I don't think you want to do that just yet."

"Mac, I deserve to know."

The two men looked at each other.

Chandra said, "Her dressing needs to be changed anyway."

Mac sighed. "All right, but look, Ophelia, it was a miracle you survived the explosion at all, another miracle I got you in before you asphyxiated, and an even bigger miracle you didn't bleed out, you know."

Mac held the mirror and Ophelia felt the bandages pull on her skin as they came off. A wide, jagged gash, held together by a swath of stitches started high on her right cheek and ran down to the nape of her neck. Her skin was bruised, like she had a hickie all over her face. The whites of her eyes were bright red from Petechial hemorrhage.

"My God." I'll be known as the hideous, ugly cripple that went to Mars.

Her whole career passed in front of her eyes, from basic to flight school to the competition to be the Navy's representative on the mission. In the end Ophelia always believed she was chosen over the others because her face made for a better photo op.

Chandra looked down. "I am afraid Doctor Smith is the true surgeon of the mission. My skills pale in comparison."

Mac asked, "Do you remember anything about the accident?"

She paused. "I remember... I remember a flash, then something felt like it was boiling in my mouth."

Mac nodded. "Probably the water on your tongue."

"Do they know what caused explosion?"

Mac sighed again. "Yes."

***

Aphelion Two, Day 54

"Sid? You ok?"

Barnes looked up at Ophelia. "Huh?"

He sat to her side, his rear anchored on the floor of the airlock. She lay strapped on the table, slid into a sleeping bag to help keep warm. Even wounded and unable to move, she has more grace and dignity than me. My jeans have holes in them, and my shirt isn't very clean.

She smiled. "What were you thinking about?"

Honestly, I was thinking about how you looked naked. "Gumballs."

She laughed in that way of hers, that way that made him want to be near her. Even with that scar, she always seemed more like the belle of the ball instead of an ace pilot who killed men in dogfights and dropped bombs on Islamabad. "Gumballs? Why would you think about that?"

He shrugged and pushed his round glasses back up on his nose. "C'mon, don't you miss gumballs? Those half-hard ones in the machines in practically every small business entrance across the country? That's as American as apple pie and hot dogs. Sponsored by American Legions and VFWs, just ready and waiting there to give innocent children their first taste of really bad, five-year old gum. That's home, that is."

He gave her his best toothy smile and her eyes twinkled. She laughed again. He wanted so badly to kiss her.

"How do you do it?" he asked.

"Do what?"

"Cope with being stuck in here, on that table. Waiting for Helga to come in and change your clothes and wipe your butt. Helga, of all people."

"And what else can I do?"

"Let me help take care of you. I've already seen you naked, remember?"

She paused. "That was a long time ago. We're different people now. I think we had to be after that. It's enough that you come spend time with me."

"Why?"

Her smile was back. "Because you make me laugh and feel good. Like I'm still a real person."

I'm such a heel. She's opening up about how she feels and what it's like to be paralyzed. I just wanted to jump her bones again.

The hatch banged open, and Helga floated in. "Well, how is the lump today? Ready for your bath?"

Damn that woman, and her attitude. "I guess that's my cue for an exit." He paused and touched Ophelia on her undamaged cheek. "I'll be back every day, and I'll do my best to make sure you feel real."

Helga snorted. "Feel really like a lump, you mean!"

Barnes said, "You're such a bitch, Helga."

"Bitch, eh?" Her eyes glared at him. "Oh, big talker. You're not the one who has to take care of this lump day in and day out. Just hope you are never hurt and I have to take care of you."

He glared back. "You better hope the same about you."

Her muscles tensed, and he remembered she probably knew a dozen ways to kill him. He knew a dozen different ways to identify minerals in soil deposits. Her army trained her to be an efficient killing machine when necessary. He watched martial arts movies on TV.

Looking down, he said, "I'll see you later, O."

***

Aphelion Two, Day 71

"You need to eat." Helga flourished the fork on the way to Ophelia's mouth. "C'mon, let the Güterzug er, how do you say? 'Choo-choo' in. That's it."

"Drop dead." That sand-colored uniform of hers reminds me of those Nazi brown shirts from World War Two. That blonde hair and blue eyes fits, too.

"Squid wimp. Your American Navy cannot produce sailors tougher than this?"

Ophelia's eyes narrowed to slits. "At least I'm smart enough not to switch on the electric heaters while a shipmate is working on the power line."

"You know about that?"

"Mac told me. Thanks to you, I'm always going to have this scar."

Helga broke the long, uncomfortable silence. "Ironic, is it not? You always thought you were so better than me, prettier than me, and now you are the one laying here like an ugly lump, dependent on me to keep you fed and alive. Who is the important one now?"

Ophelia spit in her face. "I don't know what Mac saw in you."

Helga smirked. "Everything he didn't see in you. I knew you wanted him, but my Peter would not have anything to do with a mutt like you."

Ophelia's eyes were like daggers. "When I can move again, I'm going to strangle you with my bare hands."

Helga laughed. "Ooo. Scary. Here, eat your mush, beauty queen."

She shoved in a fork full.

Ophelia gagged. It tasted like cream of wheat that had been cooked for a week straight. "What is this crap?"

"I believe it's called humble pie."

Ophelia's fist leapt up from the bed, connecting with Helga's chin. Ophelia stared, moving her hand in front of her face. Her other hand joined it.

Helga smiled warmly. "Chandra was right. I just needed to make you mad enough to get your connections working again."

Helga paused.

Tears welled in her eyes.

Her voice cracked. "Und I am sorry about the heaters. Chandra didn't want me to tell you that, he said it was important I shouldn't seem ashamed, but it's why I insisted to Pete that I take care of you. I was so wrong. For weeks, it has been like a terrible weight on my shoulders, the guilt. Your face, my fault. You have the scar, but I feel the pain whenever I see it, too..."

Ophelia's face was flushed, mixed with anger and sorrow. Her hands drew back into fists. Ophelia wanted to hurt her, to make Helga's face feel like her own, but then Ophelia pulled Helga close and hugged her.

"I forgive you." And I believe you didn't do it on purpose.

Helga didn't even try to stop crying.

***

Aphelion One, Day 85

Penny Jones sighed with weary satisfaction as she hit the "SAVE" button on her daily report: her last officially required act of the day. Another day, another dollar, she thought, wryly. Just another mercifully uneventful shift halfway between here and there. She smiled as she remembered a favorite poster she used to have, showing a grinning chimpanzee perched on a toilet, its shorts gathered around its ankles, hand-like feet that didn't quite reach the deck, holding a roll of T.P.--"The Job Ain't Over 'Til The Paperwork Is Done!"

She caressed a row of root bulbs as she floated past them on her way "south" through the greenhouse. She paused to pluck a plump cherry tomato from what looked like a cluster of shiny red grapes. With only the slightest twinge of guilt, she popped it into her mouth. The tangy juices burst out when she squeezed it between her molars, giving her an entire additional recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, calcium and potassium, as well as sugars and other trace elements. Well, I did work through lunch, after all.

She nodded at the plant. "Thank you!"

She rationalized that this was "Continuous Quality Improvement" and "Product Testing" in action.

No, to be honest, it was greed. It was delicious. She was proud of the Sweet Thousands. One of her better efforts, she reflected. God's candy!

Grow big and strong, my babies! she thought, as though her little Frankenstein's monsters could hear her as she resumed her weightless flight.

