Eddie gazed out the shuttle bay windows. The approaching ship grew larger and larger, and he began to grimace. How many would there be? It was a fairly small vessel, but the crew would have to be large enough to get the ship up and running again. The outer doors closed as the ship landed on shuttle bay.
There was a faint hissing through the window as the air pressure began to readjust. It would take some time before the crew would be able to leave the ship safely. Eddie went back to the control room, checked to make sure everything would be ready for their arrival. He retreated to the bathroom and adjusted his hair. He was thin and skin was pasty. Eddie reached down and grabbed a comb, running it through his frayed thinning hair, a handful of strands staying wrapped in the fibers of brush. After setting the brush down, dipped his boney fingers into a jar of cream and spread it under his eyes. The flesh beneath his eyes had been purple. He hadn’t slept in weeks, but hadn’t been tired. In fact, he was more alive than ever… ever since the transmission came, and he found out he’d soon have visitors.
Eddie pulled his hands back from his face. The purple flesh, although it seemed darker in the grungy light of the ship’s bathroom, not much larger than a phone booth, he patted his cheeks to liven up their color, and gave a short laugh.
Walking down the hall, Eddie heard the sounds of the pressurization grow fainter. It wouldn’t be much longer, he thought, until they’ll be aboard. Then we’ll be making some progress. Five years he’d been here, waiting for someone to come, with limited communication to Earth. Now, finally, he would see living human beings again, and he was filled with dread. To Eddie’s left, a sealed door stood semi-lit by the eerie overhead lighting. It flickered on and off intermittently. After the ship endured severe power-failure, Eddie resorted to become thrifty with things like lighting and heating.
Peaking through the window, Eddie could make out an outline of what lay dormant in the room. It had been a fairly cramped common area for the crew. Now it was something else, something darker. He didn’t like walking by the room, but now it gave him some perspective. It reminded him why he was here. Not why he was sent here, but why he stayed here.
The inside of the common room sat faintly glowing; the sun broke through the blue-screened shield protecting the window of the ship.
“Not much longer, Erica. Soon I’ll get to leave. Soon I’ll be off this ship, and it’ll all be over,” he said. A grimace rose on his face. That was the other reason he didn’t like coming by the room. It made him sad. A recognized it, and lifted his head back up, looked back down the hall through the cockpit doors and gazed out the front window at Saturn, its great colossal rings, and the green gaseous cloud: the hot ticket—the key to human survival—and the means to their end.
The doors finally opened. Four people emerged through the door in pressurized, temperature regulated, environment-controlled suits. They all saw Eddie and stopped. Eddie righted his posture. These were military men, he knew. He gave a salute, and dropped his hands down to fold across the small of his back. The one in front began pressing controls and a wrist-mounted console, and the shielding of his helmet began to draw back, revealing a middle-aged bearded man beneath another layer of glass. Eddie stepped forward to formally great the newcomers, when the two on either side of the man in front placed their hands over hip-holstered handguns. Eddie stopped moving forward.
“Welcome aboard The Ascension,” he said anyway.
The man in front waved a hand downward and the two to his sides moved their hands from the revolvers. One proceeded to remove light-shielding glass of his helmet, like their leader. The other remained still. The former was a woman. She had short-cut red hair, and she herself was short.
The man in front approached. “Captain King,” he said, extending a hand to Eddie.
“Dr. Casmerac,” Eddie said, shaking the man’s hand.
“Where’s the crew?” the woman asked. She removed one shoulder strap of a sack she carried on her back. She unzipped the bag and withdrew a smaller case.
Eddie gestured through the doorway to the main hallway where he stood in wait. The woman walked past without letting him take the lead.
“This is Dr. Leslie Wayne. Harvard M.D. She won’t be here long. She’s bringing back the samples in a second ship to perform a formal diagnosis,” the Captain said.
The Samples. That’s one way to put it. Eddie took the rest of the crew down the hall after Dr. Wayne. They passed two other doors, and Dr. Wayne stopped at a storage compartment. Eddie walked past her and stopped at the common room. The tablet against the wall read -4.38° C. Eddie Swiped his access card, and the door slid open, unleashing a horrendous odor of death and decay.
Eddie winced at the scent, and shivered as the chill from the room seeped into the hall. Dr. Wayne stepped past him, into the room. She was determined to complete her task. Captain King stepped into the doorway to look after Dr. Wayne. Eddie looked at the fourth member of the boarding party. He’d also drawn back his glass shielding. Beneath the glaring secondary glass guard was a young faced boy with glasses and curly brown hair peeking down from his cap. He was much thinner than the other two, but much taller. The name embroidered on his suit read Dawson. He followed Dr. Wayne into the common room, carrying the rest of her pack and another device dangling a cord that ran to a pack mounted to his back. The device displayed a screen, and looked like a more compact version of the panel on the wall Eddie worked to open the door.
