Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Alkyone

by L. J. Geoffrion


It Starts Here...

He pushed through the crowd in quiet desperation, trying not to hurt anyone, trying not to be noticed, squirming, sliding, and pressing around the faceless people, praying that his forward momentum wasn't drawing attention to his utter lack of conformity.

Excuse me.

Pardon.

Sorry.

He muttered his apologies as he bumped and stumbled along, while his mind spoke the constant mantra of pleasepleasepleaseplease...

Sweat ran down his sides and he could smell his fear-stink every time his overcoat billowed open. He slowed his pace, breathing deeply through his nose. How much time did he have? Laughter sounded between his ears and he choked on it, eyes bulging. Time! Oh, please, don't laugh now. He needed time.

A large beefy man stepped out from a doorway and he walked into him, slamming both of them into the doorframe. "Christ!" The man stiff armed him back, face red. "Wassa matter, ya crazy fuck!"

"S-sorry! I ... sorry!" He rushed past, ducking his head down between his shoulders. I blew it! Blew it! Biting back a giggle, he rubbed his hands across his face. He had the sudden urge to look around and bit down on the inside of his cheek. No, no, mustn't look around. That would be bad. Staring at the sidewalk, he moved with the flow of foot traffic. I'm not here ... not here ... pleasepleaseplease.

He walked right into them.

They staggered together, a mass of flying arms and jerking knees. He fought them off wildly, but he forgot about the mace; that took the wind out of his sails, oh, yes it did. He crumpled to the sidewalk, gagging and clawing at his face. With muttered curses and threats, they heaved him toward the waiting ambulance. He wriggled away furiously. Flailing out, his hands struck a shoulder, an arm, a woman, standing there, eyes wide.

"Help me," he pleaded.

There was something in her eyes, horror and sympathy, of course, but some other message. He couldn't see! If only he could see! She steadied him and he leaned into her hands. "Hold on." Her voice! Had he heard that voice somewhere, anywhere?

"Please!" He hated the nakedness of his plea, hated his weakness, hated himself.

"Hold on." It was a command, and it sobered him. He released her and stood straight. When the men in white grabbed him again, he let them take him and muscle him onto the cart. They pulled the straps so tight that he gasped. He heard her voice again, speaking to them sternly, but he couldn't follow her words. The straps loosened and a palm rested on his forehead.

"Hold on," he echoed.

The palm stroked his skin as it lifted. Message received.

They tortured him for a week, even though he broke within hours. As always, he told them the truth, told them everything. Still, they gave him soft persuasion full of empty promises, the cold, antiseptic sting of needles, drugged somnolence, the inability to protect himself from the madman in the next bed, and finally, blessed solitude followed by something new, electric shock. He thought that they might drug his food but realized that they would have no need for such subtlety.

He tried telling them what they wanted to hear. They frowned and gave him different pills, so that he couldn't trust his own senses. He raved and cried and begged; they told him to trust them.

"How are you feeling today, Roy? Did you sleep well?" The doctor's voice was pleasant. He was a very friendly fellow.

He twitched, the pleasant voice dragging across his skin with little hooks. "Yeah, sure."

"Roy, I want to talk to you today about these little walkabouts that you take. Could you share with me how you are getting out of the hospital?" The doctor was comfortable looking, like a professor of English or maybe philosophy, wearing an old sweater, a close cropped beard and hair just a bit too long.

"Sure, Doc. I keep tellin' ya." He swiped his nose, the meds made his nose run, and twitched again. "I'll be walking or sitting, once I was eating dinner, and then, poof, I'm somewhere else."

The doctor was writing on his pad. "Roy, I thought that we had a good relationship. I thought that you trusted me."

"It's like I told ya last time, Doc. I don't have any control over it; I just get squeezed out of here and pop into there. Like a watermelon seed." He squeezed his fingers together. "Ppfftt."

The doctor leaned forward. "Is someone taking you out of the hospital, Roy? Is there someone with keys who is opening the doors?"

He grinned wryly. "Doc, I sure would like to know the answer to that question."

He came to, and realized that he'd lost himself for a bit. Some days had passed. He remembered his hands on someone's throat and wondered idly if he'd killed that someone. It was night and dark. Light from the hallway shone through the little window in his door. He was strapped to his bed.