Light inhibits stem growth, she recited to herself. That's why plants grow toward the sun. She scoffed at herself for a second. No-brainer! She again blessed her Botany professor at the University of Oklahoma for making her figure that out for herself. Still, she couldn't resist the urge to regard them as happy little thinking beings.

Straining toward their carefully-designed broad-spectrum light panels, her 'clever' plants made no response in return until she reached the hardy mimosa crossbreeds--the big leafy kale and Chinese cabbages closed into surprisingly compact buds as soon as she thumped them. Just as you should, she silently admonished them, to keep from getting choked on dust storms.

If you can survive the cold. Be weedy and multiply!

She sniggered to herself. God, forgive me, I can't believe I just said that in everybody's company!

Actually, even weeds would be welcome--if they passed the astronaut training course.

She cast a guilty glance at her charges, but they only nodded their agreement in the five-knot breeze that smelled like everyone else aboard A1, and everything they had done this day in support of the Mission. Rosin-core solder, EVA seal lube, Doc's split pea soup --

This brought yet another involuntary snicker as she added to the list: Everyone else's gastric reaction to Doc's split pea soup. She ever-so-slightly wrinkled her freckled nose as she sniffed the air and grinned. Maybe I should be happy I missed lunch!

The succulent plants reminded her of something in their cocooned state--ah, yes, the "Audrey-II" from Little Shop of Horrors.

Nothing horrible here--at least, not right now. And, Rick Moranis was sure cute!

"Good night, kids," she breathed, aiming her CO2-rich words at the wonderful little living things that so depended upon her for their very survival--much as she and her crewmates depended upon them for the same thing. She watched the fog in the chill air dissipate, and while it did she remembered her backyard in Schofield Barracks, where tiny ferns would fold shut at the slightest touch of her finger, or even her blowing on them hard. Mimosa pudica, she recalled. They were partially responsible for her fascination as a child in the plant life that exploded in furious profusion around her on Oahu. A plant that was aware of her? This was a heady discovery at seven years old!

***

Of course, her father had little time for her observations when he would eventually chug into the carport in his dilapidated Morris Minor, his face engraved with the worries of his day. But this was something special! On the day she first found them, she waited until he had paid Debbie-Jean for babysitting her after school at Hickam Elementary (Babysitters! At her age! How humiliating!) and poured himself a glass of the stuff in the locked cabinet.

When the time seemed right, she worked up the nerve to approach him in his kapu study. It was rare that the door was unlocked, to say nothing of wide open, but it was muggy in Hawaii today and the added breeze in the house was welcome. Timidly hovering at the door, she decided to open the conversation with something related to his job, a habit she had learned from her mother. "Daddy?"

Distracted, as usual, he made a noncommittal "Mm-hmm?"

"If you're attached to the only people in the Navy --"

"Attachéd" His tone was gentle, but he didn't look away from his computer monitor. She wasn't sure he was paying attention to her.

"Attachéd," she repeated, rolling the unfamiliar word over on her tongue. "If you're--attachéd to the only people in the Navy, and you're a Marine, does this mean you're gonna drown?"

"What??" He pushed his mouse aside, touched a button on his keyboard. The blue glow from his bulky monitor disappeared from his face and the pale green cinderblock walls behind him. He took a pen out from behind his ear to bookmark a place in a 3-ring notebook as he closed it.

She guessed even Grups had to do homework, which made hers somehow easier to bear.

After a quick glance over his rich cherry Government desk, which was wedged into a corner away from the slatted window and its cooling draft, he pushed his rolling chair back on the speckled tan linoleum floor and held his arms open in rare invitation to the kapu puka, looking at her for the first time since she spoke. "What do you mean, Pumpkin? C'mere." Invitations to sit on Daddy's lap were few and far between, especially in the "off-limits hiding place"--the "kapu puka"--the one room of their quarters she was absolutely denied the satisfaction of her curiosity. (Well, that and the mysterious locked cabinet.)

She dashed to accept the offer before he changed his mind, leapt into his lap and was rewarded with a big hug and bristly smooch. She was unable to resist peeking at the computer screen--it showed a baffling array of multicolored pipes that built themselves at breakneck speed: probably part of his job, of which she could not fathom the significance. "I'm sorry, little wahine, what did you say? What do you mean, 'drown'? Why would you think I'd--drown?"

There was a sudden catch in his voice. It was an effort on his part to not add, "...too."

Surrounded in his big arms, she felt a little foolish and took a moment to marshal her thoughts, as well as revel in the rare lap-time. She delayed answering his question for as long as she dared, then started as thoughts occurred to her. "Mommy told me you worked for the only Navy people, but I go to school with a lot of kids whose mommies and daddies are in the Navy. How can your see-yoes be the only people?" (Whatever a see-yoe was.)

For a moment, Major James David Jones was perplexed and silent, but then threw his head back and laughed at the perforated-panel white ceiling and rewarded Penny with an extra big hug. She wasn't sure what she had said, but she absorbed and returned the embrace, grinning but not really understanding why. Still chuckling, he set her out on his knee to turn her face-to-face.

"Little pupule, I don't work for only Navy people. A lot of them are Navy, but a bunch are Grunts like your old man." He playfully smirked as he finished his sentence.

"You're not old!" she protested. Mr. Miller, her teacher--now he was old!

"Well, older than you," he teased, poking a finger at the tip of her nose.

She pouted her lower lip, "And I'm not pupule, either!" Her daddy again laughed at the ceiling. His breath had a wonderful sweet smell to it that she often noticed from his friends who would come over to play cards or make barbecue or just sit around and talk serious talk. When this happened, she would be confined to her room for the duration. (Usually with the company's kids: her neighborhood friends and classmates, and sometimes newcomers or acquaintances from Kaneohe, all the way across the island!)

Sometimes, she and Daddy would be the 'company'--she loved the yellow sandy beaches at Kaneohe, and the body-surfing was a LOT better than Waikiki offered. It was a long time since she'd been to Waikiki. She loved the mahi-mahi at the 'oh-see' at Fort DeRussy, plus they had real live music when it wasn't raining.

"No, sweetie, you are definitely not pupule," he admitted. "I think the people I work for on the Mainland are, sometimes, but you are not crazy."

"Are they the ones who want you to drown?" she asked, unbidden tears welling up and stinging her eyes. "Like Mommy?" Overwhelmed with memories of that Christmas day at Fort DeRussy, she buried her face in his chest and released a sob.

"Wait, wait a second, Punkin, what do you mean with this 'drowning' business?" He chuckled, "I'm not gonna drown, where did you get an idea like that?"

Muffled against him, she said, "Mommy said --" and she paused.

Daddy became Major Jones. "What did Mommy say?"

Afraid of something she didn't have words for, Penny hesitated, then said, "Mommy said you work for the only Navy department and you are attached--attachéd-- to the sink fleet. I don't want you to sink like Mommy." She clutched at his shirt and allowed herself to cry for a while. A long while, as it turned out, and she heard Daddy sniffle a little bit as he patted her shoulders.

A roar filled her ears, once, twice, thrice--affording them a moment of thought while conversation was impossible: a flight of B2 flying wings departing Hickam Field. She resisted the habitual urge to jump up and run outside to watch. They were so awesome in the late afternoon sun! But time with Daddy was more awesome still, and didn't happen as often these days.

Eventually he eased his squeeze and set her back on his knee, wiping his cheeks of the sweat that had appeared there. He took a deep breath and gave her the Serious Look, the one she knew better than to interrupt.