Another doctor, Eddie thought.
The man behind Dawson also removed his shield, but stood straight, and in the middle of the hallway. He was speaking, but there wasn’t any sound emitting from his suit. The man held a cold gaze, fixed on Eddie. The patch on his chest read Wong, and as Eddies eyes ran down his arm, he saw that Wong’s hand was still resting on the handle of his revolver.
“I think his communication system is—” Eddie began.
“His communications are just fine. He’s sending transmissions back home,” Captain King said.
“Captain, the environment is stable. Whatever was left of the gas must have—” Dawson began before the Captain, again, interrupted.
“No, don’t take any chances. Everyone stays fully geared.”
Dawson gulped. His eyes were wide, and it was clear that he was fearful for the implicated dangers of their mission.
“Aid Doctor Wayne. We need you two back in the lab as soon as possible,” finished the Captain before giving his attention fully to Eddie.
“Dr. Casmerac, we’re going to have you wait here while we secure the rest of the ship. These men will stay with you, and we will hopefully be able to reboard the Vision once Doctors Wayne and Dawson have what they need.” As the Captain spoke, two others appeared behind him, and then moved around him to pull Eddie off to the side. Wong passed both of them with two other newcomers and they slowly began walking down the hallway, checking the panels on other doors, and eventually walked down the hallway and around the corner.
The room was dark, and the lighting seemed dysfunctional. The Captain entered walking up behind Dr. Dawson, who held a lamp over the body Dr. Wayne was examining. Dr. Dawson looked up to see the Captain looking over his shoulder.
“Yup, it’s a human popsicle, alright. I guess Casmerac just killed all the power to the room instead of dropping the temperature,” he said.
“In one of his earlier reports, he said that the explosion from the fuel tank and damaged one of the power supplies. I assume he was just being cautious,” the Captain said in response.
Dr. Wayne paid no attention to them. She was instead fixated on the specimen below. It was a younger male, 20s. His uniform didn’t have a badge. He was in the standard grey thermal suit given to crewmembers of science vessels. After scanning his hardened icy fingertip on the console that dangled at her side, similar to the one Dawson held in the hand that wasn’t propping up the light, she discovered that the man was one of the Engineering crewmembers, David Long.
Although they were frozen in place, the toxicity the man endured was still visible. His irises were solid black mattes, and blood washed out the white of his eyes. The veins in his arms protruded much farther outward, as well as those in his chest. The ones closer to his heart seemed to simply burst.
“This is amazing,” Dr. Wayne said to herself.
Dr. Dawson was about to ask what it was she’d discovered, but licked his lips and lost his voice.
“What is it?” the Captain asked.
“Whatever it is, it is extremely volatile. It’s like some sort of exposure to radiation or something… I’ve never seen exposure to gaseous toxins create this harsh of a reaction,” Dr. Wayne said, still focusing downward on the body of David Long.
She reached down to grab onto David’s arm, and after lifting it to turn him over, the flesh of arm ran off, like she tried to cup an arm of pudding. David’s arm separated and broke into two pieces, both falling out of Dr. Wayne’s hand and splattering on the floor, forming a pool of blood at her knees.
Dr. Wayne gasped and tried to step back, she reached for her console at her side, trying not to touch anything with her other hand to avoid spreading what could potentially be a harmful contaminant.
The three crewmembers of the Vision looked at each other, than back at the corpse.
“Check the others,” the Captain ordered before stepping back out into the hallway. “Wong, how long before you have a diagnosis for what’s wrong with the ship? How much juice does it have left?”
Dr. Casmerac sent several transmissions back before the Vision arrived. He reported that he didn’t have the resources to repair the damage to the ship, and was unable to use the ship’s control to identify the damage. One of the power-cells was definitely the cause for why some of the ship’s subsystems were not operational, and why the ship was unable to take off again. After the Ascension had been orbiting the cloud for several weeks, something went wrong, and one of the power-cells exploded, taking a chunk of the ship with it. In doing so, the ship lost much of its auxiliary power, and caused electrical shorts throughout the vessel. The Captain had little hope of recovering the Ascension, his job was only to find out what happened to the crew, and bring back the sole surviving crewmember, Casmerac.
“Captain, the ship’s remaining power-cells are in tack. They’ve taken a hit, but there’s months of power left. Only one was destroyed. The doctor managed to seal all of the doors leading to damaged parts of the ship. I’m reading it now…. None of the rooms that are currently intact were exposed to any fuel lines, and no decontamination programs were run,” reported Wong.
This didn’t make sense. The whole reason the crew died was because they were exposed to the radioactive fuel. Ironically, the very same fuel they came here to investigate. Two different appearances of the gas have ever arisen in human existence: once, uncovered on Earth, and the second, appearing out of some gaseous reaction far out in space—amidst Saturn’s rings. Using the highly combustive and reactive fuel, the exotic material was able to bring humanity hundreds of years into the future of space exploration.