He had to piss and he decided to piss all over himself -- a minor revenge, but all he had. The orderly would slap him but that was part of the revenge. Their souls died one slap at a time.

The smell of his piss filled his head, caustic and medicinal. He imagined his poor liver and kidneys trying to rid his body of the pills, the endless pills. He could feel their poison flow in his veins, a gentle susurration, as gentle as the straps that held him corpselike to the bed.

But what was that? That noise? A buzz, like electricity or the ghost sound of utter silence. But this place was never silent. Hell is such a very noisy place. No, this was not-noise. His body trembled with it. Something was coming. This was it. The light from the hall dimmed and his skin tingled.

The buzz, the not-noise, blasted to a deafening pitch. His muscles clenched, waiting, straining forward. It was coming. His breath caught in his throat and his eyes bulged, unseeing.

Ppfftt.

(2a)

He smelled piss. The orderly would come soon. Other smells were in the air, gym socks, oil, and something gritty that he couldn't put a name to, strange smells for the hospital.

The hospital.

No.

The light was dim. "Lights -- half." He didn't know where the words came from, but they felt good on his tongue. The room around him became visible: dull metal, peeling paint, battered cabinets, and himself, enclosed in some kind of hammock. Vertigo seized him and he squeezed his eyes shut, gulping. Don't puke! Not a good idea ... not a good idea in zero gravity.

Clenching his teeth, he squirmed in the hammock, pulled his tee off and buried his face in it. He spat out bile, swallowed and then heaved again.

A door that he hadn't noticed swung open. "Christ!" He saw a hand waving in the air. "Paugh. Jesus, Royal! Are you dead?"

"Only wish I was," he was able to gasp out. "Sick."

"Bloody hell, did you piss yourself? Aw, man, I'm not cleanin' that up." A woman with kinky hair and big tits bounced into the room. She considered him and sighed. He closed his eyes. "Come on," she fumbled with the hammock's straps, "let's get you out of this."

She did help him strip out of his soiled knits, steadied him in the shower and vacuumed the water while he simply hung onto the handrail. He hovered against the door frame as she helped him get dressed, stayed there as she picked up all his soiled clothing and shoved them in the chute, and then followed her out the door and down the passageway.

He knew this place and decided not to wonder at that. They called it The Tin Can.

"What did you take?" He couldn't tell if she was concerned or annoyed. "You gonna be okay now?" Her voice sounded practical and homey. He liked her voice.

"Okay. Yeah." He swiped a hand over his mouth. "Coffee?"

"Damn straight."

The galley wasn't in any better shape than the rest of the place, but there was coffee and a kind of savory biscuit that went down well. The woman sipped her coffee bulb and studied him through slitted eyes. He returned her look with as much innocence as he could muster.

She snorted. "Hendersen said that you didn't show up this morning. He must'a knew you were gonna be a thrill, since he sent me. Hendersen!" She took another swallow, "Personally, I think it's never a good idea to bang my boss, but you're a big boy."

"Wha?"

Her gaze sharpened. "Nonconsensual?"

"No ... I mean. Um."

"Jesus, you're such a loony git."

He sighed. "That's what they tell me."

They went back past the crew quarters on their way to the Bio. He noticed that someone had put a piece of tape over 'Fisher, Roy' and written 'Royal Flush' on his door. It looked old.

At a closed hatch, they stopped while the woman spun it open. He closed his eyes, breathing the odd smells. She tugged his sleeve and led the way into a cavernous room filled with eerie blue-green light. A brawny, copper-skinned man with spiky black hair was turning a wrench and scowling when they walked in.

"He was sick," the woman scowled back. "Musta had too much last night, yeah?"

"Hmph." Hendersen looked him up and down and nodded his head at the equipment he was working on. "Filter's plugged. Go grab a new one and get on this. I've gotta take some readings and stir the mix."

"So much for 'Just Call Me Angel Of The Morning' for Roy" the woman grinned. "But I'll take a 'gee, thanks for cleanin' up my mess, Lizzy,' if ya got one handy."

There was steel behind the grin, and Hendersen was the one who finally nodded. "Yeah. Thanks Lizzy."