"Sweetie, I'm going to tell you a secret, but you have to promise me. You can't tell anyone. This is just between you and me. Promise?"

She wiped her nose and nodded.

"Promise?" he repeated.

"I promise," she sniffled in turn.

"This has to be your very best promise," he admonished her. "Cross your heart?"

"And hope to die," she nodded.

"Stick a needle in your eye?" he pressed, all business. She looked at him with different eyes--he knew what a serious promise meant! She couldn't find words, so merely nodded.

He regarded her for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, "Just between us?"

"Just us, Daddy, I swear!" Now he was teasing her, she thought.

Another deep breath, and he started slowly. "I think you misunderstood Mommy," he said. "It's not a sink fleet, it's pronounced 'sink pack fleet'--"

She opened her mouth to ask a question but The Look stopped her short. "It isn't spelled like it sounds, it's what's called an acronym. An abbreviation. That's where you take the first letters of a bunch of words and make a new word out of them. 'Sink" is spelled 'C-I-N-C', and that means 'Commander In Chief'. 'P-A-C' means the Pacific Ocean, and 'F-L-T' --"

"Means 'fleet', " she volunteered, unable to resist showing off a little. This got an unexpected smile from him, a mixture of pride with a touch of sadness, so she continued, "So you work for --" she paused, "-- C-I-C-P-O-F." Her brow furrowed. "Sispof. That's not a word, it doesn't make any sense."

Her father rolled his eyes and he chuckled. "You're right, little wahine, it doesn't make any sense. But that's why I laughed so hard when we were watching 'MASH' the other night and Hawkeye called one of his see-yoes a 'NINCOMPAC'." His smile skewed to one side of his face, and he continued, but she wasn't sure he was looking at, or talking to, her. "And I'm not sure they make sense, most of the time." He focused on her again. "But it's called 'sink-pack-fleet' and spelled 'C-I-N-C-P-A-C-F-L-T' and it means Commander-In-Chief, Pacific Fleet."

Her eyes widened. "That sounds important!"

He widened his eyes in kind and leaned in close to her face. "It is," he whispered.

"Especially right now, with all the stuff going on in the world."

She digested this for a moment. "And is sink fleet pack the only navy we got?"

He paused for a moment. "Sink pack fleet," he reminded her. "CINCPACFLT. And Mommy didn't say 'only', she probably said 'O-N-I'. It may have come out 'o-nee' but she didn't get the whole acronym thing like you do. She used to say she married a bowl of alphabet soup." He snickered, then made a goofy face, indicating that she had meant him. Penny laughed in spite of herself. But for that moment his eyes were far away..

"So what does 'O-N-I' mean?" she asked.

His eyes returned to meet hers, but his expression became serious.

"I'll tell you sometime," he said through smiling teeth that somehow didn't reassure her. "But not today." They paused for a moment, and feeling the advantage slip away, she remembered what had triggered the entire conversation.

"Daddy, there's a plant in the flowerbed that moves! All by itself, I touch it and it moves!"

"Whoa!" he rocked back. "Moving plants? This I have got to see!" She hopped off of his lap and grabbed his hand, pulling him upright, both making exaggerated noises at the pretended effort to move. He stole a quick glance at his desk, the computer and the window before he followed her, pausing only to jingle the key ring in his pocket and punch the lock on the door before he pulled it shut behind him.

She led him around to the back of the quarters and showed him a low ground-covering fern. With the merest touch of her finger, the leaves folded up into a neat little blade. Her father was duly impressed and asked her if she knew what a Venus flytrap was. When she admitted she did not, he said, "Tell ya what, kiddo, let's talk about it. How does Chinese sound for dinner?"

"At the place at Waimea?" she asked hopefully.

He smiled. "Why not?"

On the way to the ugly pea-soup-green used car he stooped to pick up a couple of shiny forest-green avocadoes the size of cantaloupes that had fallen from the tree between their quarters and the next-door neighbor's, and a yellowing papaya (ugh! Too perfumy!) and set them on the brick wall that enclosed their patio, where a recently-cut bunch of tiny bananas hung from the clothesline, surrounded by a cloud of fruit flies.

"I can't wait to tell the kids at school that --"

"EXCUSE ME??" Major Jones barked and glared at her sternly.

"Oh," she recalled. She crossed her heart, stuck an imaginary needle in her eye and pulled an imaginary zipper shut over her pressed lips. She gave him the best Brownie hand-oath she could manage.

Major Jones turned back into Daddy. "'At's my girl." He smiled broadly and opened her car door for her, as befit the behavior of a gentleman with his lady. As she waited for him to round the "boot" (what was that all about?) she sniffed the comfortable smells of the interior of the many-times recycled automobile: rotting leather, lost french-fries, traces of Daddy's Jovan cologne and somebody's long-gone tobacco. A nauseating, artificial pine air freshener dangling from the crackled rear-view mirror. She felt very special, and didn't know whether she was looking more forward to Chinese at Waimea or talking to Daddy about this Venus flytrap thing.

***

Penny was just beginning to recall the wonderful nut-like taste of those green gifts from the Earth when she realized that the bok choi was beginning to open again, spreading its hungry leaves to consume the artificial Martian sunlight and excrete precious oxygen. How long had she been daydreaming? She realized that she didn't know.

Neither did she care. Too long? Or maybe not long enough.

She inhaled a deep spearmint-scented breath and blew it at her babies, enriching their relative partial pressure of carbon dioxide (they already wafted in the breeze from the air recycling system) and silently bade them good night.

She found her Velcro-soled slippers stuck to the Kevlar-fiber "wall" by the door to the core of the module, right where she left them. She slipped them on, cinched the straps, and glanced back for a quick, cursory inspection of her domain, much as her father had done those many years ago.

Everything appeared to be battened down.

Satisfied, she wriggled out of her heated coveralls and plugged them in to recharge. She pulled off her "Bob MacKenzie" knit cap and affixed it to the wall beside the coveralls. Then she opened the thermal curtain and stuck her head into the core, glancing in both directions before entering it.

Nobody was in sight, but she resisted the urge to fly toward her berth. Grasping the doorframe, she stuck her feet to the hookstrips she had taped to the "deck" and forced herself to "walk" home.

It had been a good day.

***

Aphelion One, Day 95

Gode watched Doc push the buttons on the remote. The Hab TV screen remained blank.

"Gode," Doc asked, "what the heck is wrong with this thing? It won't come on."

He sighed. He's supposed to be my backup if things break, and he cannot fix a simple TV remote? "I thought you were supposed to adapt, achieve, and overcome. Did you check the batteries?"

Doc frowned at him. "Oh, some chief engineer you are, Sergeant. You can see it shows the channel on the screen every time I push the button. It's not the remote or the TV."

"Hmm."

Doc did a double take, sniffing the air. "Oh, is that popcorn you're eating? Where did you get it? Can I have some?"

After a comment like that, like I would share my stash with the human food vacuum! Gode tossed the last buttery kernel in his mouth and then shook his head. "I'm sure an engineer as ineffective as me could not possibly know a way to have fresh popcorn whenever I wanted."

Doc glared at him. "Fine. I'll remember that when you're due for your next rectal exam."

Gode gave a deep, belly laugh. "Well, I don't keep it there, so I'm ok."

"Funny. Just fix the TV."

Gode heard Chang's voice from the hatchway, "That is not necessary."