After years of testing the fuel that appeared on Earth, this cloud appeared. NASA seized the opportunity to gather a second sample, this one much larger. They used the very same fuel to power a vessel for traveling deep into space. The overall travel took only a few weeks.
“Any idea what it was that caused the power-cell to explode?” asked the Captain.
“No, this is where things get even stranger. The Ascension’s communications are fully operational. Casmerac could have stayed in contact with home the entire time. And I tried running the diagnostic to see what caused the explosion, but its failing before it even starts. There’s plenty of power, so I’m not sure what is wrong. It’s like something is blocking the start-up. I’ll keep at it Captain.”
Something wasn’t sitting right in the Captain’s belly.
“Well make it fast. We won’t be staying here long,” the Captain said, looking to Dr. Casmerac, who started into the room full of the dead, dead-faced himself, with the guards standing on either side of him.
“Yes, sir,” Wong responded, sounding unsure. He was right to feel that way. They had no reason to leave so hastily without discovering exactly what transpired here, starting with how the ship’s outboard transmission systems were so heavily damaged, and what caused everything to go wrong in the first place. They needed the data to make this whole operation worth it, or this would all have been to save the life of some strange doctor, abandoned far from Earth.
Something was off indeed. If the ship wasn’t damaged enough as to expose the crewmembers to any radiation from the exotic material, what was it that killed them? And if the ship’s power-cells still had so much power left, why did Casmerac power down so many rooms?
“Captain, where are the other crewmembers?” Dr. Wayne asked over the line.
“What? What do you mean?” he asked.
“The Ascension had 28 crew members. There are only 18 bodies in here. Does Casmerac know where the other 9 members are? He reported that all of the bodies were still on-board.”
Dr. Casmerac was still staring into the room after Drs. Wayne and Dawson. His look shook the Captain to the bone.
“I’ll find out now,” the Captain said, unmoving.
“Alright. Dawson and I will start loading the bodies onto the ship. We need the lab aboard the ship to get a more thorough read-out on what happened to the bodies. If the fuel is what killed them, we’ve never seen it react like this before.”
Drs. Dawson and Wayne started moving the bodies into a metal encasement that one of the other Vision crewmembers brought in to transport the corpses to the lab. The encasement sealed over the top of the body, and after the press of a button, lit up and started venting out gases from the sides to decontaminate what was inside. Dawson and Wayne stood up, grabbed the encasement on either end, and began loading it back onto the vision through the hanger.
“Dr. Casmerac, where are the other bodies?” the Captain asked.
At first Eddie Casmerac didn’t say anything. He only starred after the two doctors loading the body onto the Vision. The Captain looked down in his helmet and saw that he had indeed activated his suit’s microphone, and it was still on.
“Doctor Casmerac?” the Captain asked a second time.
Eddie Casmerac slowly turned his head to face the Captain. He still carried the same blank face. He seemed to grow even paler since the Captain came aboard.
“They took them, already,” Eddie answered.
“What are you talking about? There were only 18 bodies in that room. Wayne has only just now taken—”
Eddie interrupted. “Uhhpt! They’re back for more, already. They’re here for the rest of us.
The Captain looked after the doctors, who had just entered the vision. Immediately after the hanger doors closed, the Captain was thrown forward. A massive explosion rang, and he blacked out.
The Captain shook his head, trying to ditch the disorientation. Whatever it was that shook the ship so hard wasn’t good. And he knew immediately it was the good Doctor’s doing. It had to be him; the man was a damn lunatic.
Captain King looked up to see three of his men standing at the ready, awaiting orders. When things get rough, they divert to combat tactics. It was good in a firefight, but this was different. His communications were down, so he used his microphone, as did the other two.
“Orders, sir?” asked Sergeant Randall.
The Captain looked around. Casmerac was gone.
“Where’s the Doctor,” he asked.
“Sir, we lost him after the impact. It’s like he knew it was going to happen. He must’ve run off,” said Private Henry.
“Well find him. Then get on the horn and bring him to the hanger.” The Captain looked back down the hall. He was knocked much closer to the hanger door, which was sealed shut after the impact. The light the console flashed red, meaning the other side of the door was not pressurized. He ran to the window farther down the hall and looked out. He could see parts of the Vision floating off in space. His ship was gone
Sergeant Randall and Private Henry ran off down the hall. The ship was small, but it had several very cramped levels, and lots of small passageways. It would be easy to hide, especially for the doctor. He had more time aboard than anyone.
Captain King had no words. He didn’t stop the two men. Whatever it was that killed everyone… the Doctor had unleashed on them… the crew of the Ascension, and now the crew of the Vision. He was going to die out here, just the same, the Captain knew.