She dismissed Hendersen with a jerk of the head. "You gonna be all right, RF?"

Her eyes were very green under this light. It dawned on him that he was fond of her. "Yeah. Thanks, Lizzy. See you tonight?"

That surprised her, but she smiled. "Sure."

The rest of the morning went quietly. He realized that as long as he didn't think about it, his body knew where to go and what to do. His feet found the way to the cabinet of back-up filters, his fingers knew what bolts to loosen; he let his body work and his mind wander where it would.

He knew that what had happened to him was not normal.

It was a trap, though, thinking like that. He looked at it, what had happened and what he knew a normal person would be, should be, feeling. It was very big -- a big scary pit. He looked at it, walked around it and acknowledged that it was there. Perhaps he'd figure it out one day, perhaps he'd find just what on God's Green Earth was going on, but today did not seem to be a day for epiphanies. Today was a day for recovering from a night of debauchery and a day to be cleaning blue-green slime out of a pump.

That today was also a day to be recovering from psychoactive medications and freestyle surfing through time and space was acknowledged and set aside.

####

"So, no shit, there I was, a stack of C-notes in one hand and a box of fake ID's in the other, and the Feds, they're just as surprised as me. 'Fore ya know it, I'm standing in front of a judge and she's givin' me the whole 'Debt to Society' speech," the kid shrugged. "My lawyer suggested the Legion and my Mom and Dad were too happy to sign the papers, me bein' a minor and all."

The kid was Tony Becker, all of fifteen and cocky as hell. He knew that he liked the kid, as much as he could like someone and not trust them. Becker hadn't been tested yet and he didn't want to be the one to bear the cost of finding out if the kid was human or just another psychopath.

Becker turned to him. "So what about you, Royal Flush? I hear that you've been here forever. What's your story?"

He squeezed a gulp of homebrew. "I like it here."

The Cap breezed in and turned to face them. She was new, just settling in, and seemed all right, for a Company Suit. He wondered if getting Captaincy of the Tin Can was a move up or down for her. The Caps were nicer when it was a move up.

Everyone hated the daily meetings, but one thing about this Cap, she kept 'em short and sweet. Too often, they turned into bitch sessions and then everyone was pissy until lunch. This Cap didn't micromanage and she didn't want to hear their crap. It promised to be a good year.

"Okay, people, you've got your schedules. We'll begin maneuvering at sixteen hundred; I'll sound the claxon and expect that everyone's got their arms inside." She flipped her Clipboard shut. "Anything else?"

"I've got this rash..."

"Stow it, Becker. Sixteen hundred, people."

He had the morning off. Lizzy gave him a grin as she collected her crew and headed to the Crusher. "I'm gonna be on channel four if you wanna chat, Roy. We're gonna be putting the Megs to bed and clamping down the hoses."

"Yeah, that sounds good. Me and Becker are gonna game."

Becker was scratching his crotch. "I really do have a rash. You got anything, Roy?"

Lizzy wrinkled her nose. "Ew."

"Give 'im a break, Lizzy. It takes a while to trust the vacuum around the boys, yeah?"

Lizzy shook her head. "There's such a thing as being too easy, Roy."

In the game room, he flicked the headset onto channel four. "Hey, Lizzy." Most folks liked to play transparent, but he preferred opaque. The room around him disappeared.

"Hey, Roy." Lizzy's voice sounded above and to his right.

"You set?" Becker flicked into existence beside him. His avatar was a little green man with bug eyes.

"Set."

Becker was good. Then he grinned, stretched and got better. "Come on, Flushie! Grow some!"

He ducked and leapt at a platform. He was lining up his shot when Lizzy clicked on. "Houston, we have a problem."

"Pausing, Beck." He flipped the headset up and adjusted the mike. "What's up, Lizzy?"

"I had a Meg goin' nutters. We put it to bed, but now the kink is spreading to other systems. The wrap hose backflushed all over Simm and my mini-Meg is havin' fits. Jesus Christ! Simm, cut the damn power!"

"You all right, Liz?"

Lizzy blew a rough breath across the mike. "I'm fine, but the mini almost cut Kendo in half. Is Becker there?"