Doc looked up at him. "How's that?"

Chang floated in. "Communications are blacked out."

He knows something. He has that look on his face. Gode asked, "What happened?"

"The Captain received an encoded, 'eyes only' message. I do not know what the message said, but right after reading that, the captain locked out all communications on both ships except for scrambled command channels. Mission control has been sending him messages almost non-stop since then."

Doc looked crestfallen. "But Ryan's Children comes on in ten minutes."

Gode couldn't help but chuckle to himself. He may be the only Marine in the solar system hooked on a soap opera.

***

"Please relax, Miss Ivanova." Curtis was himself not relaxed. Neither was Archana, who was trying unsuccessfully to float without fidgeting.

At least she's dressed this time, if you can call a purple sweat suit dressed. "You have my word that this conversation is both completely confidential and quite necessary. Clear?"

"Yes, Captain."

"I know you have certain access to, how shall I put it, hard to learn information? Despite our alliances, your real sponsors are better at getting information on the American military than the British government is."

Archana's thick accent replied, "I'm sure I have no idea to what the Captain is referring."

"Nevertheless, I need to know something, and I think you know it. It's important to the mission. It's about Ophelia on Ap-One."

Archana frowned. "I thought she had resumed her duties. All better, apart from the tragic loss of her looks. Terrible facial scar."

Curtis sighed. "All that extra attention on her turned up something. Something I think you know about."

"Yes, Captain?"

"Tell me about Ophelia's pregnancy. Everything. I want facts, rumors, anything overheard and anything suspected. That's an order, or I'll throw your secret police arse into space."

"Sir?"

"Rover balls are not magnetic, at least not ones made for this mission. It stuck to the deck. The only way one like that could be added to the inventory is if foreign agents put it there, and yet you knew how to use it perfectly. Shall I repeat the question, Mission Specialist?"

"No, sir!" Archana paused, collecting her thoughts. "I'm sure I just happened to see this someplace, perhaps lying on a table somewhere, but it was when she was a midshipman. I don't believe anyone knew who the father was. It has been speculated everyone from Admirals and Commodores to even one of their pizza delivery drivers. There was a report that she asked for a morning after pill from an infirmary, so she might have been raped. Regardless, she became pregnant and gave the boy up for adoption."

"Damn." Curtis made a note to demand Ophelia's official Navy medical records. "Miss Ivanova, I'm never going to tell anyone how I came by this information, but if I ever see one of your little surveillance balls watching me, you will know what vacuum is like first hand, too, but no one will be there to bring you back in. Is that understood?"

She smiled as if unafraid. "I can promise the Captain would never catch me watching."

"Dismissed."

***

Aphelion Two, 30 minutes later.

"...Sidney Barnes? You gotta be outta your mind, Alex. Ophelia may not be a hundred percent yet, but she could still take out a Navy Seal with her bare hands, and Barnes couldn't take my eight-year old niece. That's gotta be a mistake. I don't care if he was based at Annapolis at the time. What's more, Barnes is a member of this crew, and she'd never attack a shipmate. She didn't even hurt Helga after she caused that panel to blow and nearly kill her. It's not the way she's wired. One hundred percent for the mission, all the time. You're the mission commander, but I'm telling you, I think locking them both up is the wrong call. Over."

Mac released the transmit button and cued up the news clip Curtis forwarded to him on the laserlink. He had at least thirty seconds before he received and decoded a response from Ap-One.

It was a TurnerFOXTM International Report. They had "Space Sex: Mars Scandal" in big letters across the bottom of the image. Two stock headshots split the screen. One was an excellent, professional shot of a bespectacled young man, pale and gaunt, with thinning blond hair and a toothy smile. The other didn't have to be one of the promotion department's best works to show a striking woman. She was the sort of beauty men would cross the room just to be near, let alone talk to. Of course, she wouldn't care what they might have said; Ophelia only focused on the mission.

"... has now confirmed that medical genetic testing done on all the Mars crews and their families prior to launch has indicated that geologist Sidney Barnes, one of only three civilians on the mission, is the biological father of Lieutenant-Commander Ophelia Dunsirn's illegitimate child who was born while she attended the Naval Academy..."

Curtis also sent over the Navy's complete medical records on her, which Mac knew normally took a couple hours to dig up. Impossible as it seemed, the records backed what Curtis was saying.

Curtis to Macridin. Commander, I understand your concerns, but just go and put Barnes in your main control until further notice. No explanation, but then he won't be left alone. That's a direct order. Get Ophelia in your office for a little group chat. Blackout continues until we sort this out. Over and out.

Mac got as far as the Hab before a battering squall of angry Japanese flew his way.

The rough smell of exertion assaulted his senses as the entered. Takuya floated in the center of the module, bungied to both the floor and ceiling. Beads of sweat covered his face, and he had wet patches all over his plain, desert camouflage uniform. On his hands were virtual reality gloves. Matching booties covered his feet. The TV screen was showing a martial arts video game, with the words CONNECTION RE-ESTABLISHED over the top.

Tak asked, "Commander, what is going on? It was the final round! I was disqualified! The game moved on without me!"

Mac's brow furrowed. "There is a Level One security blackout. How did you re-connect?"

Tak shrugged. "I changed the input to the education laserlink that I built as a part of the schoolroom initiative."

Mac swore to himself. He knew about that one, but just forgot. How many other ways will the crew find around the blackout? They're smart people.

He turned off the screen. "A blackout is an order, Airman 1st Class Watanabe. No contact, in or out, so I don't want to hear about a radio you built to listen to NPR, or anything like that, understood? Disable the link and any other non-standard communications."

Tak nodded. "Yes, Commander!"

Mac paused. "Who were you playing against, and how were you doing it with the communications delay?"

Tak grinned. "It was the communications chief on the ISS. The interplanetary internet protocols gather the moves and batch send them. As a part of the game, you make moves predicting what your opponent will do. Then, the parts play out simultaneously on both ends of the transmission. Depending on what you do and the skill of your delivery, one player will score better, and be awarded the round. This version scores Karate."

Mac reminded himself not to spar with Tak, or to try any video games against him. He got too much practice. "Well, you'll have to play in practice mode until the blackout is lifted."

Tak smiled even bigger. "Yes, Commander!"

***

According to the duty log, Barnes was supposed to be back with all his surface exploration gear in the tail end of the service module, but when Mac neared the hatchway a bloody hand reached out through the opening and punched the intercom.

Ophelia's voice echoed throughout the ship. "MEDICAL EMERGENCY IN AFT-FIVE-C. REPEAT. MEDICAL EMERGENCY IN AFT-FIVE-C. WE HAVE A MAN DOWN. NO PULSE, RESPIRATION ZERO."

She saw Mac when she let go of the button. "We need Chandra now."

***

Aphelion One, Three hours later.

Curtis sat alone in main control, angrily drumming his fingers on the smooth console. He turned off most of the monitors, the incoming sound, and the outgoing video feed to mission control and stared at the geologist's biographical information on the screen. Darkness and silence seemed more fitting.

I hate doing these things. I hated every one I ever did, but the I'm mission commander. It's my duty to his family... Mac would do this for my wife, sons, and their families if it were me.

Punching a couple keys, he began recording a video message.

***

The scene around the dinner table was quiet. No one even turned on the TV screen, to see if it was working yet.

Penny's eyes were red, and she sniffled a lot.

Archana toyed with the shrimp cocktail pieces in her bag, uninterested.