Captain King was certain of it now. The years stranded out in space had turned the doctor mad. Captain King peered out the portside window once more, and gazed upon the hazy green cloud, wiggling away in Saturn’s orbit. Was it really all the Doctor’s doing? Something didn’t seem right about this cloud. Too many coincidences: the cloud, the exotic green fuel supply, the first explosion of the power-cell, stranding the Doctor and what was once his crew out here in space…
“Captain! It was another power-cell explosion,” said Wong. “It was inactive, and it just exploded, like it was set!”
The Captain continued to stare out the window, watching the cloud morph and congeal. It pulsated slowly through the empty space, Saturn’s rings nearly colliding with its movements.
“Captain?” Wong asked.
The Captain didn’t take his gaze off the mysterious cloud that brought the ship out there in the first place. Amidst its vast, wide encompassing reach of the pulsating aura, the electrical storm surged, lashing outward from the cloud farther and farther with each passing second.
It’s got to be this cloud, right? “Sergeant, what’s the status on our Doctor?” the Captain asked over his communicator, trying it again.
There was a pause, then a harsh ringing from some kind of static disturbance, then Sergeant Randall’s voice came in clear. “—here alright, but there’s something not right about him. You’d better take a look.”Of course there’s something not right about him, we already know that.
Captain King reached the storage room where they’d found the Doctor. He peered inside the window on the door to see the Doctor standing in the middle of the room, taking slow and deliberate breaths. He was staring right back at him, only this time he was different; he had been small before, sickly even, but now he had turned a pale shade of green, almost like the cloud… and his eyes, they grew larger and larger, like tennis balls inside his head. And the irises had grown, slowly taking over the whites of his eyes,.
The two soldiers shared a look of horror, while Captain King maintained focus, peering sharply in through the window, trying to make sense of what was happening.
“It’s happening again, isn’t it, Captain? A problem with another power cell?” The Doctor asked, sardonic. When he spoke, there was a chill to his voice, a chill that hadn’t been there earlier. Casmerac was changing, in more ways than one.
Captain King slammed his hand on the wall, next to the door. “Did you sabotage the power-cells? Both of them? Did you strand yourself and the rest of the crew out here?”
Casmerac held a grin, and tisked at the Captain through the window, shaking his head. “Captain, that sounds like something a mad man would do. I’m the leading physicist in my field… why do you think they spared me?”
The Captain backed away from the window now. He’s playing with us. Is he suggesting that there is an outside force at work here? He motioned the two soldiers to move back towards the bridge, and started to follow them.
“Well, what’s happening, then?” Captain King asked.
“The cloud sir, it’s acting even more strangely. It’s changing its movement patterns,” said Wong.
“What’s it doing?” asked the Captain.
“Sir, it’s—” there was a loud beep on the console, and the room fell silent. “Sir! It’s coming straight for us at an alarming speed!”
Wong instinctively looked toward the helm of the ship, hoping against hope that there was a possibility that they’d be able to outrun the odd formation. But such a possibility was for not; without the third, let alone a second power-cell, there was no possibility of getting the ship up and running for any type of evasive maneuvers. Whatever the cloud was, they’d soon become very well acquainted.
Eddie stared out the window of his makeshift cell, staring at the green amorphous cloud, growing nearer and nearer.
“Come on, it’s been long enough, take them! You’ve waited too long, you’ve lost one already!” he said to the glass. Sweat was forming on his brow, and a droplet was running down into his eye socket. He blinked it away.
The cloud continued its approach, but Eddie knew it was a meaningless gesture. They could have taken more samples by now, they didn’t have to get so theatrical about it… unless they had more planned all along.
Eddie continued starring out the window, as the flesh began to slide off his arms, and his scalp turned to thick grease that dripped off his skull.
“Shut down the rest of the power!” yelled the Captain.
Wong sat at the helm, stunned a moment while he tried to figure out why the Captain would condemn them, then realized that if the gas reached the ship, and something was still running to ignite the fuel, it would instantly disintegrate them. He dropped his hand back down to the console and with a few quick actions, the lights clicked off, and the gravity aboard the ship was lifted.
The Captain kicked off the side of bridge wall, towards the window. He grabbed the railing to steady himself while he looked out the window. Wong joined his side, and the two peered outward. The cloud grew closer, and eventually washed over the ship. The view outside the window faded to nothing but green haze.
Both turned toward the ventilation shaft behind them on the far bridge wall. Nothing happened for some time, until little pockets of green gas popped its way into the bridge.
The Captain peered down at his console. He estimated his suit’s life support systems would last only another day or two.
“What do we do now, sir?” Wong said. His voice was wet and trembling, but his face showed he’d resigned to their fate.
Whatever the cloud was, or where it came from, that would be something for the next group of explorers to discover.
“We pray,” the Captain said. He released the railing, closed his eyes, and lowered the shield to his visor.