"Yeah, hold on." He looked at Becker and time slowed down. He could feel his own heartbeat lumber in his chest and his breath moved out in a long, slow wheeze. Becker had just a hint of grin on his face, looking up to the right corner of the room. Time twisted around the boy like wisps of colored fog. He grimaced and swallowed bile, wincing with the sure knowledge that technicolor shit was heading toward the proverbial fan.

Reality snapped back into place. "Becker! Go to channel four. Lizzy's got a problem."

Becker nodded his head as Lizzy began to explain, but the slight grin dropped and the kid's eyes tracked left to right as Lizzy went on about the hose and the mini. "Ah," Becker flipped his headset off. "I've gotta get to my workstation."

"Yeah?" Definitely technicolor. "I'll tag along."

"Okay, yeah, that's all right." The kid was definitely rattled. Not good.

He keyed his mike, "Lizzy, we're heading to Becker's workstation. Ah... maybe take five? I don't think you better touch anything right now."

"No shit. All right. In five."

They went through two locks on the way to Becker's workstation, shaking their hair and clothes out as the air swirled around them. The Tin Can was always thick with grit and dust.

In front of his multiscreen, Becker slipped on his glove and clipped himself in place. "Wake up, Steve."

The multiscreen flicked on. "Fuck you, Beck."

"Steve, give me file Simmisanasshole, pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top."

Becker sent him a quick look. He kept his face affable. "What'd ya do, Becker? Give Simm a little present?"

The kid couldn't keep the satisfied smirk off his lips, but it slipped sideways as his eyes tracked down the lines of code. Becker grunted and tapped with his glove. "Oh," he leaned toward the 'screen. "Shit."

"What?"

"It wasn't supposed to do ... that." Becker tapped the 'screen, once, twice, tapped on his workstation with the glove, stared at the code and tapped some more. "Shit."

"Becker, straight-up, man. What did you do?"

The kid's head ducked between his shoulders as if he expected a slap. "It wasn't supposed to do that!" He tapped the screen twice and typed. "It's just a little bug, yeah? Just a few minutes of crazy in Simm's Meg."

He could feel the look of horror forming on his face. "You spiked Simm's Meg? Christ! They call me nuts!"

"Nothing dangerous! Just some random aspect control bugs! And it was just supposed to be for thirty seconds! I think ... something else got in. I clipped some code from a buddy's site..." He pounded his ungloved hand on the workstation and was brought up short by his tether. "It wasn't supposed to do that!"

They stared at each other until he blinked and ran a hand over his face. "Okay, kid, okay, let's think this through. First, let me talk to Lizzy." Becker's face turned bright red. "Lizzy?" He held Becker's eyes as he talked. "Yeah, Becker has found some kind of system glitch. He's trying to track it down right now. It's some kind of random bug in the system controls."

Lizzy hummed. "Control bug? Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. Steer left, it goes up; cycle on and it backflows."

"Yeah. So stay away from the equipment for a while until Becker has some time to get a handle on it, hey?" Becker nodded, his color fading. "What-all is buggy? One Meg, a hose and a mini?"

"Well, that's all we've worked on. I've got three more Megs to put to bed, but we can do it the old-fashioned way. It'll just take longer."

"All right." He swallowed. "I'll talk to the Cap and get back with you."

"Right. Out."

Becker's eyes flicked away nervously as he keyed in the Cap. "Fisher to Captain Shen, priority one."

"Shen."

"Ma'am, I'm at Becker's workstation. Temple, down in the Crusher, has some kind of bug in her equipment control systems. Becker is on it. Just a heads up; he's not sure how far this bug has got in. If it gets out of the Crusher, we might be in for some interesting times."

The Cap was silent for a long count of three. She said two words in a language that he didn't know and switched to Standard. "Fisher, since you caught this, it's your ball. I will contact Hendersen and Chartre. Tell Becker to keep a log; I want to know where this came from and why our security didn't catch it. Keep me updated. Out."

"Yes, Ma'am. Out."

Becker was shaking his head. "I can't believe you, Royal Flush. You're gonna cover for me?"

"Yeah, well, this kind of thing ends up making people mean, kid." He shrugged. "I hate living with mean people." He let the easy smile he usually wore fade away and pinned Becker with a hard stare. "But if anybody gets hurt, I'll cycle you out an airlock, capisce?"