Chang just stared at the table.

Even Doc's legendary appetite was missing.

Gode tried to be philosophical about it, and he reminded them all that Sidney was their friend. They had all trained with him, spent time with him.

No one wanted to discuss it, but deep down, they knew it could happen to all of them twenty different ways on any given day.


***

Aphelion Two, Day 96

Mac stabbed his finger on the send button. "You saw the orders as well as I did. We'll store him outside until we orbit, then bury him after we've landed. Look, Captain, all due respect, but Ophelia's still a member of my crew you know, and she will be there, not locked up. If she didn't do it, I want them all at the funeral where I can see their faces. Mac over and out."

And stop calling every two hours! I'll put my own house in order.

***

Barnes floated in his spacesuit in the center of the Hab module, tethered with Takuya's video game bungies. They hadn't known where else to keep him. The crew waited on the far end of the room. None of them seemed broken up. Tak and he were supposed to be pals, always playing games against each other. Chandra wouldn't answer his questions at all, but instead stared at him like one of the monks from his country. Hell, his wife Helga wanted to use Barnes' body as fertilizer on her damn plants. Burying him offended her German sense of efficiency.

Ophelia wasn't anywhere near them.

No one wanted to meet his eye, except her. Ophelia's eyes blazed, no doubt due to the zip ties binding her hands and feet.

Mac cleared his throat. "A body doesn't belong in here."

Takuya looked up, puzzled.

"This room is where we eat, where we gather, where we exercise, and where we watch TV. This place is the heart of our home here, a place of life."

Helga watched him now, too.

"But Sidney Barnes is dead. He can't eat with us here. He can't exercise, can't watch that damn soap opera. But he can gather with us one more time, so we can all hear how he was murdered."

He could have heard a pin drop, if pins could have been dropped there.

"Sidney Barnes bled to death after a thin object was stabbed into his chest until it almost came out of his back, but not before it ripped a hole right through his heart."

Chandra closed his eyes at the mention of the stabbing, but that could have been his opinion as a physician. Ophelia stared defiantly.

"Somebody in this room did this." He tilted the body so they'd have to look at the face. Mac floated beside the body, his face next to Barnes'.

"Someone here murdered this man."

He paused, studying the faces. His wife looked uneasy, maybe annoyed. Takuya looked shocked. Chandra watched the faces around him, his expression blank.

Mac continued. "I'm going to tell you all a secret. Barnes here had a kid."

Ophelia looked at the floor. Mac floated over. Softly, he asked, "It was a boy, eh?"

She nodded.

"What did they name him?"

"Achmed."

Takuya asked, "Why are you asking her?"

"The blackout is because of their child. Earth is calling it a sex scandal. They didn't want you to see the newscasts."

Mac moved close, and took her hands. "Look at me. Did he rape you? Is that how you got pregnant? You have to tell me."

Her eyes were brown pools. "No."

Helga's tone was sharp. "What does this have to do with Barnes' death? Where are you going with this?"

"Rape is a good motive for murder, dear."

Their faces were all confusion, nothing else.

He turned back to Ophelia. "How'd you get pregnant, then? The Navy reports said you showed up at the hospital all banged up."

She shook her head. "No. SERE wilderness survival training. We did a drop on a moonless night and I landed blind in a rapids. I was beat and scratched to hell by the time I got out of that river. When we got back, I had liberty. I was blowing off steam in this quiet bar across town and saw Sidney. He always made me laugh. I--we both drank too much."

"Why all the secrecy?"

She sighed. "My mother was born in Pakistan. She's very traditional. You know what it was like before we invaded. I didn't want her to know. It was hard enough for her to accept the life I chose."

Ophelia continued, "But my sister and her husband couldn't have children. I made sure they adopted him, raised him as their own. Achmed was our grandfather's name."

He looked directly into her eyes. "Did you kill Barnes?"

"No. I was duty officer that shift but I was supposed to do an interview for Good Morning America at 03:00, so Sidney was going to relieve me at 02:00 so I had time to clean up for TV. He didn't show. I went looking for him."

Mac paused.

"I have direct orders not to do this until some formal inquiry back on earth." He cut Ophelia loose. "But they can kiss my ass. This is my command."

Mac said to the rest of them, "That leaves one of you as prime suspect."

Chandra shook his head as if disappointed. Takuya howled in loud Japanese. Helga glared at him dangerously.

***

"Commander." Chandra was at his door.

"Doctor."

"You must use patience. 'Be patient for one moment, and the wind and waves will calm down. Take one step back, and you will discover the vastness of the ocean and the emptiness of the sky. All will be revealed, in time.'" Chandra nodded at him, then moved down the corridor.

"Thanks, Doctor." Whatever the heck that meant.

Mac closed the door of his quarters. He couldn't just lock them all up. They needed to do their jobs, but he could give Curtis something.

He punched up the secure laserlink. "Macridin to Curtis. Doctor Jandrain is my chief suspect. Over and out."

He took out a tab of Windsor whiskey and squeezed it dry. The burn in his mouth felt good, and took his mind off Barnes. A few minutes later, Ophelia knocked and floated in.

"Mac," she said, "I know you read the 'eyes only' message for Curtis ten minutes before the blackout. I saw what you did."

"What the heck are you talking aboot?"

"Sidney was recording segments for National Geographic before the blackout. Outgoing data gets held in the temporary queue until it's copied into the send queue. Send is erased by the blackout protocol, but until new data writes over it, it's still in the temp queue."

Mac frowned. "Barnes' thesis was aboot canceling the effects of alcohol before it's absorbed. Don't you see? That bastard was sober when he slept with you. He took advantage of you. Kissed you. Touched you. Used you. It wasn't right."

Swallowing, he continued, "Not after you almost died. Looking into your eyes while Chandra worked on you, seeing how hard you worked, just to live, to move your arms, then to get back into shape... I-I couldn't live with knowing what he did to you. It was a wrong against all that is just and right in life."

She put her hands on her hips. "That night, I knew Sidney wasn't drunk. That was for me, not for him. Look, I know why you really did this, but it can't happen like that. It won't."

Mac exhaled slowly. "What are you going to do?"

Ophelia paused. "The mission is more important. The ship can't function with only four crewmen, and needs a commander. Report it as an accidental death." She stopped in the doorway. "Even with his faults, Sid was a better man than you. After this mission is over, the truth needs to come out. You have to tell Helga how you killed a man over another woman."

Mac watched her disappear down the corridor.

He thought, I figured I would feel guilty, but I don't. I thought it was going to be harder to kill someone, but it wasn't hard at all. It was so easy. Anybody could do it. All they need is a reason.

Ophelia's words echoed in his head, "After this mission is over... You have to tell Helga."

He rubbed his chin. By then, you will have forgiven me, and what Helga thinks won't matter any more.

He smiled. 'Till death do us part.

***

Aphelion One, Day 100

“Curtis isn’t making this any easier... on any of us. Frankly, he’s been a real bear,” Dr. Harry Smith said. A narrow beam of light from his ophthalmoscope pierced the blackness of Mission Specialist Penny Jones’ pupil. Doc watched her iris contract.

“No facial edema,” he said as if dictating. He was uncomfortably close and Penny could feel his warm breath on her lips.

“He’s under a lot of stress. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to make it any worse,” Penny said after a moment’s reflection.

“You don’t like to hold anything against anyone,” he stated. “Lightheadedness, fatigue, could be signs of orthostatic intolerance. The Earth-side docs are watching your vitals for it. We might have to start you on Neomidodrine. Still managing the vertigo?”

She smiled, “Sure.” She lifted up a foot and poked a jury-rigged boot at him. “Magnets and Velcro… no medicating required.”

She paused again. “I like Captain Curtis. I think he feels responsible, even though it happened on the other ship,” she said.

Doc inhaled sharply filling his lungs full as he tried to reckon with that familiar conundrum, the double-edges of rank: power and responsibility. Feelings have nothing to do with it; as CO, Curtis IS responsible.

Doc ripped open a dose of sleeping pills for Penny, scanned the barcode on the back with his PDA, handed them to Penny and then searched the screen for the button he had to click to confirm they were dispensed to her. It was a long moment of searching. She was sitting on a table before him and she shifted. The sound of Velcro drew his attention back to her.

“Is it really necessary? The medicine?” she asked.

“Ah. Did you know that fifty percent of the astronauts on the early shuttle missions had to take sleeping pills?”

Doc looked at her. She had dark circles under her eyes; she was really shaken by Barnes’ death, and hadn’t probably slept soundly since they all found out. She always seemed so lighthearted and carefree, but he guessed she was probably prone to more lows than she let on. You fly higher than most, you fall further when you’re forced to land. Then again, she was a civilian, didn’t have the perspective on death he had being a doctor and a marine. Death is a pallid bedmate he was all too used to having around. Two wars gave him that.

Ophelia Dunsirn’s near-death experience and then Barnes’ murder had shaken everyone, not just Penny and Curtis. Both accidents occurred on Aphelion 2 and it seemed like Aphelion One was due for some drama. But Doc didn’t put any stock in fate or karma, or whatever you wanted to call it. He was a marine: you make your own destiny. He was a doctor too: you prevent death when you can and deal with the aftermath when you can’t. It’s what they called bedside manner. And Harry had plenty of it. The health and sanity of the crew were his jurisdiction and his responsibility.

“Well, take two of these and call me in the morning,” he said with a wink. “I’m taking you off duty until you get some rest. I’ll notify Curtis.” She was a sweet kid, and the only bit of inviting femininity on this boat, the kind that was nice to be around. Of course there was Ivanova too, but when Doc thought about her he could only envision the female spider who’s not above a little cannibalism.

“As the only two Americans on this boat, we’ve got to stick together,” he said with a smile. The thought hadn’t occurred to him until just that instant. The other Americans on this mission, Dunsirn and Barnes, were both subject to “accidents.” The thought startled him.

“But I’m on mess duty tonight.” she said.

“I’ll cover you,” he said. “I’m sure the others won’t mind. I’ve got a hankering for split pea soup again.”

Penny took the pills and swallowed. Then she leaned forward and pecked Doc on the cheek.

“What’s that for? You know I’ll be billing your insurance later,” he added facetiously.

“I heard it was your birthday today,” she said.

“How’d you find that out?” he asked chuckling. “It was a closely guarded military secret.”

“Would it be a cliché to say a little bird told me?” she asked ripping herself free from the Velcro on the table.

“My money’s on Chang,” he said after a moment of rubbing his chin in mock contemplation.

“He does seem to know everything,” she conceded moving out through the hatch, her magnetized boots clacking as she went.

***

Doc stared at Penny’s medical file. He had finished typing his notes in and was preparing to batch it for sending Earth-side. Suddenly he realized he was just staring blankly at the screen; his mind had wandered. Forty-six. Not getting any younger.

He searched through the folders on his computer until he found one with some personal pictures. He brought one up on the screen and stared, a woman, thirty-ish, with light brown hair sitting before a photographer’s backdrop of some wooded meadow, a small blond boy nestled in her lap, smiling, his hair cut in sharp bangs.

He knew it was too much to ask. He didn’t expect a transmission, but maybe an email today, just a simple message, on his birthday. She could have managed that much. Memories raced through his mind, and anger nearly surfaced. But then he got it under control. The man of mission, the good-humored doctor, the efficient soldier took control again. He had to keep his mind on the mission, keep this crew healthy in body and mind. That required him to leave some things behind.

“Hello Doc,” Gode Zwelitini skirted the corner, his huge frame startling as he moved silently. He had something in his hand. The smell of freshly popped popcorn filled the compartment.

“A little birdie told me it was your birthday."

***

Aphelion One, Day 150

He sat at the command console driving the BUS. That was the name Lt. Chang gave to APHELION ONE, this space craft, if only to himself. So far the Bus has been operating non-stop for 3600 hours that would make it, oh yes, his birthday. The idea of celebrating ones birthday was not an invitation to a party as some on his craft seemed to think. To him, it was one more duty to perform, “Just like driving this space bus on the way to Mars, the The Red Planet, the Western Roman War God’s planet.”

His official duty is first to his country, the Peoples Liberation Army, Space Command (PLA-SC) and then to family, in that order. As he thought to himself Lt. Chang spoke gently and quietly out loud so as to make conversation with himself and acknowledge what he assumed to be the obvious. “China may be modern and up to date. We still continue to revere our ancestors. My birthday is, thanks to them. To them I owe my gratitude even more so. We are still at one child per family in China. We are the only country on this small blue planet to recognize and do something about human resource allocation. I give thanks to my family and to my country. I am here, Today, Now, xian zai.”

Lt. Chang thought in English, the lingua franca within the crafts. This skill made him stand out in preflight training. That fact was instrumental in his selection. Working with different nationalities, communicating in English where misunderstandings could be at worst fatal, a high level of language skill is required. Speaking English among so many different nationalities also allowed for a certain level of misunderstanding, intended or otherwise. A smile came to his usually quiet face.

Lt. Chang was not shy. He spoke little unless directly addressed. Then talk was straight and to the point. He told himself, “Less talk means less room for political misunderstanding. Everything is political.” It was a lesson he had been taught once from someone else’s faux pas. And, once was enough. “Here,” he thought, “Out of the direct gaze of the PLA-SC, here and now was different. Here and now.” he said to himself and didn’t finish. He had time to think and philosophize since much of the flight was routine and programmed.

“Birth day,” he thought while staring at the monitors. “Birth day is a strange concept in timeless, dayless space. Time is for the planet bound where day and night represent the figment of time. Time out here falls away the more one lives here. Infinity, I can’t grasp that, but I do believe day and time are usless concepts . The universe is timeless except as required for our mundane life giving tasks.

“Now”, he laughed to himself at the word. “A missed second at launch, it could be a missed target and death. The smallest width of a business card off target on the shooting line was a miss by meters down range.” These thoughts ran through Lt. Chang’s head almost instantly. He dismissed them almost as quickly to concentrate on piloting the Bus.

His official job as part of the team was co-pilot. He had to drive the BUS and get it to Mars, unscathed, in one piece. He had other jobs; some implied by his superiors others for himself. “Working so closely with other nationalities, in the confines of this space craft brought the known and unknown out in each of us. Amusing, sad and terrifying, witness the unsolved murder in The Trailer,” as he called APHELION TWO, the following space craft.

***

Lt. Chang had been trained form birth to become a member of the Peoples Liberation Army. Successful completion of ones duties here would at least allow for promotion with in the military as well as other business sectors. No one in the country who rose in Party rank was not directly a member of the PLA elite or did not have relatives with strong PLA connections that could pull strings. It simply did not happen. He knew it. It never had to be stated. It was a fact of political life. Then it became a fact of social life.