Becker met his stare and nodded. "Yeah. Got it."

"Good. Now fix this."

Things went rapidly from bad to worse. Hendersen called in, swearing in rapid Mexicali. "I'm shutting this bitch down before it kills me. Pump's running backwards, nutrient drip spewing all over the fucking place ... Hijo de puta! Out!"

He ran a hand over his face. "Christ, Beck, it's everywhere. What are our options?"

Becker was typing furiously, his eyes flicking across the 'screen. "I don't know where this came from, but my kink let it in through the back door. But the two programs are linked, so I've almost got it locked down. I need just a little more time."

"Beck, you don't have any more time. That was Bio." He leaned forward. "Tell me," he ground out the words out, "when is the air gonna start getting sucked out instead of pumped in?"

"Time!" Becker spit the word back at him. "I need time!" Their eyes met in a wide-eyed stare. "Shut it down, then." Becker's eyes went back to the 'screen and his fingers danced across the workstation. "Shut it all down."

####

He flew through the Can, pushing off with fingertips and toes, pressing the comlink again and again. Nothing. Shit. He'd have to go to each section and they'd have to shut it all down by hand.

The airlock at the Crusher wouldn't cycle on, but the lock stayed green, so he just rolled it open. "Lizzy!" he yelled from the door, "I'm not gonna come in. The dust buster isn't working."

"Yeah, I know." Her voice came from around the corner. He peered out to see her up to her elbows in disassembled electronics.

"It's not hardware, it's a software bug."

"No shit, Sherlock. I'm taking this Meg's wireless system out of the loop, and rebooting. Then I'll run a virus scan and see if I can compartmentalize the bug."

He leaned against the wall and grinned at her. "Gee, you're smart."

She snorted. "Smart enough to end up in the Tin Can, yeah." With a light flick of the finger, she slowly spun the unit in front of her face and her eyes flicked across it. "This won't work for the integrated systems. If Beck doesn't figure a patch soon, we're gonna have to shut the whole 'Can down."

"We can do that?"

She met his eyes, solemn. "I don't know."

He nodded. "Becker said to start shutting it down. Ah," he shoved a hand through his hair, "we better go to suits. I don't know what this glitch'll do. It'd be a bitch if one of the outer locks decided to open on its own."

Lizzy's eyes rounded and she turned to stare at the giant Crusher Bay doors. "Christ."

He nodded. "Yeah. Right, then, I'm off to Bio. See you on the other side of this."

She was already moving toward her staff. "Suits, everybody! And tethers! Alvarez! After you suit up, I want you to start shutting down the rollers. I want them completely disconnected, you hear? Pull the hard drives!"

####

Becker was still hunched in front of his multiscreen and glanced up when Roy ghosted into the room. "I'm almost there, Flush. I just need another ..." He buried himself in the screen. "Ah ...Soon."

"My comlink isn't working. I'm gonna head to Bio, but I want a way to keep in contact with you."

"I've got a radio." Becker rummaged in a bin, arched a small hand-held across the room and clipped another one on his sleeve. "Channel one."

"Got it."

"Um," Becker looked down at his glove and then back up. "Does anyone, I mean, did you tell ..."

"No."

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "There’re a lot of damaged people in this sorry old solar system, Beck. Not every Homo Sap that you meet is human, eh? If you stay out here, you meet your fair share of psychopaths. I like to give everyone a chance to prove that they're human."

"By fucking up?"

"By fixing it." He grinned. "And not doing it again." There was more to it than that, but that was enough for the kid right now. He paused in the door. "Oh, yeah. The locks aren't working. Better suit up. If the Crusher Bay doors open, the air's gonna get a bit thin in here."

He left Becker rummaging for his suit, and stopped by his own room and suited up. When he turned the corner at Bio, he almost collided with Lizzy. "Whoa!" He flipped and toed off the wall. "Lizzy! D'you got comm.?"

"Nyet. I can't get through to anyone." Her helmet was hanging off the back of her suit and her dark skin gleamed with a faint sheen of sweat. "My crew is finishing up. Where's Becker at on his end?"

"He says 'soon.' Not sure if that means by lunch or sometime next week."