Good rank meant good family which in turn made for excellent marriage prospects. That thought made Lt. Chang hopeful of the prospects, and suddenly wary. “Suppose the shielding on the crafts were not up to the specs promised? Suppose they were all radiated beyond hope for the future, for children? What then? What of his family line? “What if we’re all just throw aways, expendable for others… ‘aggrandizement’?” he unconsciously said aloud.

“What grand prize?” someone asked in the back? Quickly recovering from his verbal slip, Lt. Chang said, “No you mistook me. Today is my birthday. I wondering about a prize. Foolish of me to say anything.”

“Another birthday? Ain’t this the party boat,” from yet another voice behind him. He did not turn around. He was in command. As they came closer to the planet more debris could be expected. He must maintain control and not be deflected from his duties.

Lt. Chang dreamed of space flight from youth and here he was, driving the BUS to Mars. A smile crossed his lips . “Party boat? Not yet,” he thought. “Dong Shi Hong”* and “Happy Birthday,” He sang to himself.

* The East is Red, a song from The Cultural Revolution days.

***

Aphelion One, Day 164

Botanist's Log, 15:48

Cabin fever is what happens when too few people are cooped up in close proximity for too long. It's characterised by irritability, anger, in some cases even paranoia.

I think I'm developing a bad case. I hope I'm developing a bad case, because I'm certainly feeling very paranoid.

It all started this morning; I had breakfast late, since I'd been on radar watch that morning. When Chang relieved me and I went off to look over the plants in the greenhouse, I came unexpectedly on the Captain, who stopped me to ask about the plants I was on my way to go see; but when I moved to go past him and show him their health, he stopped me to ask whether I'd spotted anything during my radar watch.

Quite surprising, since a no piece of rock had hit us and one that missed was hardly of much interest.

A few moments later, when I finally got to the greenhouse, there was Dr. Smith, looking as guilty as anything; that wide-eyed innocent look of his is like a flashing neon sign that says "I'm hiding something".

Of course, I immediately began to wonder what it was. Everything looked alright in the greenhouse; the plants were all doing well. (It is quite amazing how well spearmint grows in zero gravity, handled properly). I performed those tasks necessary to ensure that they would continue to do well, checking the nutrient solution in their root bulbs and so on.

Normally, this takes me some time; there are a lot of plants to check, after all. This time, I'd swear that I caught the smell of Smith's cologne in the greenhouse.

What was he doing there, and why had the Captain been acting spotter to make sure he got out before I arrived?

But that was just the first incident.

The second occurred when I arrived for lunch. There was a sudden, dead silence across the whole table. Everyone except Archana (radar duty) was there, and they were all completely and unnaturally silent until Chang asked me how my plants were doing.

Two little incidents. Two slight incidents. But... I'm not quite Dr. Smith, but strange things have happened when people have been shut alone together. Sidney's murder--no matter what Earth says, that was no accident--has been horrible for all of us. It's going to be a lot worse once we land, because we know the murderer is on the other ship. Whoever it is, he can't get to us until after we land. And when we do land...

Let's just say that there's a lot of horror stories that start like that.

And there's a lot that start with everyone except one person keeping some sort of secret.

Do they know? Did they find out who it was?

They can't think it was me. I mean, I was on this ship the whole time.

They can't have heard that story from Earth, could they? I mean, is mission control decided to investigate - I mean really investigate - all our backgrounds, and that came out, then could -

No. No-one's found that out yet. And no-one's going to.

***

Botanist's Log, 19:28

Now I feel really silly. I should have guessed, really I should have, but I'd lost track of time.

About an hour before supper, Archana managed to trap me in a conversation - and, now that I think about it, if I was ever near the door she was standing in it, but not obtrusively. Once we'd prepared supper, she took the first half and asked me to follow with the others; one of which had somehow managed to slip itself into the other end of the room. By the time I followed her, she'd had time to find her seat at the table - which had moved.

That was the first thing I noticed. Everyone's seats had shifted a few places around, so that I was looking at the large back of Gode, rather than Archana.

That was, of course, intentional on their part. Captain Curtis noticed my arrival, nodded; and everyone burst into a spontaneous rendition of "Happy Birthday".

Somehow, don't ask me how, Gode had even managed to conjure up a cake. Alright, a large cupcake, but still, when you're further from home than any other birthday girl has ever been, you'll take any cake that's offered.

Unless it's poisonous, of course.

Or vanilla (yuck).

Or a thin coating of icing on a grenade...

This one even had a candle (briefly - we don't have that much air to waste). And mint icing, which must have been what Smith had been harvesting a quiet leaf or two of this morning.

Chang had, amazingly, even gone as far as to find a gift that I hadn't seen in the almost two hundred days that we've been voyaging; and, I must say, his skill at origami is considerable.

Tonight I retire to bed a happy girl.

***

Aphelion One, Day 172

Godlumathakathi Zwelitini--"Gode" to his crewmates on Aphelion One--normally enjoyed the prospect of an EVA. His life under the limitless skies of South Africa had been poor preparation for six months inside a spacecraft whose interior seemed barely larger than a big bus, and being outside--even swaddled in a bulky vacuum suit--felt like emerging from a cramped cave into daylight. But this excursion was different--there had been little time to prepare or plan, the task at hand was urgent, and he had less than an hour before the charged particle front from the predicted solar flare was due to arrive.

Just to make things perfect, today was his 41st birthday. Zulus didn't celebrate birthdays the way umlungu--Europeans--did, only taking special note when certain milestones were reached. But the crew had insisted on baking--well, thawing--a cake for him, or what passed for cake in the ship's stores, as they had for everyone else whose odometers had clicked off another year. He'd even had to share some of his precious store of popcorn!

"Clock's ticking, Gode," the Captain prompted. "If you can't unjam the protective shrouds, the solar panels and exposed comm gear will get toasted for sure." As usual, Alexander Curtis was standing by in the airlock in case something went wrong--as it had for poor Ophelia over on Aphelion Two.

Gode raised his right hand to his helmet in acknowledgment and let go of the handhold closest to the airlock with his left. Swinging his left arm smoothly backward imparted enough momentum to pivot his body and his right hand back toward the hull so he could catch the next handhold.

Now floating parallel to the ship, he checked to ensure that his safety line was firmly clipped to the lanyard and began to "climb" toward the panels that concealed the umbrella-like shroud intended to "shade" the solar panels from the storm of radiation that would erupt from the surface of the sun in--twenty minutes?

On Earth, haste makes waste--in space, haste kills, he recited.

"Gode. Are you okay?"

"I'm--I'm almost there," Gode replied. And then he was there, and he could see the dented panel that had prevented the shroud from opening on command.

"Looks like we took a hit from something," he said. "One of the breakaway panels is bent..."

"Can you fix it?"

"One second," Gode grunted. He reached into the toolkit velcroed to his chest and pulled out a long screwdriver. It was the closest thing to a pry bar he had--so it would have to do.

He tightened his grip on the handhold and braced himself, then thrust the tip of the screwdriver into the gap between the dented panel and its neighbor. It took all his strength to keep his body stationary and still apply any leverage at all...

The panel popped open suddenly, and the screwdriver sprang from his hand and tumbled away into the blackness.

"Got it!" Gode exclaimed. "Send the command again and let's see if we're in business."