"Right." Lizzy wiped a gloved palm across her brow. "Damn suits." She looked absently at him and then nodded. "I'll head up to the Bridge and report to Shen. You gonna bed down Bio?"

"Yeah. I'll have to roll the shutters down by hand."

"Damn, RF, you get all the fun."

Hendersen was at the surge tank, cranking a valve shut. All of the other tanks were shut down and the link hoses were purged. "Hey, Manny!" He launched himself up, grabbing onto a strut. "Do you have comm?"

"Nope." Hendersen tucked his feet under a hold and tightened the valve. He quirked a brow. "What's the buzz?"

"Becker's working on a patch but he's not sure when it'll be ready. The bug is everywhere." He shook a suited arm. "I'd suggest that you go to suit. Never know when an outer lock might decide to cycle. Ah," he gestured past the tanks with a nod of his head, "I was gonna go roll the shutters closed."

"Yeah, that'd be the last bit." Hendersen scratched both hands briskly through his spiky hair, eyes closed. "Bien. I better head over and see if Chartre needs any help." His eyes looked past the tanks to the sun ports. "Damn. Double tether for me, ?"

"I've got a radio link with Becker. I'll yell if I'm in any trouble."

Hendersen reached out a hand, grabbed the back of his neck, pulled him in for a quick, fierce kiss, and was gone, arching toward the lock. "Be careful!" he threw over his shoulder.

The Bio EVA lock butted up against the sun ports. This part would be tricky. The outer locks could be operated on manual, but the buggy controls could bollocks any attempt at getting out or getting in. "Becker?"

"Becker."

"I'm in Bio, getting ready to go EVA. How're they hangin'?"

"Still tight against my ass, Flush. Making headway, though."

"Copy. Ah, if you hear a strangled scream, send help, heh?"

Becker chuckled darkly. He could hear the tapping of Becker's glove. "Copy that. Out."

"Out."

He sealed his helmet and pushed off, making little touches with his toes and fingertips. The lock's lights were green but he opened it manually and, tucking his toes in the holds, dogged it shut.

Still green. Good. He opened the manual decompress valve and stood waiting, watching the gauge go down and his suit puff up. When the lock hit vacuum, he clipped the tether on and twirled the outer hatch open.

The lights in the lock blinked off and then on again, the indicators flicking red and back to green. He paused for a moment, shrugged, and stepped out into space.

"Oh, man." His heart clenched and he let out a long, slow breath.

"Looked there, oh, look. Looked there, ah God, the stars;
Oh, look, look there! It is as if all time had never been,
Or universe or sun or moon or simple morning light.*
"

He breathed deeply through his nose, blinked and turned to the sun port shutters. They were fussy and difficult, and he was sweating by the time he finished. He looked at the lock and swore. The lights were out.

"Becker!"

"Becker."

"Yeah, I've got the shutters down, but there's something up with the lock. How're things at your end?"

"I'm downloading the patch as we speak, Roy. Systems are booting back up."

"Great! That's great, kid! Can you do a diagnostic on this lock?"

"Sure thing. Ah ... lock is operational."

He chewed on his bottom lip. "Hrm. Nope. Lock is not operational. Run it again?"

"I'll run second tier," sounds of the glove tapping. "Say, Roy?"

"Yeah?"

"Did, um ... did you tell anyone?"

"Nope. You're in the clear, kid." He chuckled. "Just don't do anything like this again, hey?"

The kid gave a nervous laugh. "Oh, no. No. Won't be doing anything like this ever again." There was a pause and more tapping. "You're at the Bio sun port lock?"

"Yeah."

"Huh. The lock is checking out, and ... I don't have a comm signal from you Roy. It's like you're not there. Creepy."

"Well, I'm here. You're not getting any signal from the tether?"

"Nope."

A thought blossomed in his mind and cold sweat broke out all over his body. Becker hadn't been tested yet and he didn't want to be the one to bear the cost of finding out if the kid was human or just another psychopath. There was no signal. It was like he wasn't there. He wasn't floating out in the cold vacuum of space with nothing but stars under his feet. He was ... nowhere.

He could almost hear the wording of the accident report: Tech Support Roy Fisher lost and presumed dead.