A moment later, a ring of panels extending around the circumference of the ship bent back on themselves, and something that looked like a fine silver mist--actually metal mesh--bloomed outward on a complex scaffolding of hair-thin tubes. Hard to believe that can make any difference, Gode thought. Of course, once it's charged up, I guess the magnetic field does the rest.

"Time's up, Gode! We have about five minutes to get our asses into the storm cellar. Let go of the handhold--I'll belay you in with the safety line!"

Startled, Gode did as he was directed, and felt a sharp tug start him floating back toward the airlock. Curtis had emerged from the airlock and clipped himself to the hatch, and was pulling Gode's line in, hand over hand.

"Oh, this is going to leave a mark," Curtis said, just before Gode collided with him like a slow-moving freight train. But the Captain had obviously executed similar emergency retrievals in the past--he absorbed much of the momentum with his bent legs, pivoting so that both men tumbled into the airlock. Curtis slapped the emergency pressurization button as he caromed off the wall and back into Gode again, and the outer hatch closed. The interior of the airlock filled with fog as the moisture in the stored air condensed in the chill surrounding their suits.

Curtis shed his own helmet and left it floating in mid-air. "Leave your helmet here and move--we'll have to shed the suits just outside the storm cellar!" Then he dived headfirst through the inner hatch and ricocheted his way through the ship toward the service module.

Muttering a prayer, Gode did likewise. He crashed and rebounded from hatch frame after hatch frame until he reached the entrance to the radiation shelter above the center of the service module, bruised but mostly intact. He clambered out of his suit and dived through the storm cellar hatch just as the radiation alarm began to wail, and someone slammed the hatch behind him.

"The shroud deployed," Gode gasped. "Did it power up okay?"

Chang Wei nodded, consulting a flatscreen inset into the far--all of two-point-five meters away--wall. "So far, so good--no major spikes in any of the systems." Then he frowned. "What is that smell? Gode--is that you?"

Gode grinned apologetically. "I was very nervous," he said. "I sweat when I am nervous."

Penny Jones sighed. "I would have brought some aromatic herbs if I had known."

"On the bright side," Curtis said, "We'll only be stuck in here for--a couple of days."

I suppose this qualifies as a milestone in my life, Gode thought. My most embarrassing moment. Ilanga elimndandi kuwe--Happy Birthday, old man.

***

Aphelion Two, Day 175

The bulb on the battery-powered lamp faded out.

I've always hated being in the dark.

Their ragged breath carried across the blackness, blackness that pressed in on them all, choking out their voices. Gone now were the radiation alarms, replaced by oppressive, silent fears that gripped them in a vice of emotions that forced out all hope.

There was a crack, and an eerie, green glow oozed from between Takuya's fingers. He shook the light stick, spreading the chemical illumination to the length of the tube. He tossed it on the stack of CO2 scrubber canisters and adult diapers in the empty spot.

Ophelia swallowed. "Have any more of those?"

Tak held up one finger.

There were tears on Helga's cheek. "It's ridiculous. Three days of this!" Unconsciously, she reached out and held her husband's hand.

Why does she love Mac? He doesn't deserve it.

Chandra quoted, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

Mac frowned. "Honestly, what the heck does that even mean, eh?"

Chandra smiled. "Maybe it is the universe's way of making us slow down and take stock of ourselves before it will reveal its wonders to us on Mars. Perhaps when we are ready to purge the negativity of our frustrations or actions, we can move past them to enlightenment."

I've always wondered why, with all the combat training everyone had, no one beat the crap out of him for all those frustrating platitudes. I know other people from India, and none of them is a quarter as philosophical as he is.

"Look, I'm sorry." Mac looked at the floor. "I was in a hurry, you know. I wanted to make everyone safe. The alarms--"

Tak's eyes were like daggers. "Everyone knows you have to retract the pins on the hatch before you shut it. One bent when you slammed it so hard. It took all of us to get it to close."

And now that the storm passed, it won't open. Everyone will suffocate here in this closet-sized space between the battery tanks. It's just a matter of time. And it might not have been an accident. I know that better than anyone.

Helga snarled, "He was trying to protect you all!"

Ophelia cleared her throat. "Getting mad won't help. Is there any other way to get out of here? Any at all?"

"Sure," Tak said with sarcasm. "If someone could squeeze between one of these six tanks, claw through the shielding there, and somehow force apart the ship's skin, we could all decompress into space. How's that?"

Ophelia glared at him. "I've tried that. I wouldn't recommend it."

I've always wished I could have learned to be more useful, more dynamic. I know I'd sure love to kick this door in now, and show everyone I wasn't useless.

Ophelia wouldn't give in. "Does anyone have any tools at all?"

Tak held up a deluxe, Leatherman multi-tool. "This will not open those bolts on the housing. This hatch is built like a bank vault door, strong enough to keep out vacuum, fire, explosions... whatever could cause us to hide in it. A last refuge."

Mac sputtered, "Apollo 13 astronauts used old socks, the cover of a flight manual, and duct tape to connect their wrong-shaped CO2 cartridges and we can't even open a damned hatch!"

"Oh!" Ophelia eyed the CO2 canisters. "Could you cut a nut-shaped hole in the nylon-composite casings of those and use it to turn these bolts?"

"I do not know if it's strong enough."

Chandra said, "Trying would be better than doing nothing."

"Yes," Helga insisted. "Let's do something!"

Tak's first try snapped the canister apart, but they used the shard broken from the back and cut a hole to fit. Finally, it took three of them together on the makeshift wrench handle to turn the nut. By the time they could get all the bolts loose, the first light stick was dark.

Tak cracked his last light and pulled loose the housing. It looked complicated inside. He pointed. "This is the jammed pin. We cannot get at it. Only this little bit is exposed."

Mac asked, "Could you cut it with that saw or the file on your Leatherman?"

"The metal is an inch thick."

Ophelia brightened. "How about scoring it as far around as you can, cutting it until your blade is dull, then we pound on it to make it break on the scored line."

God, she's always beautiful when she's like this--all mission, completely focused. I'd love to kiss her right now.

Tak shrugged. "I do not have a better idea."

***

Watching Mac hammer in the dying light, Ophelia mused, "You know, it's Sid's birthday today."

Mac paused and swallowed. "If we don't get this open, we'll all join him soon. C'mon, everybody together. Helga, you keep pounding. The rest of us will try to turn the latch."

Dammit! I'm tired of being helpless. Always a looser, always a joke. Ophelia deserves more. I should be helping. That's what a real crewman--a real man--would do.

Mac, Tak, Chandra, and Ophelia strained as hard as they could on the latch. Veins stood out on their faces and arms. Sweat stained their clothes. Helga held the leatherman against the pin and hammered on it with the burned out lamp.

He timed his blow. Now!

With a 'crack', the pin broke. The handle turned and the door swung open. Light spilled in from the outer room.

"Thank God!" Helga shouted.

***

The cupcake floated in front of the window, slowly rotating in the weightlessness. A single, unlit candle stuck out of the improvised frosting.

A smudge of flour stuck to Ophelia's cheek. She stared out the window at the spacesuit tied to the hull with a wistful look. "Happy birthday, Sid."

I think she loved me.

His invisible spirit smiled beside her.

And I'll be here for her.

Always.

***


THE END



© 2008-2013 by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, J. Davidson Hero, Richard Tornello, Robert Moriyama, William R. Warren, Jr., and N.J. Kailhofer

This continually-updated piece is an amalgamation of all stories submitted to this series, edited for content and continuity.


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