With shaking hands, he began to pull himself along the tether. He was almost to the lock when the lights flicked on and the door rolled shut. His tether confounded the door seal, but the door simply ground against it until it frayed in two.

His momentum sent him against the closed door and he grabbed for a hold. With shaking hands, he tied the end of the tether there, fighting to stay calm.

"Ah! Here we go! I've got a signal for the lock." Becker's voice chirped on the radio. "You in, Flushie?"

"No, damnit, I'm not in." He took a ragged breath. "I'm still EVA, Becker." His hands were shaking so much that it took two tries to hit the control panel. Nothing. "I have no power on this outer panel, Becker." The manual wheel wouldn't budge. "There must be pressure on the other side." He tried to open the manual pressure valve, but it wouldn't budge, either. "There's something wrong with this valve, or the inner door didn't seal and the fail safe is tripped. Someone," he pounded lightly against the hatch in frustration, "someone's gonna have to come and cycle it from the inside."

"Copy, Roy. I'm on my way."

He took in a deep breath. "Copy that. See you soon."

"Yep. Out."

"Wait! Don't ..." he hit the hull again. There was no answer. "Fuck!"

He took a deep breath and another, trying to calm down. He'd seen guys go apeshit in a suit, and it was not a good thing. Slow breath in through the nose, slow breath out through the lips. Again. look out at the stars. Slow breath.

So, was Tony Becker human? Or would the kid take this chance to erase the only other person who knew what he'd done? With a sudden flash, he realized that if he was going to bear the cost of finding out the answer to that question, he'd be the only one who'd know. And if the answer was yes, if the kid did hold that spark of divine, that breathtaking beauty of spirit that made life worth living, he'd be the only one to know that, too.

Except that the kid would know.

He stared out into space, amazed. God, Becker wouldn't even have to lift a finger! It was elegant! He had a sudden image of Becker sitting in the galley, Yeah, Flushie said he wasn't feeling well. I think he went to take a nap. Sixteen hundred would come along and, what? Even if he could survive maneuvers, his air would run out long before he'd be missed.

Another long, slow exhalation. He stretched his arms and legs out. Ahhh ... yeah ... that felt good. He rolled his head on his neck, as well as the suit would allow. Now, pick a star, there, that blue one. He closed his eyes, visualizing the star, bringing it inside, to his very center.

Breathe in. Breathe out. He came into stance, another breath, and began to move, one fluid form blending into another. Tai Chi, a slow sweep of arm, leg, bent, head turning with the arm, his body like water flowing in a gentle stream. The stars painted the inside of his eyelids, caressed his flowing limbs.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

####

"So, I finally cycle the lock and I'm thinking that ol' Flushie would be pretty nutso, I mean, that whole clusterfuck with the comms and losing the radio signal, and then having to almost tear the damn lock apart. I was worried that he, well, I know what I mighta done.

But no, there he was, out there amongst the stars ... dancing." Becker's mouth moved soundlessly. "He ... it was... like he had all the time that there ever was." The kid's hand reached out, grabbing for the words. "It was just him, dancing." He shook his head, eyes half closed. "He was dancing with the universe."

Lizzy sighed and sipped her beer. "Yeah, he's a keeper, Beck." Her eyes sparkled into his and he felt a silly grin slide across his face. "Why do you think we call him Royal Flush?"

Becker was still shaking his head, searching for words. He felt the grin notch up. The kid was a keeper, too, and he'd find the words, one way or another. That's what humans did.

He slept alone that night, fumbling with the snaps because they'd all had a few too many. The darkness felt good. But what was that? That noise? A buzz, like electricity or the ghost sound of utter silence. Something was coming.

Ppfftt.

*They Have Not Seen The Stars by Ray Bradbury

THE END


© 2008 L. J. Geoffrion

Bio: L. J. Geoffrion lives on the southern shore of Lake Superior (final resting place of the Edmund Fitzgerald), "abiding in happy chaos with various partners, kids, dogs, and cats." L. J. claims to be a good cook, a decent flautist, but a mediocre gardener. L. J.'s first novel is currently under consideration by an editor, and a second novel is in development. L. J.'s story An Echo of Strings provided an unusual theory for the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (an act of gods, as it were); it appeared in the March 2008 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: L. J. Geoffrion

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